A Quick Guide To Irish Mythology

Irish history is rich with myths and legends. The adventures of the famous seer-warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill are still known to many Irish people. These include how he gained his wisdom as a boy by tasting the 'salmon of knowledge', how he triumphed over miscellaneous giants and magicians, and how he had the truths of life explained to him in a strange allegorical house. The champion Lugh, originally a god of the Continental Celts, is also remembered - especially how he slew his tyrant grandfather who had a horrific eye which destroyed all on which it gazed.

The adventures of the super warrior Cú Chulainn are spoken of and tales are also told of more true to life characters, such as the quasihistorical High-King Cormac Mac Airt and the historical though much romanticised Conall Gulban, son of the great king Niall and contemporary of St Patrick.

Many of the myths and lore centres on the patron-saints of the various localities. The saints, historical personages from the early centuries of Irish Christianity, are portrayed in legend as miracle workers who used their sacred power to banish monsters, cure illnesses, and provide food for the people in time of need. Holy wells, dedicated to individual saints, are still frequented on their feast days in many areas, and people pray at these wells for relief from different kinds of physical and mental distress. The most celebrated saints in Ireland were the patron saint of Ireland, Patrick, the great founder of monasteries, Colm Cille and, second only to Patrick, Brighid who, as protectress of farming and livestock, preserves many of the attributes of the ancient earth goddess.

Ireland is famous for its fairy lore , which also contains vestiges of prechristian tradition. The fairies are known in Irish as the people of the sí (pronounced she), a word which originally designated a mound or tumulus, and the Irish fairies can be connected with early Celtic beliefs of how the dead live on as a dazzling community in their burial chambers. Through their identification in the medieval literature with the Tuatha Dé Danann ('People of the Goddess Danu') they may also be connected directly to the early pantheon of Celtic deities. In folk belief thousands of 'raths', which are ancient earthenwork structures which dot the landscape, are claimed to be inhabited still be the sí-people, and many stories are told of humans being brought into these hidden palaces at night as guests at wondrous banquets.


It is said that there were two quite different kinds of people in Ireland: one set of people with long dark hair and dark eyes, called Fomorians -- they carried long slender spears made of golden bronze when they fought -- and another race of people who were golden-haired and blue-eyed, and who carried short, blunt, heavy spears of dull metal.

The golden-haired people had a great chieftain who was also a kind of high priest, who was called the Dagda. And this Dagda had a wonderful magic harp. The harp was beautiful to look upon, mighty in size, made of rare wood, and ornamented with gold and jewels; and it had wonderful music in its strings, which only the Dagda could call out. When the men were going out to battle, the Dagda would set up his magic harp and sweep his hand across the strings, and a war song would ring out which would make every warrior buckle on his armor, brace his knees, and shout, ``Forth to the fight!'' Then, when the men came back from the battle, weary and wounded, the Dagda would take his harp and strike a few chords, and as the magic music stole out upon the air, every man forgot his weariness and the smart of his wounds, and thought of the honor he had won, and of the comrade who had died beside him, and of the safety of his wife and children. Then the song would swell out louder, and every warrior would remember only the glory he had helped win for the king; and each man would rise at the great tables his cup in his hand, and shout ``Long live the King!''

There came a time when the Fomorians and the golden-haired men were at war; and in the midst of a great battle, while the Dagda's hall was not so well guarded as usual, some of the chieftains of the Fomorians stole the great harp from the wall, where it hung, and fled away with it. Their wives and children and some few of their soldiers went with them, and they fled fast and far through the night, until they were a long way from the battlefield. Then they thought they were safe, and they turned aside into a vacant castle, by the road, and sat down to a banquet, hanging the stolen harp on the wall.

The Dagda, with two or three of his warriors, had followed hard on their track. And while they were in the midst of theirbanqueting, the door was suddenly burst open, and the Dagda stood there, with his men. Some of the Fomorians sprang to their feet, but before any of them could grasp a weapon, the Dagda called out to his harp on the wall, ``Come to me, O my harp!''

The great harp recognized its master's voice, and leaped from the wall. Whirling through the hall, sweeping aside and killing the men who got in its way, it sprang to its master's hand. And the Dagda took his harp and swept his hand across the strings in three great, solemn chords. The harp answered with the magic Music of Tears. As the wailing harmony smote upon the air, the women of the Fomorians bowed their heads and wept bitterly, the strong men turned their faces aside, and the little children sobbed.

Again the Dagda touched the strings, and this time the magic Music of Mirth leaped from the harp. And when they heard that Music of Mirth, the young warriors of the Fomorians began to laugh; they laughed till the cups fell from their grasp, and the spears dropped from their hands, while the wine flowed from the broken bowls; they laughed until their limbs were helpless with excess of glee.

Once more the Dagda touched his harp, but very, very softly. And now a music stole forth as soft as dreams, and as sweet as joy: it was the magic Music of Sleep.

When they heard that, gently, gently, the Fomorian women bowed their heads in slumber; the little children crept to their mothers' laps; the old men nodded; and the young warriors drooped in their seats and closed their eyes: one after another all the Fomorians sank into sleep.

When they were all deep in slumber, the Dagda took his magic harp, and he and his golden-haired warriors stole softly away, and came in safety to their own homes again.


The Human Hounds

Finn, who was dangling his hot feet in the water, looked up. He was a tall, thin young man, with dark hair and the beginnings of a beard. But you could tell by his eyes that he was very wise, for they were the eyes of an old, old man.

"What would you like to ask me?" he said.
"I would like permission to marry," Illan said softly, blushing slightly.

Finn smiled. He had seen Illan with his aunt over the past few weeks and he had guessed that this might happen.
"Would I know the lady?" he asked innocently.
"Aye," Illan nodded, it is your own mother's sister, Tuirean."
"My aunt," Finn said.
Illan nodded. "Your aunt. I love her you see," he continued, "and we wish to be married as soon as possible. And because you are my commander and since the girl's father - your grandfather - is no longer alive, I thought I should ask you." He paused and added, "What do you say?"

Finn pulled his feet up out of the water and began to dry them on the edge of his cloak. He glanced over at the older man. "What if I should say no?" he asked.

The smile faded from Illan's face. "well," he said uncomfortably, "if you were to say no, then I suppose we would just run away and get married anyway. But I hope you won't say no.

Finn stood up and Illan scrambled to his feet. He put his hands on Illan's shoulder and the young man smiled warmly. "Of course I wouldn't say no, and of course you can marry her - but only on one condition," he added.
"What's that?" Illan asked.
"If I find you are not good to my aunt, or that she does not like living at your fort, then you will allow her to return at once."
Illan smiled. "I will always be good to your aunt, and don't worry, I will be sending a messenger to my fort today with instructions to prepare it for my wife."

Finn laughed then shook Illan's hand in both of his. "I hope you will both be very happy together," he said.
"I know we will be," Illan said.

Even as they were speaking the scouts returned. They had come across fresh tracks further down the river and they had also discovered the remains of a camp-fire, which meant the thieves were only an hour or so ahead of the Fianna. Finn hoped into his sandals while Illan ran to gather up his belongings and pack them onto the back of his horse. Soon the knights of the Fianna galloped off down along the banks of the river. Illan couldn't resist laughing out loud. If they caught the thieves today he could be back home by midday tomorrow and he and Tuirean could begin preparations for their wedding.

The day wore on. Finn and the Fianna always seemed to be just a little behind the thieves, and once they even saw them in the distance just riding over a hill. The Fianna galloped after them, but by the time they reached the hill there was a thin column of smoke rising from behind it and when they rode over the crest they found the thieves had burned the bridge across a deep and rushing river. The Fianna were then forced to ride five miles upriver to find a spot where they could cross without any risk of being swept away, and of course by that time the gang had disappeared.

They spent that night in a small forest not far from the sea shore. As well as the rich, damp smell of the forest there was also the tangy salt smell of the sea. Finn posted guards because the forests then were dark and dangerous places with gangs of bandits and packs of wolves roaming through them.

Illan was one of the guards. He picked a spot a little away from the roaring camp-fire in a thick clump of bushes where he would be able to see anyone or anything approaching.

Back in the camp someone took out a harp and began to sing to it and Illan recognized the delicate voice of Cnu Derceaol, Finn's favourite singer, who had learned to sing in the fairy forts of the Sidhe (pronounced she). The men fell silent, listening to the beautiful voice. Slowly the night creatures in the forest stopped their creakings and croakings and twitterings to listen to the voice and Illan saw more than one pair of small round eyes staring out of the trees and bushes towards the fire.

The night wore on and the fire dies down to glowing embers, flaky pieces of wood crumbling every now and again to send red sparks spiralling up into the night sky. Soon the only noises were the night sounds of the forest, the gentle hissing of the sea and the snoring of the men in camp.

Illan was tired. It had been a long day and he had ridden far. He was eager to return home to tell Tuirean that they could be married. He hadn't really thought that Finn would refuse - but at least he had agreed without an argument and everything was all right now. He began to wonder what it would be like to be married ...

Something white moved through the trees. Illan caught his breath and stiffened. Very slowly he pulled out his sword. He waited, trying to to follow the movements of the white shape through the trees. He wasn't sure what it was but he was not going to call the camp awake until he was sure. He remembered when he was a young man shouting the alarm and it turned out to be nothing more than fog weaving through the tree trunks.

The shape came nearer. Illan was nearly sure now that it was a figure - a human figure - but something stopped him from calling out the alarm. Suddenly the shape seemed to melt into the ground and then someone spoke from behind him.
"Hello Illan."

He spun around, bringing his sword up to defend himself but it got tangled in the bushes' thorny branches and fell from his hands. The pale woman standing before him laughed merrily.
"Dealba!" he said in astonishment.

The young woman smiled, showing her small, sharp teeth. "So you remember me," she said softly, her voice sounding as ghostly as the wind.
"Of course I remember you," Illan said, "how could I ever forget you?" He shivered a little then, because Dealba frightened him and Illan Eachta was afraid of neither man nor beast, but he did fear the fairy folk and Dealba was one of the Sidhe folk. She was a banshee, a fairy woman.

Illan had met her a few years ago when he had been doing coast guard duty, watching the shores for any signs of pirates or bandits attempting to land on Erin's coasts. They had met one stormy winter's night when the seas had been pounding in over the beach, sending foam high into the sky, roaring and crashing like a hungry animal. When Illan had seen the white woman moving up the beach he had thought she was a ghost. When she was closer he realized that she was just one of those very pale people that he sometimes saw in the King's court and her white clothing made her seem even paler. They had become friends sort of a sort then; coast guard was a lonely duty and Dealba was someone to talk to and laugh with. It was not until later that he learned that she was one of the fairy women - the terrible banshee.

Illan suddenly realized Dealba was speaking.
"I'm sorry, what did you say?"
Dealba frowned. "I said that I have heard that you have a new woman in your life now."
Illan nodded. "Yes, her name is Tuirean and we will be married soon."
"And what about me?" Dealba asked.
Illan shook his head. "What do you mean?" he asked.
"I thought we would be married one day!" she said. "You told me so yourself," she reminded him.
"Yes, but that was before I knew you were one of the Sidhe. You know a human and a Sidhe can never marry."
"You said you would marry me."
"I cannot," he said.
Dealba's face grew cold and angry. The air around her grew chill and frost formed on the leaves and branches. "You will marry me," the fairy woman warned.

Illan shivered with the cold. His fingers and toes grew numb and he saw streaks of white ice forming on his armour and glittering on the metal of his sword which was still lying on the ground. He bent down to pick it up and when he straightened he shook his head. "I will not marry you," he said. "I do not love you."

Dealba pointed her hand at Illan and said something in the language of the Sidhe. Immediately the air grew even colder and then the leaves on the bush's around the man froze one by one until they were like glass. The branches hardened and turned to a silver colour and Illan's sword turned so cold that it burned his fingers and he had to drop it. When it hit the ground it broke apart. The fairy woman took a step backwards and began to fade into the night.

"Wait," Illan said. He didn't want the banshee to put a curse on him - he would never be able to get rid of it. He reached out for the woman and his arm brushed against a branch. The leaves immediately shattered and fell apart with a tinkling sound, like small silver bells. Illan stepped backwards with fright and touched against another branch. It too shattered into a fine silvery dust and as the man watched the whole clump of frozen bushes collapsed into dust all around him with the sound of breaking glass.

Finn and the rest of the guards came running up, their swords and spears ready.
"What happened?" Finn shouted. "What was that noise?"
"A banshee," Illan said quietly, beginning to grow warm now that the cold had vanished. He looked over at Finn.
"She has cursed me. What will I do?"
"What sort of curse?" Finn asked.
"I don't know - yet."
The captain of the Fianna looked troubled and then shook his head. "There is nothing you can do but wait for the curse to catch up with you. When you know what it is you might be able to fight it."

Illan and Tuirean were married a week later. The wedding was a huge happy affair, with all the knights of the Fianna and the nobles and their ladies there. It started at sunrise when the chief priest, the Arch Druid, married them in the first rays of the morning sun. It went on all day with eating, drinking, dancing and later contests and games. When night fell the bards came and sat around the huge fires telling stories about the ancient peoples who had come to the land of Erin. They told about the woman called Ceasir Banba who came from the land of Egypt and had given her name to the island. They told about the terrible Fomorians who were the demons from the icy north and they told about the magical Tuatha De Danann.

After the wedding Tuirean and her husband headed off to Illan's palace in the north of the country where they would have a few days holiday before he had to return to his duties as one of the Fianna.

However only two days later a messenger arrived from Finn asking Illan to come back immediately. He said that a huge pirate fleet had been sighted off the coast and Finn wanted his best men by his side should they try to land.

Tuirean stood by the tall wooden gates of the fort and waved at her husband until he had rounded the bend in the road and was out of sight. She was turning to go back indoors when she heard the sound of hooves. She looked back thinking Illan had forgotten something. But it was not her husband but a young man wearing a messenger's cloak. He pulled his horse to a stop a few feet away from Tuirean and climbed down. He bowed.
"My lady," he said, "has my lord Illan set off yet?"
Tuirean looked surprised. "He left only a few minutes ago - but surely you passed him just around that bend?" she asked, pointing down the dusty road.
The young man smiled and shook his head. "I'm sorry my lady, I saw no one."

Tuirean shook her head in wonder. Even if Illan had been galloping surely he wouldn't have reached the distant crossroads so soon?
"Was there a message for my husband?" she asked then.

The messenger nodded again. He was a young man who looked no more than fifteen or sixteen with a head of snow white hair and a sharp sort of face.
"I have a message for my lord Illan and for you too my lady," he said with a smile.
"For me?"
"Yes, my lady. Finn fears that the pirates may land in some of the smaller bays around here and try to sneak south to attack him. He does not wish you to be caught out here with no one to protect you."
"But the fort is guarded," Tuirean said.
"I think Muiren, Finn's mother and your sister, has insisted that he bring you south for greater protection," the messenger said.

Tuirean shook her long jet black hair and stamped her foot in annoyance.
"Sometimes my older sister is worse than a mother, always fussing."
"But does that not show that she cares for you?" the messenger asked quietly.
Tuirean said nothing and stamped off to pack a small satchel and have her horse saddled.

A little while later Tuirean and the messenger rode away from the fort and headed south in the same direction Illan had taken. They reached the crossroads by midday and then the messenger stopped. He leaned forward and pointed down one of the roads.
"That way."
Tuirean hesitated. "I thought it was this way," she said, pointing down another road.
"We could go that way," the messenger said, "but this way is safer. It takes us away from the coast where the pirates might come ashore."

Tuirean nodded doubtfully. She wasn't sure about that but still she followed the messenger down the side road. Soon they rode into a group of trees, short fat ancient oak trees with broad leaves and moss growing on the trunks. There was a little clearing beyond the trees and then the road continued on into a forest where the trees were growing so closely that their branches grew twisted together above the path and hid the sun and sky from their sight. Tuirean had to squint to see the path and she could barely make out the shape of the messenger ahead of her.

Suddenly there was the sound of thunder over head and then it began to rain. Hard heavy drops patted against the closely grouped leaves, spattering and splashing but very few actually reached the ground below. The messenger raised his hand and stopped, but Tuirean was so close that her horse actually bumped into his.
"What's wrong?" she asked.
"Nothing," the messenger said, "but there is a clearing ahead and if we ride across it we will be soaked."

Tuirean peered over his shoulder and saw what he meant. Ahead of them the trees had been cut away leaving an almost circular clearing through which the path ran in a straight line. She saw the rain then for the first time. It was falling straight down drumming and thrumming onto the hard ground. Tuirean looked up to the sky but all she saw were heavy, full looking grey clouds.
"How long will it last?" she asked the messenger.
He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know, not long now I hope."

But the rain continued to pour down, soaking into the hard earth turning it into soft muck. Now water began to find its way down through the thick umbrella of leaves over their heads and began to plink and drip onto the two riders making them shiver and pull up their long riding cloaks.

"I think we should hurry on," Tuirean said, pushing her long dark hair out of her eyes. "We might be able to catch up with Illan."
"Perhaps the lord Illan is also sheltering, "the messenger said.
Tuirean nodded. "That's what I mean. If he is sheltering from the rain we might just catch up with him."
The messenger nodded slowly. "Yes, we might," He said, but he didn't move.
"Well, let's go then," Tuirean said angrily.
"Stay where you are!"
Tuirean turned to look at the messenger in amazement. How dare he speak to her in that way! "What did you say?" she demanded loudly.
"You heard me." the messenger said rudely. He urged his horse forward, out into the centre of the clearing and then turned the animal around so that he was facing Tuirean again. The woman was about to speak again when she noticed something strange about the messenger. All the colours of his clothes, his skin, his hair - even the colour of the horse - were being washed away, running like wet paint.

Tuirean closed her eyes, squeezed them tight then opened them again. But the colour was still running down the man in long streaks. It had started at his head: dark brown streaks from his skin mingled with the brown from his eyes, ran down onto the front of his jerkin, and then the browns and greens of the cloth ran from that and dripped onto his legs. The colours then fell onto the horse's back and soon its brown coat was dripping away into a dark mucky pool about his hooves. Underneath he was white - snow white, ice white, cold white. And 'he' no longer looked like a 'he'. 'He' looked like a 'she'

Tuirean looked at the creature and then felt her heart begin to pound with fright - it was a banshee! She tried to turn her horse around but suddenly all the trees around her turned white with ice and frost. A tree cracked with the sudden weight of ice and sleet and fell across her path, blocking her escape. She turned back to the banshee.

"Who are you? What do you want?" she said as loud as she could.
The banshee smiled, showing her sharp white teeth. "I am Dealba," she said so softly that Tuirean had to strain to hear her, "and I have come for you."
Tuirean grew very frightened then. "What do you mean?"
"You married Illan," the banshee said.
"Yes," nodded Tuirean, "I married him."
"But he should have married me," Delba suddenly shouted. "He knew me first!"
"But a human cannot marry one of the fairy folk," the woman said quickly.
"He should have married me!" Delba insisted. "But since he will not have me I'm going to make sure he will not have you either!"

Tuirean managed to scream once before the banshee's ice magic touched her. Delba raised her hand and the air around her froze so that the rain which was falling close to her turned to snow and sleet, and the mud on the ground hardened into ice that cracked loudly. The banshee then pointed her finger at Tuirean and a thin sparkling line of white fire darted over and wrapped itself around the woman, spinning and hissing, cracking and popping. It lasted only a few moments and when it had passed Tuirean had disappeared and and in her place was a huge coal black Wolfhound. It glared at the banshee for a few moments and then growled deep in its throat. Dealba laughed quietly.
"If Illan will not have me," she said to herself, "then I will not allow him to have you."

When Illan reached Finn's fort he found there were no pirates off Erin's coast and that Finn had not sent any messenger north for him. When he looked for the messenger that had brought him the message he could not be found. Illan grew frightened then and thundered back to his fort, accompanied by Finn and some knights of the Fianna. They knew something was amiss.

When they reached the fort one of the guards there told Illan about the messenger who had come with the message from Finn for the Lady Tuirean. And they had not seen her since.

Illan raged and swore. He and the Fianna searched the surrounding countryside and he even hired men and sent them searching all over the country looking for his missing wife but for a long time there was no sign of her. Nearly a year passed.

It was high summer when Illan received a message from Finn. The Lord of the Fianna had heard a strange story concerning Fergus, one of the western lords. Now this Fergus was well known for his dislike of dogs because he had once been bitten on the leg when he was a boy. From that day he would not allow a dog into his fort. But what was curious was that Fergus had been keeping a huge Wolfhound for the past few months and treating it very well indeed. And what was even stranger was that Fergus insisted that Finn had sent the dog to him for safe keeping. But Finn insisted he had sent no dog to this man and wanted Illan to investigate. So the knight saddled up his horse and set off on the long road to the west.

He had ridden a few miles down the road when something white flitted through the trees and stepped onto the path. It was Dealba.
"What do you want?" Illan demanded.
The banshee smiled strangely. "Where are you going?" she asked.
Illan was about to tell her but then stopped. "Why do you want to know?" he asked.
Dealba smiled again. "Perhaps you're heading into the west to visit Fergus, Lord of the Seashore?"
Illan felt a strange chill run down his back. "how do you know that?" he whispered.
The banshee smiled. "I know many things," she said.
"Do you know where my wife is then?" he asked.
"I might."
"Where is she?" Illan suddenly shouted, making his horse jump and sending the birds in the trees up into the sky.
"She is with Fergus, Lord of the Seashore," Dealba said.
Illan knew then. "And is she....is everything all right?" he asked.
"She is in good health," Dealba said and then added with a grin, "Fergus has taken very good care of her."
Illan suddenly pulled out his sword and pointed it at the fairy woman. "You have changed her into a dog!" he shouted.
Dealba laughed, "I have."
"Change her back," Illan said, "or else...."
"Or else what?" Dealba asked. "I could turn you into a block of ice before you have taken a single step closer. But I will turn her back into a human shape for you....for a price."
"And what is the price?" illan asked with a sigh.
"You must come with me into the fairy fort."
Illan didn't stop to think. "Yes, I'll do it."

Dealba disappeared in a rush of cold air and the reappeared almost immediately with a huge black Wolfhound at her side. As soon as the dog saw Illan it began to bark furiously and wag it's tail back and forth.
"This is your wife," the banshee said and she touched the dog with the tips of her fingers. A white covering like snowflakes formed on the dog's hair. It grew thicker and thicker until the dog was buried beneath a mound of snow. Then suddenly it all fell away. And standing there in her human shape was Tuirean. She cried out with joy and ran over to her husband.
"You've saved me," she said, "I knew you would."
Illan kissed her gently. "But to save you I have to go with her," he nodded towards Dealba, "but don't worry, I will be back to you as soon as I can."
"Must you go now?" Tuirean asked in a whisper, tears forming in her huge dark eyes.
"I must," he said, "but I will be back."
Dealba reached out and touched Illan and he was immediately frozen within a bloke of ice and then both she and it disappeared in a glitter of silver snowflakes, leaving Tuirean standing alone.

A little more than a week later, Tuirean, who had been expecting a baby before she had been turned into the Wolfhound, gave birth to twins. But they were not human twins - They were two lovely Wolfhound cubs.

Tuirean gave the pups to Finn to care for. The greatest magicians and sorcerers in the land were called in to try and give the dogs a human appearance but they couldn't because the fairy magic was so strong.
Finn named the pups Bran and Sceolan. They were magic hounds: faster, stronger and more intelligent than any other dogs in the land of Erin. They were human hounds.


The Giant Rat

A needy man in Galway had a wife and four children. One morning, they gazed upon the largest rat that had ever set foot in their kitchen, as they sat down for breakfast. The rat jumped up on to the kitchen table, and ate all the food that had been prepared for breakfast. The family looked on in amazement and as well as being scared out of their wits!

No sooner had the rat come in and eaten all the food, did it leave. However, when the man returned home from a hard day's work for his dinner, the rat also followed him in to the house. A repetition of the breakfast fiasco took place, and the rats stomach was of course full.

"God help us!" "We shall starve to death" shouted the man in his loudest voice.

The following day, the by now hungry man, bought a cat that was known to be a good rat catcher. As usual the rat returned to see the cat sitting by the fire. What ensued was a monumental fight and the cat just managed to survive with her life intact! Again, the rat climbed up on to the table and ate all the food, and as usual left after it's stomach was full.

The sorry cat licked her wounds, drank some milk, and went out, When the man returned home from work the following night, the cat had still not returned. "We're finished now," he said. "That thieving rat will kill us for sure!"

Yet again the rat came to supper, munched the food and left. These events continued for three days and three nights, but the cat had still not surfaced. On the fourth morning the cat returned, and in tow was the biggest cat that any of the family had ever seen!

The small cat sat on a chair, while the big cat sat by the hearth. Both cats were given milk to drink as a token gesture.

The cats drank their milk and the man sat down to eat his breakfast. The rat arrived, but paused when it saw the big cat. They both launched themselves at each other in the centre of the room. They fought in every nook and cranny in the house, all day long. At sunset, the huge cat finally managed to the kill the equally huge rat.

Both cats had some more milk for their efforts in ridding the family of the rat, and left the house

~ and they were never seen again.


The Banshee

Banshee or 'Bean-sidhe' is Irish for faerie woman - ban (bean), meaning a woman, and shee ( sidhe), meaning faerie. The banshee can appear in one of three guises: a young woman, a stately matron or a raddled old hag. These represent the triple aspects of the Celtic goddess of war and death, namely Badhbh, Macha and Mor-Rioghain.

She usually wears either a grey, hooded cloak or the winding sheet or grave robe of the unshriven dead. She may also appear as a washer-woman, and is seen apparently washing the blood stained clothes of those who are about to die. In this guise she is known as the bean-nighe or washing woman. She always has long flowing hair and eyes red from crying.

When someone is about to die, the Banshee appears at the family's home during the night and weeps and wails. Sometimes, the Banshee cries for several nights in a row. Her sharp, cries and wails are also called 'keen'. The wail of a banshee pierces the night, it's notes rising and falling like the waves of the sea, it always announces a mortal's death.

She is solitary woman fairy, mourning and forewarning those only of the best families in Ireland, those with most ancient Celtic lineages, whose names begin with 'Mac/Mc' or 'O'. According to tradition, the banshee can only cry for five major Irish families: the O'Neills, the O'Briens, the O'Connors, the O'Gradys and the Kavanaghs. Intermarriage has since extended this select list.

Each Banshee has her own mortal family and out of love she follows the old race across the ocean to distant lands. Her wails or keen can be heard in America and England, wherever the true Irish have settled.

When a member of the beloved race is dying, she paces the dark hills about his house. She sharply contrasts against the night's blackness, her white figure emerges with silver-grey hair streaming to the ground and a grey-white cloak of a cobweb texture clinging to her tall thin body. Her face is pale, her eyes red with centuries of crying.

She is also know as White Lady of Sorrow and Lady of Death. Unseen, banshees attend the funerals of the beloved dead. Although, sometimes she can be heard wailing, her voice blending in with the mournful cries of others.


Saint Brigid

February 1 is the feast of St. Brigid, often called the Mary of the Gael. Her feast day, along with that of St Patrick, and Our Lady of Knock, are the official holy days of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, who gather annually for a Mass in her honor.

St. Brigid's life was a remarkable one, and the places in Ireland, associated with her, are scenes of pilgrimage throughout the year. She was born in a society ruled by the old Gaelic Order and the Druidic religion. St. Patrick had already reached Ireland, and was in the process of changing all that, but though his message had reached the court of Dubhtach, the powerful Leinster Chieftain held firm to the old religion. In his religion, one of the most powerful Goddesses was Brid or Brigid, the Goddess of Fire whose manifestations were song and poetry, which the Celts considered the flame of knowledge. Her feast day was the first festival of the year and was held on February 1. It was the beginning of Spring; the working season for farmers and fishermen, and a time of husbanding of animals, and the Celts called on Brid to bless their work, and bonfires were lit in her honor.

Patrick did not condemn the Celts as idolatrous pagans, but explained their druidic customs in Christian terms, and gradually, Bible heroes and Christian saints began to replace the Celtic Gods and Goddesses on the Irish calendar. However, the personalities of some of the Celtic deities was so strong that they could not be replaced and one of these was Brid, and the rites associated with her continued to be practiced each February 1 right into Christian times. But that was soon to change.

At about 453 AD, a child was born out of wedlock between Dubhtach and one of his Christian slaves named Brocessa. The slave girl was sent to a cabin at the foot of the Cooley Mountains near Dundalk, Co Louth, to have the child. The baby was a healthy girl, which was no great joy to Dubhtach who wanted a son. The mother was sold to a Chieftain in Connaught, and the child was given to a Druid to be raised and educated. The child was named Brigid, perhaps to seek the blessing of the Goddess, for from the very beginning, there were indications that she was special. It was reported that she was born at sunrise, and that the cottage in which she was born burst into flame when she left it.

Brigid grew in beauty, and her love for all of God's creatures knew no bounds. After her fosterage, she returned to her father's house as a slave, although she enjoyed the privileges of family. She was given to solitude, and loved to wander the woods befriending the animals. She was renowned for her generosity, giving much of her father's wealth away to the poor. Many are the stories attributed to this remarkable lady, including her journey on foot from Leinster to Connaught to find her mother, whom she freed from bondage, and returned to the house of Dubhtach.

In keeping with the life planned for her, she became a vestal virgin in service to the Goddess Brid, and eventually high priestess at the Kil Dara (the temple of the oak), a pagan sanctuary built from the wood of a tree sacred to the Druids. There she and her companions kept a perpetual ritual fire, in honor of Brid.

The exact circumstance of her conversion to Christianity are unknown, though it is certain that her Christian mother was a guiding influence. Some claim that she personally met St Patrick, which is possible since she was ten years old before he died, but there is no proof of that. Whatever the circumstances, Brigid and her companions in service to Brid, all accepted the Christian faith, and formed Ireland's first Christian religious community of women. Legend tells that upon her acceptance of her vows, fire appeared above her head.

Brigid changed the pagan sanctuary of Kil Dara into a Christian shrine, which gave its name to the present County Kildare. She extinguished the ritual fire of the Druids, and lit a flame dedicated to Christ which was thereafter maintained by her followers until it was doused by the forces of Henry VIII. Brigid's wisdom and generosity became legend, and people traveled from all over the country to share her wisdom. Her monastery at Kildare became one of the greatest centers of learning in Europe.

She continued her holy and charitable work until her death in 525 AD, when she was laid to rest in a jeweled casket at Kil Dara. In 835, her remains were moved to protect them from Norse invaders, and interred in the same grave that holds the remains of St. Patrick and St. Columcille at Downpatrick.

So strong was the respect and reverence for this holy lady that she became the patroness of parishes, towns, and counties, not only in Ireland, but all across Europe.

During the age of Chivalry, she was so revered as a model for women of every age, that gentlemen, knights, and nobles began the custom of calling their sweethearts, their Brides - a custom that has come down to this very day. In Ireland, the people likened her to Brid, the ancient Goddess of fire and wisdom - for wasn't Brigid's life touched with fire, and as for her wisdom - that was undisputed. She even had a symbol.

As the shamrock became associated with St Patrick, a tiny cross made of rushes was linked with St Brigid. Supposedly woven by her to explain the passion of Christ to a dying pagan, similar crosses are fashioned to this day as a defense against harm, and placed in the rafters of a cottage on the feast day of St Brigid - February 1.

So it was that reverence for this holy child of Ireland grew so strong that she not only eclipsed Brid, for whom she was named, but was given her feast day. And the Irish gladly accepted their new saint, and revere her to this day in place of a forgotten Celtic Goddess.


The Faerie Kings

The great Faerie king of Co. Galway in the west of Ireland is Finnbheara (Finnvarr). Cnoc Meadha is his abode, a prominent hill west of Tuam, on top of which is a burial mound. To the north west is Magh Tuireadh, where the legendary battle between the Fir Bolgs and the Tuatha De Danaans took place.

There are many stories which illustrate Finnbheara's liking for earthly women. He would often draw young girls away to dance all night with him in his palace, but the next morning they were always found safely asleep in bed. One particular nobleman was not so fortunate, however. His bride was taken one time by the Faerie king. The bride's old nurse told the noble that he must dig down into the sidhe mound, starting at the top. But during the night the fairies of the mound filled the tunnel back in with earth. This happened again on the second night. In despair the nobleman turned to the old nurse again, who told him to sprinkle the earth with salt and place a line of burning turf around the trench, as the sidhe could not resist that. The following morning the bride was found safe in her bed.

Finnbheara is also known to love horses, and he is usually seen riding a black horse with flaring red nostrils.

Donn of Knockfierna

In Co. Limerick the Faerie king Donn of Knockfierna is well remembered. There is a large earthern fort on his hill and a number of dolmens known as the 'Giants Graves'. You can see the entrance to his Faerie palace. Donn is the ancient Celtic god of the Dead who rules the rocky islands to the south west on the Atlantic coast. Donn is also known in Co. Fermanagh as the ancestor of the Maguires, whom he helped in their battles. Sometimes he is seen riding on a white horse on stormy nights, when people would exclaim: "Donn is galloping in the clouds tonight". Donn now more closely resembles a medieval Irish landlord than a god. He rules quite strictly but will aid his people when needed. He is also believed to fight against rival hosts in other counties, the winner carrying off the best potato crop for that year.

It will be noted that the Faerie queens and kings are in fact the old pagan gods and goddesses 'in disguise' who have long been revered by the Irish. It has been said that the Celtic gods of Ireland had long been wiped out, buried under the sway of Catholicism. Yet anyone who has been to Ireland, or listened to her many folk tales can see for themselves that this is very far from the reality. The old gods live on in folk tales as the giants of the hill; the Gobhan

Saor who built all the bridges of Ireland; the Gille Decair, a clown and trickster; the carl (serf) of the drab coat and many others. The old deities were once worshipped throughout Ireland, however it is in the west that they are best remembered now, the east having been more Christianized and anglicised, and subject to more invasions. By contrast, the west of Ireland, to which the native Irish were driven ("to hell or Connaught") has held on longer to her ancient heritage


The Children of Lir

Long ago there was a king in Ireland called Lir who was the father of four beautiful children, a son, a daughter and twin sons. Their mother (daughter of the High King of Ireland) died when they were still young and needing loving care. And so it came about that King Lir, who dearly loved his four children and wanted them to have a new mother, married his wife's sister, Aoife, and gave them into her charge.

But Aoife, seeing King Lir playing with the chidren and giving them so much of his time, became jealous of them and thought how she might have her King all to herself and the children out of the way. One night she secretly bargained with a druid for the use of his magic wand and made her plans while the children were asleep.

Next morning,when they woke to a beautiful summer's day, Aoife had perfected her plan. "Come with me," she said to the children, "Today I am going to take you to the lake and when the sun gets hot you can all go into the cool water for a swim." When noonday came and the sun was at it's height in the sky Aoife saw a dark cloud coming from the North and, fearing her plan would be spoiled, shouted "Quickly now, into the water with you all!" Then using the druid's magic wand Aoife cast a spell on the four children, turning them one by one into swans. The great dark cloud from the North turned black, shut out the sun, burst into thunder and with a scream Aoife disappeared into the cloud and was never seen again. But Aoife, with her druid's wand, had not taken away the children's human voices; she had told them they would be set free again from the spell in 900 years time when St. Patrick would come to Ireland and they would hear the sound of the first Christian bells.

And so at the end of 300 years on lake Davra, 300 years on the sea of Moyle and another 300 years on the lake isle of Glora in Mayo, the day came when they heard the distant sound of one of the first Christian bells to ring in Ireland. They immediately followed the sound until they came to the house of a Christian called Caomhog and told him what had happened to them so long ago.

They were lovingly cared for by the people of the house and people came from far and near to see the swans who could talk and sing. Then one day a princess sent her servants to try and steal the swans. But just as the servants laid hands on them the time had come for the swans to become humans again and the servants ran away terrified.

Now that the swans were again human, although 900 years old, Caomhog had them baptised and the bells rang out at their Christening. Soon afterwards, when they had died of old age, Caomhog dreamt on the very same night that he saw four beautiful children - a boy, his sister and two twin brothers flying out over the lake then straight up to heaven and he knew they really were the children of Lir.


The trefoil or Shamrock, at one time called the "Seamroy", symbolises the cross and blessed trinity. Before the Christian era it was a sacred plant of the Druids of Ireland because its leaves formed a triad.

The well known legend of the Shamrock connects it definitely to St. Patrick and his teaching.

Preaching in the open air on the doctrine of the trinity, he is said to have illustrated the existence of the Three in One by plucking a shamrock from the grass growing at his feet and showing it to his congregation. The legend of the shamrock is also connected with that of the banishment of the serpent tribe from Ireland by a tradition that snakes are never seen on trefoil and that it is a remedy against the stings of snakes and scorpions.

The trefoil in Arabia is called shamrakh and was sacred in Iran as an emblem of the Persian triads. The trefoil, as noted above, being a sacred plant among the Druids, and three being a mystical number in the Celtic religion as well as all others, it is probable that St. Patrick must have been aware of the significance of his illustration.



Irish fairies fall into two main groups: sociable and solitary. Perhaps the best known of the solitary fairies are the leprechauns. Leprechauns have the distinction of being the most solitary of the solitaries, avoiding contact with humans, other fairies, and even other leprechauns.

Although the leprechaun has been described as Ireland's national fairy, this name was originally only used in the north Leinster area. Variants include lurachmain, lurican, lurgadhan. The ancient origins of what we know today as the leprechaun was a Euro-Cletic god named Lugh (pronouced "Luck"). Lugh was as important a god to the ancient Euro-Celtic religion as Jesus is to our own Christianity. Lugh was the great Sun God of the Irish and Eauro-Celts, patron of Arts and Crafts, leader of the Tuatha dé Danaan. Many Europena cities were named for Lugh such as London, Léon, Loudan, Lyons and others.

These two-foot tall, unfriendly, gruff men (there are no female leprechauns) prefer to pass their time making shoes for other fairies. They usually wear a green coat, a green hat, and a shoemaker's apron.

The name leprechaun may have derived from the Irish leath brogan (shoemaker), although its origins may lie in luacharma'n , Irish for small or little body or from Luch-chromain, meaning ?little stooping Lugh?

Due to their thrifty nature, they are trusted to guard fairy treasures and hide their pots of gold very carefully. But rainbows and the sound of a shoemaker's hammer provide humans with visual and audio cues as to the whereabouts of a leprechaun and his hidden treasure.

According to legend, If caught by a mortal, he will promise great wealth if allowed to go free. He carries two leather pouches. In one there is a silver shilling, a magical coin that returns to the purse each time it is paid out. In the other he carries a gold coin which he uses to try and bribe his way out of difficult situations. This coin usually turns to leaves or ashes once the leprechaun has parted with it. However, you must never take your eye off him, for he can vanish in an instant.

The leprechaun 'family' appears split into two distinct groups - leprechaun and cluricaun. Cluricauns may steal or borrow almost anything, creating mayhem in houses during the hours of darkness, raiding wine cellars and larders. They will also harness sheep, goats, dogs and even domestic fowl and ride them throughout the country at night.


Saint Patrick

Patrick is most known the world over for having driven the snakes from Ireland. Different tales tell of his standing upon a hill, using a wooden staff to drive the serpents into the sea, banishing them forever from the shores of Ireland. One legend says that one old serpent resisted, but the saint overcame it by cunning. He is said to have made a box and invited the reptile to enter. The snake insisted the box was too small and the discussion became very heated. Finally the snake entered the box to prove he was right, whereupon St. Patrick slammed the lid and cast the box into the sea. While it is true there are no snakes in Ireland, chances are that there never have been since the time the island was seperated from the rest of the continent at the end of the ice age. As in many old pagan religions serpent symbols were common, and possibly even worshipped. Driving the snakes from Ireland was probably symbolic of putting an end to that pagan practice.

While not the first to bring Christianity to Ireland, it was Patrick who encountered the Druids at Tara and abolished their pagan rites. He converted the warrior chiefs and princes, baptizing them and thousands of their subjects in the Holy Wells which still bear that name.

According to tradition St. Patrick died on 17 March in A.D. 493 and was buried in the same grave as St. Bridget and St. Columba, at Downpatrick, County Down. The jawbone of St. Patrick was preserved in a silver shrine and was often requested in times of childbirth, epileptic fits and as a preservative against the evil eye. Another legend says St. Patrick ended his days at Glastonbury and was buried there. The Chapel of St. Patrick still exists as part of Galstonbury Abbey. There is evidence of an Irish pilgrimage to his tomb during the reign of the Saxon King Ine in A.D. 688, when a group of pilgrims headed by St. Indractus were murdered.

The great anxiety displayed in the middle ages to possess the bodies, or at least the relics of saints, accounts for a the many discrepant traditions as to the burial places of St. Patrick and others.



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