Irish Folklore and legends are strongly linked to the country’s spectacular landscape. These magical places are all over Ireland, here are a few of our favourite stories and the tours that link to them:
Lough Leane, Killarney
One morning the Fianna warriors were deer hunting on the shores of Lough Leane, County Kerry, when a beautiful white horse ridden by the most beautiful woman they had ever seen began riding towards them. She explained that she was Niamh of the Golden Hair and her father was king of Tir-Na-nOg, land of youth, a happy place with no pain or sorrow, where any wish you make comes true and no one grows old. She had come looking for the legendary warrior, Oisin, son of the leader of the Fianna, Fionn, to bring him back with her. Oisin mounted Niamhs horse and said goodbye to his father and friends promising he would return soon.
The king and queen of Tir-Na-nOg welcomed Oisin and held a great feast in his honor. He hunted, feasted, and at night he told stories of Fionn, the Fianna and of their lives in Ireland. Oisin had never felt as happy as he did with Niamh and before long they were married. Time passed quickly and although he was very happy he began to think of returning home for a visit. Niamh didn’t want him to go but at last she offered her white horse to carry him safely to Ireland and back. She warned him whatever happens he must not get off the horse and touch the soil of Ireland or he would not be able to return to Tir-Na-nOg.
Ireland seemed a very strange place to Oisin when he arrived, although he thought he’d only been away a few years, he had really been gone three hundred years. He was heartbroken to realise his father and the rest of the Fianna were long dead. He saw some men trying to move a large stone and offered to help them. Stooping from his saddle Oisin lifted the stone with one hand and hurled it. With that the saddle girth broke and Oisin was flung to the ground. Immediately the white horse disappeared and the men saw before them Oisin as a very old man.
Diarmuid and Grianne
Glenbeigh, Co. Kerry
Grainne was the daughter of the high king of Ireland and no woman could compare to her beauty. Many princes and chieftains wanted to marry her but Grainne was proud and she spurned one after another. Fionn MacCool, leader of the Fianna, wanted to marry again after his wife died and arrangements were made from him to marry Grainne.
That night a great party was given in honour of them at Tara, but Grainne, disappointed when Fionn was older than her own father, fell in love with Diarmuid, one of Fionn’s warriors. Grainne gave a sleeping draught to everyone at the party except Diarmuid and tried to persuade him to take her away. But Diarmuid was loyal to Fionn so Grainne had to put a magic spell on him that if he did not go with her he would die. Knowing Fionn would destroy him for taking her they left Tara and crossed the river Shannon.
With Fionn on their trail, Fionn’s son Oisin warned him that Fionn was closing in on him, Diarmuid ignored his warning. Travelling south they hid in the caves near Glenbeigh for a while. Meanwhile, Fionn hired three soldiers with three poisonous hounds to capture Diarmuid which is when he finally gave up his loyalty to Fionn and he married Grainne.
Soon Grainne became pregnant. One night the couple heard a sound of a boar in the woods. Grainne, suspecting Fionn of treachery, could not dissuade Diarmuid from facing the boar. Diarmuid killed the boar with his sword but the fight left him dying. Fionn found him and Diarmuid asked for a drink of water which had curing properties if drunk off the hands of Fionn. Fionn allowed the water to slip through his fingers twice, until his grandson, Oscar, threatened to kill him but on his third attempt by the time Fionn had got the water to him Diarmuid had died.
Caherconree, Dingle, Co. Kerry
Caherconree is an ancient stone fort, one of the highest in Ireland that sits atop the Slieve Mish Mountains giving incredible views of the Dingle Peninsula. Once home to Cú Roí, a magician, who became embroiled in battle with Cúchulainn (the warrior) over a lovely lady named Bláthnat, whom Cú Roí captured and imprisoned in the stone fort. To safeguard against attack at night the magician made the fort spin around so his enemies could not find the entrance. However, Bláthnat’s love for Cúchulainn was greater than the evil Cú Roí’s magic and they plotted the demise of Cú Roí.
Bláthnat flattered Cú Roí by telling him he deserved a bigger fort so he sent his warriors out to gather more stones for the enlargement. Bláthnat hid Cú Roí’s weapons as he slept and poured milk into the stream that runs down the mountain. Cúchulainn and his men upon seeing the stream turn white knew that it was time to attack. They succeeded in their attack, slaughtering Cú Roí and reuniting the lovers.
Cúchulainn and Bláthnat, unfortunately, did not live happily ever after. Cú Roí’s poet Ferchertne, encountered Bláthnat along a mountain path, grabbed her and jumped off the cliff, avenging Cú Roí. They were buried at the foot of the cliff, at a place still known as “The Mound of Blaithne and Feirceitne”. Cúchulainn was mortally wounded by Cú Roí’s son Lugaid, and died bound to a standing stone in Co. Louth, “the Great Man’s Stone”.
Children of Lir
Allihies, Co. Cork
Once there lived a king called Lir. He lived with his wife and four children: Fionnuala, Aodh, Fiachra and Conn. They lived in a castle in the middle of a forest. When Lir’s wife died he remarried a jealous wife called Aoife. Aoife thought that Lir loved his children more than he loved her so she hated the children.
One summer’s day Aoife took the children to swim in a lake near the castle. The children were really happy to be playing in the water. Aoife preformed a spell and children were turned into four beautiful swans, with their feathers as white as snow. The spell meant they would be swans for nine hundred years until they heard the ring of a Christian bell. She banished them to three hundred years in Lough Derravaragh, three hundred years in the Sea of Moyle and three hundred years in the waters of Atlantic seaon the Bill, Cow and Calf rocks off the coast from Allihies.
Aoife went back to the castle and told Lir that his children had drowned. He rushed down to the lake and saw no children. He saw only four beautiful swans. Fionnuala spoke to him telling him what Aoife had done to them. Lir got very angry and turned Aoife into an ugly moth. When Lir died the children were very sad. When the time came they moved to the Sea of Moyle.
Soon the time came for their final journey. When they reached the Bill, Cow and Calf rocks off the coast from Allihies they were very tired. Early one morning they heard the sound of a Christian bell and returned to human form. The children were by now very old men and women and they died shortly thereafter and were buried under the large white boulders found outside the village. Traditionally local people would walk around the stones as a sign of devotion and would leave money on the stones as an offering to the Children.
Bushmills, County Antrim
It’s said that the Causeway was built by a gentle giant, Fionn MacCumhain. Even legend, though, has its contrasting accounts. In one tale, Fionn was said to be in love with a lady giant who lived on the Scottish island of Staffa, and that he built the Causeway in order to safely bring her home to Ireland. In fact, there’s a similar though smaller collection of the strange columns on Staffa’s coastline, and geographically, Ireland and Scotland were once much closer than they are today.
The other legend says that Fionn built the Causeway due to an ongoing argument with a Scottish giant named Benandonner who could not swim. In an argument one day, while they were shouting at each other over the Sea of Moyle, Fionn took a clump of earth and flung it at his enemy. The land fell in the sea and became the Isle of Man, while the huge hole left in Ireland became Lough Neagh, the largest lake in the British Isles.
As the arguments continued, Finn decided to build the Causeway in order to make it easy for Benandonner to come and fight him. After so much hard work, Finn was exhausted and he fell asleep.
Here again, there are different versions of the same story.
Oonagh was Finn’s wife. When she heard the sound of thunderous footsteps, she knew it was Brenandonner come to fight Finn. Oonagh took one look at the gigantic visitor on her doorstep and realised this was a battle Finn could never win. She threw a blanket over her sleeping husband and stuck a bonnet on his head. There was no possible way Finn could defeat Benandonner for he was too small.
Where’s Fionn?” roared Benandonner. “Shusha, shusha”, whispered Oonagh – “You’ll wake the wee one!” Benandonner looked at the snoring Fionn. His jaw dropped 10 feet. If the child was that hefty, what size would the father be? Benandonner wasn’t sticking around to find out. He ran like the wind, destroying part of the Causeway in his wake so Fionn could not pursue him.
Credit for this story Irish Culture and Customs
Medb and the Cattle raid of Cooley
Cooley, Co. Donegal
Queen Maeve and her husband Ailill were rulers of Connacht. One night Maeve and Ailill were boasting about their riches trying to outdo each other. Ailill boasted about his great white bull, however, Maeve had no bull and was jealous as she thought she should be of equal wealth to her husband. The next day Maeve called her messenger MacRoth asking him to find out if there was any bull in Ireland equal to Ailill’s bull.
MacRoth said, “Not one as good but twice as good.” Maeve was delighted when she heard this. MacRoth said, “The bull’s name is the Brown Bull of Cooley, Co. Donegal. He belongs to the Dáire of Cooley in the province of Ulster.” She sent messengers to Dáire, offering wealth, land and sexual favours in return for the loan of the bull, and Dáire initially agreed. But, when a drunken messenger declared that, if he had not agreed, the bull would have been taken by force, Dáire was furious and withdrew his consent. “Tell your queen,” he said, “if she wants my bull she had better take it by force”
When MacRoth told Queen Maeve about this, she was raging. Maeve gathered all her fighting men and marched to Ulster to have battle. The invasion into Ulster was opposed only by the teenage Ulster hero Cúchulainn, who held up the army’s advance by demanding single combat at fords. Medb and Ailill offered their daughter Findabair in marriage to a series of heroes as payment for fighting Cúchulainn, but all were defeated. Queen Maeve won the battle and she took the bull. The bull was brought home, where it fought Ailill’s bull, killing him, but dying of his wounds.