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Guide to Irish Folk Tales - all about the different types of stories found in Irish folklore.
Irish Folklore Beyond Leprechauns...
Irish fairy tales and folklore are populated with a wonderful collection of magical creatures and supernatural beings. Leprechauns are so famous they can sell breakfast cereal, and many people have heard the legend of the Banshee—but what about the rest? From the shapeshifting selkies to the mischievous pookas, and from lonely giants to the terrifying dullahan, these fascinating characters of Irish folklore deserve to be remembered and shared with future generations around the world.
Coming up in this article:
- Early celtic gods and goddesses
- Supernatural sea-folk
- Little people
- Harbingers of death
- Irish fairies in literature
Origins of Irish Folklore
From pre-Christian times until the end of the Middle Ages, one of the most important figures in Irish society was the seanachie or storyteller. These learned bards remembered and recited the great early-Irish myths where mortal warriors did battle with a variety of supernatural beings and deadly shape-shifters. These great battle sagas and love-tragedies were first written down by early-Christian monks despite the pagan way of life they depicted. Gradually these myths were replaced as Celtic customs mingled with Christianity, and the Irish grew a rich tradition of fairy tales based on nature spirits, giants, magical sea-folk, and dark figures that augured death. These figures became integrated with Christian tradition, believed to be fallen angels who weren't good enough for heaven but weren't bad enough for hell.
A wealth of superstitions surrounded these beliefs in supernatural beings—quite a few of which survived into the twentieth century. There are even one or two superstitions related to the fair-folk which are still practised on the island today. You can still sometimes see a tree standing alone in the middle of a ploughed field. These are fairy trees, and it is considered terrible bad luck to cut one down for the fairies that live there will curse you for destroying their home.
Early Gods and Goddesses
The pre-Christian celtic people of Ireland told tales of a supernatural race called the Tuatha de Danaan (the people of the Goddess Danu). There were gods of fertility, for example Dagda and his cauldron of abundance, and goddesses of war and destruction such as the Morrigan. Over the years many of these figures, beautiful fairy women, fierce warriors and master-craftsmen, began to merge with each other and some survived into the Christian era in a changed form. The Tuatha de Danaan were tall, luminous beings with a highly-developed society. When they lost the battle for the land of Ireland to a band of humans, they disappeared underground into the otherworld and only come back from time to time. It is hard to believe but they seem to have changed over many centuries into the sprites and fairies of more recent stories.
Selkies were the name the Irish gave to the shape-shifting people who live in the 'land under the sea' as seals, but who can shed their seal skin and emerge onto dry land in human shape. They were a beautiful people, known for their love of freedom - they couldn't be tied down. Various tales are told of a beautiful selkie woman who had her seal skin stolen by a lonely man who wanted her for a wife. Without her seal skin she was under her power, but as soon as she discovered the skin's hiding place she slipped it on and disappeared back to sea leaving husband and children behind her.
More familiar to a worldwide audience are the merrows , from the Irish 'muir oigh', meaning mermaid. These maidens had long red hair and their bottom half was a fishtail. Their songs are said to be irresistible to anyone who hears them, and they can lure boats onto dangerous rocks. They are also said to have occasionally married a land-dweller. In the early twentieth century, the poet and folklorist WB Yeats recorded that a woman in county Cork who had very scaly skin was known locally to be the descendant of a man and his merrow bride. The legend of the merrow has recently been revived in the Neil Jordan film Ondine where Colin Farrell pulls a strange and beautiful woman from the sea.
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While Ireland is well-known for its belief in the little-folk, it may come as some surprise to learn of the fondness of the Irish for tales of giants. 'Balor of the Evil Eye' was a giant who locked his own daughter in a tower and tried to kill his own grandson. But they weren't all cruel monsters - the giant Finn McCool was credited with building the Giant's Causeway and using his wits rather than violence to defeat a visiting Scottish giant. In the times before Irish people understood about the effect of the ice-age on the landscape, or the megaliths built by their ancient ancestors, stories about Giants explained how natural featues had been formed and why large stone structures could be found across the Irish landscape.
The Little People
Leprechauns are the most famous of the 'little people' outside of Ireland, but traditionally on the island the pooka was much more frequently sighted and had a much greater effect on how people lived their lives. Pookas are small fairies, feared and respected for their ability to cause harm and mischief. They come out at night and cause havoc around homes and farms. The pooka causes milk to curdle, frightens hens into stopping laying and will break property if he is not kept appeased. Pookas were kept happy by being offered a small portion of the harvest each year.
The fir dearg , or red man, is another solitary mischievous fairy said to dress always in a red coat and a red cap. The fear dearg was blamed for household accidents, and for bringing bad dreams at night.
Harbingers of Death
Most scary of all are those supernatural Irish creatures who are said to bring death in their wake. They evolved out of earlier legends of vengeful gods and goddesses who demanded human sacrifice. In Christian times they morphed into dark figures who foreshadowed a death.
The banshee is a direct descendant of the Celtic-triple goddess of death and destruction. Her name means fairy woman. She has never been seen but whoever hears her high and piercing shriek knows that they will die within 24 hours.This legend is dying away now in Ireland but still hangs on in rural areas - I have a friend who swears her great-uncle heard the banshee's cry the night before he died.
The dullahan is much less well-known but is even more scary. This headless horseman rides a black stallion across the countryside on certain nights of the year with his head held firmly in the crook of his arm. It is said that wherever the dullahan stops, someone will instantly die. This dark horseman does not warn of death, he brings it.
Irish Fairies in Literature
The Irish fairytale tradition has influenced many of the leading figures of English literature. For example, Jonathon Swift wrote Gullivers Travels while he was living in Ireland and it is likely he was influenced by the Irish storytelling tradition which had tales of both giants and little people. WB Yeats, the Nobel-laureate, wrote many poems inspired by Irish mythology and with his friend Lady Gregory he was instrumental in recording Irish folklore for posterity. JRR Tolkien was very familiar with Irish fairy tales as well as those of Scandinavia, and there is more than a hint of the Tuatha de Danaan in his depiction of the elves, while his 'black riders' are very reminiscent of the terrifying Irish dullahan.
It seems that however much we turn to modern entertainment, the forgotten Irish fairies will continue to live on, ever-changing, on the edge of our imaginations.
mark hawkins on February 07, 2020:
I have little people living in my trees plus a funny looking man 5 inches tall long white beard bald his fingers and toes aren't like ours there are thousands of orbs around with animals in them their are little monkeys in the trees to I have photos of all this stuff
Kierra on May 30, 2019:
What is the name of the red-haired fairy in the 1st image? Does she have a name and back story?
Wesley on February 19, 2018:
thanks for bringing sum back.
Leanan Sidhe, Lady worth the risk.
Dónal Óg on December 09, 2017:
Merrows were not mermaids, they had legs and could pass as humans and sometimes married humans. Wore sealskin.
chloe on August 30, 2017:
can anyone tell me where the faireys orginated from and why
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on December 15, 2015:
I'm glad you enjoy them!
myska on December 13, 2015:
You' ve got great articles...love to read them :-)
Will English on April 12, 2013:
Very cool and interesting hub. Always been interested in this sort of thing ^_^.
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on January 01, 2013:
You are not the first person to tell me they heard the banshee. Life can be full of mysteries....
ade on December 31, 2012:
Brought up on irish folklore by my mother unfortunately believe I heard the wailing of the banshee, didn,t realise at the time
night my mother passed away - so definitely believe. My
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on November 19, 2012:
Your Nana sounds like a strong-minded lady! Glad you enjoyed the hub...
Shining Irish Eyes from Upstate, New York on November 19, 2012:
Ah the wailing of the banshee! My beloved Irish Nana used to tell us the sound of the wind was really the wailing of the banshee's and if we weren't' good we would be introduced!
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on November 11, 2012:
Glad you enjoyed! Thanks for the feedback.
Nancy McGill from United States on November 10, 2012:
Very interesting, and thank you. Our family is Irish, and I love reading about the Irish people!
carolemarie from Upper Michigan on May 24, 2012:
I like this article, it helps me to know more about them and it is refreshing and enhancing to the part of the old believe..
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on May 23, 2012:
I am glad to bring back such memories!
James Hayes on May 23, 2012:
I come here to remember the stories I heard from the old folk of my family...It is like stepping back into mu youth...
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on April 27, 2012:
I certainly believe fairy tales can have an element of truth to them - whether they simply personify forces of nature, or whether the world really used to be a much more magical place....
whowas on April 27, 2012:
What a wonderful and beautifully written summary of Celtic faery lore. I wonder if you agree with the notion that the various faery forms are folk-memories of earlier, prehistoric divinities of nature?
flashmakeit from usa on February 06, 2012:
I start really liking fairies after I had a dream of a fairy in a large forest so I started painting fairies and my friends love them. Now I want to learn more about them so thanks for adding this.
Sam on September 06, 2011:
To the people that belive, its so much more than folklore its a way of life. Its more than just a story that has been told. Has anyone ever asked why they only still exsist in Ireland? Its cause they still believe and they still please these creatures decendant from their gods and goddesses. I am very pleased with having come from such a vast rich and magical culture and as for me I still believe.
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on April 14, 2011:
Glad you have enjoyed the hub. I have always found myths and folktales really inspiring - looking forward to writing some related articles in future!
Buddhist Hotdog on April 14, 2011:
I love myths, folktales, ghost stories... I like the 'harbingers of death' section, scary!
MMPG on March 16, 2011:
I, too, am a lover of Irish myth and folktales. I think the Selkie is one of the most interesting of the fairies. I love its depiction in The Secret of Roan Inish. Great info here.
arhaider3 from Lahore on March 06, 2011:
very good information
chspublish from Ireland on March 06, 2011:
It's great to see your piece on Irish faeries and such. Always loved the legends and myths - the stuff of dreams and story writing. you bring it all back. Thanks a mil.
Ghaelach on March 04, 2011:
Just love it. Like the Finn McCool story and the Selkies. I've got a giant Irish fairy tale for you. My next hub. LOL.
Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on March 04, 2011:
I agree. I feel really lucky to have grown up with these womderful, magical stories.
Casey Coulter from Wisconsin on March 03, 2011:
As an Irishmen myself I can't help but love the Irish histories and beliefs. They seem so imaginative and full of rich and well written history that it makes me wonder why I am yet to visit this vastly magnificent place of wonders that I have descended from. Great hub and thanks for sharing!
Stay Happy and True - Mylife
William Benner from Savannah GA. on March 03, 2011:
Cool hub...I just love Irish Myths!