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Tales from the Other Side: Irish Folklore - fairy craic

Updated: Jan 22, 2023

The Irish are well known for their love of a good story. Blarney Stone aside, most people agree that Irish folk are blessed with the ‘gift of the gab’. Storytelling is a huge part of Ireland’s culture and this is in no small part due to the rich history and folklore of the country. Tales of warriors, spirits, giants and fairies are still prevalent, and accepted, to this day. People will avoid lone hawthorn bushes, hang a St Brigid’s cross over the door and put a statue of the Infant of Prague under a bush in the hope of invoking good weather. As recently as 2017, a TD (Irish member of parliament) in Kerry, made headlines for claiming that continual issues in a major road were because it had angered fairies in the local area. With St Patrick’s Day upon us, we would like to share some of our favourite characters from Irish folklore.

Finn McCool

(Fionn mac Cumhaill)

A legendary chieftain and hunter, there are many stories related to Finn who was the leader of the Fianna warriors. He acquired all the knowledge of the world through an encounter with the salmon of knowledge, he killed the fire breathing burner of the Tuatha dé danann (a race of magical gods and demigods), and is said to be responsible for the construction of the Giant’s Causeway. According to legend, Finn was never killed in battle but rather sleeps inside a cave where he will awaken to defend Ireland in her greatest hour of need.

Grace O’Malley (Gráinne Mhaol)

Grace O'Malley, the Pirate Queen of Connacht. Described as ‘a woman who hath imprudently passed the part of womanhood’ and the 'most notorious woman in all the coasts of Ireland' Grace (also known as Granuaile) dominated the Irish coast during the 16th century. She wanted to join her Father and his pirate crew but was told it was no place for a young girl. In an act of defiance, she shaved her hair off and joined the crew to sail to Spain. She was a ruthless pirate and leader and inherited her Father’s position following his death. She expanded her power through various marriages and amassed a great deal of land across Connacht. She made a historic journey sailing up the Thames requesting an audience with Queen Elizabeth I. When they met, Granuaile refused to bow before Elizabeth because she was herself a Queen and not a subject of the Queen of England. The two women spoke in Latin and came to an agreement - Queen Elizabeth released her sons and half-brother while Granuaile put an end to piracy against England.Granuaile died in 1603 at Rockfleet Castle and was buried on Clare Island.

St Colmcille

Although St Patrick is the most well know patron Saint of Ireland, this title is also shared with St Brigid and St Colmcille. Also known as St Columba, he was an abbot from County Donegal who traveled through Ireland teaching about Christianity. His teachings were said to be very forceful and caused some upset with one of the High Kings.

This resulted in him being exiled to Scotland where he continued his preaching. St Colmcille was recorded in the first reference to the legendary Loch Ness monster. Whilst crossing the Loch, the monster appeared and St Colmcille decreed “you will go no further, and won't touch the man; go back at once." Upon hearing the Saint’s voice, the monster fled and many locals are said to have converted to Christianity upon seeing this miracle.

The Banshee

One of the most well-known figures in Irish folklore, the Banshee is a harbinger of death. In days of old, a traditional part of funeral services was to have ‘keening’ women who would sing, weep and wail in lament of the lost family member. The Banshee was known to make herself heard in a similar way - a woman from the other world, the scream of the Banshee is a warning that there will be an imminent death in the family. The word banshee translates as ‘woman of the fairy mound’ and is thought to refer to the many fairy forts found across Ireland.

The Leprechaun

Would it even be St Patrick’s day if we didn’t mention the Leprechaun?! One of the fairy folk, usually depicted with a beard and dressed in a hat and suit – an image we have all come to know well, synonymous with Ireland and St Patrick’s day. A solitary and mischievous creature, leprechauns are traditionally cobblers who enjoy practical jokes at the expense of human folk. According to folklore if you capture a leprechaun you can claim his pot of gold but it is well known that they will try any means necessary to trick people out of being able to find their treasure. Although they may be considered folklore and legend, you will find many people still approach leprechauns and fairy folk with an air of trepidation and respect. In 2010 Slieve Foy mountains in Louth were granted official recognition from the EU to give protection to the leprechauns living in the area.

Irish mythology and folklore is a vast subject with many fascinating characters and stories that are still spoken about today. Although historically many were poorly documented (spoken word and song were the preferred way to pass myths and legends on) there are now many people recording stories of their elders and preserving these important parts of the Irish culture. There are hundreds of websites, blogs and podcasts with further information or try having a look for videos of ‘seanchaí’ who are not just professional storytellers but entertainers, reporters and historians.

For more Irish craic check out the following links:

Browse the Tales from the Other Side archive here


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