Mythical Beasts of Ireland
With more Folklore and Mythology than your divorced Uncle has power ballad CDs, Ireland is an absolute cultural behemoth.
Ireland's cultural contributions are felt the world over, and this relatively small island has made a huge contribution to the arts globally, with Joyce, Stoker, Wilde, Rice, The Cranberries, Thin Lizzy, Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones, Moran et al. That's just my list, and it's the short version. We eagerly await Blindboy's amazing podcast each week, we could listen to Eddie Lenihan share his stories indefinitely, and when in need of some classic comfort viewing, Father Ted is top of the list. We all have our lists, and we are all in some small or great way changed by the cultural impact of Ireland.
After creating the Scotland map a follow-up Ireland map had to be done. During our initial release, we had so much love and support from Ireland, we hoped one day we'd be creating Ireland its very own map. It's always a joy to revisit the Irish myths that are so Iconic around the world, you realise how familiar some of the stories are, and how warped some of the others have become. It is one of the few remaining places where myth still feels close to the surface. The aforementioned Eddie Lenihan made global news when he stopped a whitethorn tree being cut down to make way for a new road, the tree itself was said to be sacred to the Aos Sí. Unlike the modern chocolate tin images of tinkerbellesque sparkly homunculi, the fair folk are prone to a bit of revenge, trickery, and abduction. They do not suffer an offense quietly, sites, where forts have been removed, are often blamed for an inordinate amount of road "accidents". There is so much more to Irish mythology than Leprechauns, Banshees, and Fairies, come dive into the map with us and hear about a handful of the many creatures we learned about.
We hope you enjoy the new map, and if you would like to pick up a copy, prints are available here.
So let's dive into the creatures!
Some say Dwarf, some say generally deformed, he may have been magic, or, he may have been under the effects of magic, either way, he was a complete and utter git. A cruel and wicked chieftain, he fell to his death trying to pursue his wife whom he suspected of cheating. It sounds like she probably had her reasons. I have heard a couple of versions of this story, some saying he fell to his death following his wife, others that the villages got rival chieftain Cathán to do him in, either way, Cathán will be making further appearances with the sole goal of whupping Abhartach. The villagers though presumably glad of Mr. Irish Napoleon complexes demise, buried him upright. Not taking the hint that he was dead, he rose from the grave and demanded a bowl of blood from the villagers. Unlike many people who gain some wisdom or compassion through a near-death experience, Abhartach skipped right through near-death, via dead-dead, and right back to undead. Learning nothing along the way. Understandably perturbed the villagers asked Cathán if he'd defend his undefeated title in a rematch. Cathán was game, He sought the advice of a local wise druid. He advised him, but warned him of the slight problem that Abhartach could not be killed, He could be put in a state of suspension though. He had to be killed with a wooden sword made from a Yew tree, and upping the specificity and edging into niche burial territory, he was to be buried upside down with thorns surrounding the grave and a big old stone on top of it. This did the job, you can still visit this site today and the legend says if the stone is removed Abhartach will return. Like there isn't enough going on.
You don't get many of them around these parts. Quite simply a triple-headed dragon that laid waste to Ireland on an annual basis the night before Samhain during the 8th and 9th centuries, before being killed to death by warrior-poet Amairgin mac Eccit. "Warrior-poet" is the title all men with our insecure little egos would like to be known by, though ranting is not considered poetry and the only thing most of us have ever vanquished is a family-sized bag of Doritos, we kicked its arse though.
Sitting on the hillside of a fairy fort playing his pipes he beckons his unfortunate victim to him. One of the most powerful and feared fairies, advisor to the midnight court, known as the black/greatest/grievous fool and the high jester. You hope that you never feel his touch, for it is the fairy wind and causes strokes and madness.
"Why is its back adhesive? Why is it running towards the water? Why is it hoof stomping me and chomping on my face?" Some very relevant questions from an ex-person who thought it was a good idea to climb onto that gnarley looking horse. We say it time and time again if you see a random horse, best not climb on it, just don't do it. Like the Each-Usige, Kelpie, Mourioche, Ech Goblin, and pretty much every mythical horse ever, it is gonna mess you up, and use you to dye the water a pleasing red colour. Having said all that. If you manage to capture a male and breed it with a regular less murderous horse, you will create the finest horses in all the land *cue harp sound*. The only slight downside is that they need feeding a constant diet of raw meat, this is probably going to turn your stables into a house of horrors, as well as running up quite a bill with your local butcher.
OK, I confess. The Cailleach is more akin to a goddess, a divine hag, but we love the Cailleach. She is attached to many locations you can visit, looks otherworldly, is associated with calendar events, and in some stories even married some of the mythical beasts from our other maps, looking at you you Bodach, you sly old dog. She is responsible for bringing the winter, Samhain onwards is her time. If you live in Scotland or Ireland where she is divinity, you can understand why she is so important, anything to make the cold and rain stop. An interesting tradition is watching the weather on the 1st of February, if it is bright and sunny then you are in for a long winter as she has switched the lights on to go search for more firewood, if it's cold and stormy, winter will soon be over as she has slept in. This tradition emigrated to America and is the foundation of Groundhog day. No one can say how the Cailleach feels about being replaced by a marmot, I imagine it's got to sting a little, the godly equivalent of "a monkey could do your job".
Offspring of the all-devouring sow, who guards the gates of hell, and nursed by the red demon of the west, Cathach never stood a chance. I mean what do you do with an upbringing like that? She wasn't a looker either - A scaly back, a boar bristle mane, a big gaping mouth which you could see down to her entrails, one eye, her belly a furnace, iron claws that sparked, a whales tail tipped with iron that plowed furrows wherever she went. I mean what do you do with that? The chances of developing into a fully functioning, well-adjusted member of society are slim to none. Oh and her siblings were slain, the receipt from the therapist just gets longer and longer. So Cathach did what any large horrendous she-dragon/beast with a worrying upbringing and a pretty rubbish present would do, destroy everything you possibly can. Notably, she decided to go full Godzilla around the Shannon estuary smashing up ships, buildings, and just about anything else that looked breakable. An added cheeky bonus for Cathach was when the 3 brothers who had killed her siblings returned, they saw the carnage unleashed and threw themselves into the sea in despair. It's all coming up Cathach. This is the most male response ever from our 3 heroes, kill a couple of unearthly terrifying beasts - no worries, have a tidy up, and invest some time to rebuild something - Nah, group suicide sounds much more preferable. If only someone had told them defeating Cathach was easy peasy. As usual at this point with any dragon type, a saint shows up, this time Saint Senan, who asked the Cathach to leave in peace and harm no one anymore, then made the sign of the cross right up in the beast's grill. Amazingly this worked. Was she baptised, born again, found comfort in forgiveness, just glad to call it a day? who knows, but this was the anti-climactic end of Cathach.
Children of Lir
This is far too long of a story to recount in a paragraph. But it has it all, kings, metamorphosis, wicked mothers, magic, tragedy, revenge, demons, prophecy, a bit more tragedy, and finishing up with just a smidgen of god. I don't want to delve into this as it's worth a proper read.
I mean the title "queen of the banshees" is enough isn't it. You S.O.B I'm in! I mean in terms of finding things to include on a map, this is a home run, an auto-include. Apart from the Leprechaun (getting to that soon), Banshees have to be the most famous Irish legend. You could say fairies, but they are far more universal. Clíodhna is a complex figure, if being the queen of the banshees wasn't enough, she has so many stories and details about her that are fascinating. We'll get into one as it's a goodie and can be touched on briefly. The Blarney Stone. We've all heard of the Blarney Stone, right? The stone that you kiss and you receive the ability to deceive without offending. Super useful, superfamous, cat-nip to touristsy, and I'm sure not an easy way of contracting herpes. When McCarthy was building his castle in Cork he ran up against some legal troubles, what these are, who knows, the planning regulations regarding the construction of castles are unknown to us, and it could have easily been something totally unrelated, like murder or a speeding ticket. Anyway, Clíodhna appears to him in a dream and tells him to kiss the first rock he sees in the morning. I mean everyone has got their thing, and if that's what you're into fair enough I guess. He does so and finds he manages to silver tongue his way out of trouble the next day in court. To honor Clíodhna, and because you don't just give up a bit of rock that gets you out of legal trouble, he had it built into the castle. The Blarney Stone is still a draw for thousands of tourists, and I'm sure it is not in the slightest a pain in the arse to write a covid risk assessment for.
When you think of Leprechauns you are probably thinking of an amalgamation of a Leprechaun and a Clurichaun. Clurichauns are your drunk chaotic ones, they frequent pubs, wine cellars, and breweries. An absolute Dickens after a few, and a straight-up liability after a few dozen, he will drink you dry given the chance and mess with your staff and patrons in the process. The Clurichaun had a fierce temper, not only do they demand all your hooch but food as well, and if you don't there will be trouble. The Clurichaun is not a good drunk, and he may be a laugh for a couple but soon enough he will become that guy you avoid drinking with ever again.
For never was a story of more woe than this of Dearg Due and her Romeo. Yes, it's a tragic tale with a good old smattering of revenge thrown in. Before she became the Dearg Due she was just your run-of-the-mill "fairest in all the land" village girl, with skin as white as snow, lips like rubies, etc. Despite being a straight-up smoke show, she hadn't let it go to her head and was as beautiful inside as she was on the outside. She's a keeper. Suitors traveled from far and wide seeking her hand, but being the humble lass she was, she had fallen in love with a local peasant lad and they wished to be wed and have some children. Enter stage right some old school god awful men to ruin it all. Firstly her greedy Dad, who realising all these men wanted his daughter, gave her away to whoever could pay the highest "bride price". Predictably the rich guy was a weapons-grade butthole and employed his own fairy tale cliche of locking her away in a tower. He was said to be abusive, delighting in harming her. She had hoped and prayed her sweet pauper boy would find a way to come and save her. Alas, he couldn't. Losing all hope she lost the will to live, stopped eating, died, and was buried modestly. No one really mourned her, her family too busy counting their newly acquired cash, and her abusive husband already married to wife number 2. The only person who mourned her passing was the village boy with whom she was in love with. He visited her grave every day, praying, pleading, crying for his love to return. And what would you know she did! But not from and twee notions of love, oh no, no, no, she was returned by the equally all-encompassing emotions of hatred and revenge. She made her way to her father's house and asked to be let in (we know what we're dealing with here right) when inside she drained all the air from his body and proceeded to settle up with her ex. The story differs here, some sources saying she encountered him whilst staggering around on one hell of a drinking session, others saying he was at their home surrounded by women "fulfilling his debauched desires", either way, he was clearly having a better time of it than she was. She not only drains him of all the air in his body but all the blood as well *the crowd goes wild. The Rocky theme tune plays*. At this point, we're all on side, happy for a bit of revenge, glad the villains of the piece got their comeuppance, happy for our protagonist's closure, but as happens so much in life, it's easy to have a couple and get carried away. She goes on a good old fashion seduce and kill, luring men in with her beauty and feeding on their blood.
Like a fuzzy terminator that just wants to eat your face, the Dobhar Chu is fast, cunning, able to cover tremendous distances on land or water, and if you do manage to kill it, it will emit a high pitched shriek notifying it's emergency contact to stalk and kill you at a later convenient time.
The stories of the Dullahans are varied, the common theme being dead and headless. They vary in degrees of importance and malevolence, some enjoying a simple old-timey game of head bowling or knocking on your door and throwing a bowl of blood in your face, fun times! Others are a warning of your death and pull the death coach along with their headless horses. The most common image of the Dullahan is that of a headless rider, barreling through the countryside, when he stops he will call a name, whoever's name this is will soon die. The Dullahans appearance, history, and role have changed over time and locales, he is a fascinating character and worth looking up as there are so many fun details that would take too long to get into here.
Werewolves in Irish folklore are far more complex than they are elsewhere. Sometimes they are entirely benign and helpful even, others are fierce and violent. The most famous region for werewolves is the old kingdom of Ossory. The werewolves of Ossory were cursed to live as wolves for 7 years and if they survived, they would return to human form, and another from Ossoroy would take their place for 7 years, and so on. The main story told centers around a priest who encounters a wolf who asks him to deliver the last rights to his dying wife, perplexed by the talking wolf he follows him to see what is going on, the wolf leads the priest to another wolf who lays dying, with a paw the male wolf pulls back his dieing partners wolf skin to reveal a fragile elderly woman at death's door, the priest delivers the rights and she passes, her soul saved. Another popular tale is of Laignech Fáelad who was the leader of a band of warriors, he was known to go "wolfing" and savaging local herds. He was the originator of a fearsome lineage of warriors in Ossoroy who could transform into wolves and devour people.
One of the many deadly fairies of Ireland, Far Liath controls fogs and mists and delights in leading people over clifftops or sinking ships. He goes by different names all over Ireland, and has some similarities to the Grey Man in Scotland, though he has far more mythos and stories surrounding him. There have been questions as to whether sightings are caused by the phenomena of a "Brocken spectre", and whether the speight of current sightings is in any way connected to the local shop lad's vape breaks.
A fetch is a ghostly double of a living person, and you guessed it, a portent of their impending demise. Fascinatingly sometimes the fetch displays the marks of how you will die, so if your Fetch appears headless, in the words of the Wu-Tang Clan "protect ya neck".
The Fomorians were the enemies of the first race of people to inhabit Ireland, the Tuatha Dé Danann. Whilst the Tuatha Dé Danann represented all that good stuff like nature, arts, and fertility, the Fomorians represented death, drought, and disease. Originally thought of as evil spirits that would rise from the underworld to cause bad vibes, they later became actual monsters, and after that a kind of pirate/monster/Viking mashup.
Confusingly Irish mythology contains 2 Lí Bans, we will be focussing on the mermaid one tied to the creation of Lough Neagh. Lí Ban lived in a house with her family quite happily until a spring inconsiderately burst up through their house and created Lough Neagh, drowning her family in the process. Lí Ban survived in an underwater chamber for a year slowly changing into a half salmon mermaid, her beloved lapdog transforming into an otter. The dog detail make it for me. She was then free to roam the sea for 300 years, how she knew she had 300 years we don't know, maybe mermaids just know these things, like an internal doom clock. She was discovered by the passing saint in a boat (St Comgall) and asked him to baptize her, sacrificing her longevity for a Christian soul. She was brought ashore, baptized, and died immediately, bringing our immediate post baptism deaths up to 2.
It's your boy, the OG, the reigning champion of exported Irish mythology, the one, and only, Leprechaun. Despite their popularity, they are only a tiny part of Irish folklore, Leprechauns are rarely mentioned throughout Irelands mythos, and what we think of when we think of a leprechaun is usually wrong. Traditionally they wore red, green being the colour of the trouping fairies. The earliest mention of a Leprechaun is in Medieval times when they are dragging Fergus mac Léti into the sea, he then captures them and is granted 3 wishes in exchange for their release. Fergus should have chosen his words better, as far as I can tell his 3 wishes could have been made into 1. He wished to be able to breathe underwater in seas, pools, and lakes, I mean come on Fergus, if you had just shut up after the word "underwater" you'd have 2 more wishes in the bank. It wouldn't do him much good anyway, making wishes with mythical beings has a tendency to blow up in your face anyway. They gave him only 1 place this ability shouldn't be used, and inevitably Fergus munched down on that forbidden fruit like a scurvy-ridden dying sailor. This is when he encounters Muirdris, but we'll get back to that. There are elements of truth in what we believe about Leprechauns though these came later, they may be in possession of gold and could cobble the living daylights out of some fancy-ass brogues.
This is one of the many terms used for a mermaid, and potentially our favorite, it just has a nice sound to it. Let's not get too over the top here, the world is full of thousands of merrow/ mermaid stories, they endure and are one of the most popular mythical creatures of all time, so we needn't ladle it on too thick. Croker played a large part in laying down the format of Irish myth, giving us the most information regarding creatures like the Merrow and Dullahan. Merrows were said to be stunningly beautiful maidens from the waist up, with a green scaly tail from the waist down, quite often they had green hair which they loved to comb, and often had a thin membrane between their fingers. They have many similarities with Selkies in terms of coming onto land and marrying, like the Selkie wives they make the best partners but eventually, the lure of the sea will be too great. Another similarity between Merrow and Selkie wives is the theft of the clothing item allowing them to transform by their new, over-possessive husbands. In the case of the Selkie, their seal skin, with the merrow their red cap.
So here we are back with Fergus mac Léti, doing the one thing he was asked not to do as part of his 3 (or 1 badly worded wish). Fergus is getting into Dundrum Bay. Where shock horror, he encounters a reason to have heeded the terms and conditions of his magical abilities - Muirdris. Huge, shapeless, inflating, and deflating like bellows, with long bramble like tendrils. It doesn't go well for Fergus and his mouth ends up on the back of his head. Ireland of old not being super progressive, and having unrealistic beauty standards for rulers, would not allow a king with a blemish, so mouth on the back of your head is a no starter. Fortunately, Fergus has a loyal following, and they do what any solid mate would do in this scenario, they hide all mirrors and keep the charade going for 7 years. Fergus wins the award for least self-aware man in Ireland. The illusion is shattered when after whipping a slave, she decides to inflict a bit of pain herself and reveal the truth, Fergus rewards this remarkable act of brave honesty by chopping her in 2. And within a minute we lose any sympathy for Fergus. After an appetiser of chopping up women he has enslaved, he decides to have a word with himself and direct his anger towards his actual enemy, He goes to fight Muirdris. The battle lasts a night and a day before Fergus emerges holding Muirdris's head, victory is short-lived as he dies on the spot from exhaustion. Slave girls rejoice, Leprechauns say "well, we told you", and his mates dust off the mirrors and let the light back in.
Well, it looks like what you think it would look like, a cyclops bunny with one big red eye that will stop you dead in your tracks before it dives back into the underworld. There isn't a whole lot to say about it. Hares feature regularly in folklore and in Ireland are usually connected to the otherworld. Tricksters and witches would assume the form of hares, so it was considered very bad luck to harm them, especially before dawn.
Like a griffin or chimera, the Onchú is a bit of a pick-and-mix creature. They are separated into 2 forms, the Enfield and the Alphyn, on our map we have the Enfield variety made up of the head of a fox, the chest of a greyhound, the forelegs of an eagle, and the rear legs and tail of a wolf. They are a heraldic creature only used 3 times in known history and mainly associated with the O'Kelly family of Ireland. When their ancestor Tadhg Mór Ua Cellaigh fell in battle fighting the Dane invaders in 1003 it is said an Enfield rose out of the water to protect his body until it could receive a proper burial. Who's a good boy? the Enfields a good boy, yes he is.
Ireland is famous for its serpent myths, and do you think it was flimsy little snakes that St Patrick was driving out? Sweet child, Ireland had much bigger serpent problems than that. They are the Irish dragons, often associated with waters or bogs, and like a lot of truly old dragon motifs were more often associated with venom than fire, though some could do both, and I'm sure they felt very special because of it. A couple of noteworthy dragons are the Oilliphéist who was initially pretty chill, but lost her chill significantly when she heard about some saint going round offing her sisters, Oilliphéist decided to swallow a piper, rather irritatingly the piper kept playing, she spat him back out and just got out of Ireland carving the Shannon estuary on her way. Another of note is Lig-na-Paiste, the last of the great reptiles of Ireland, who even managed to outlast St Patrick, and that fellow was tenacious. Unfortunately, when it comes to dragons there seems to be a never-ending supply of clerical cannon fodder to throw at them, this time it was St Murrough. Lig-na-Paiste was nowhere near as mellow as the Oilliphéist and just loved smashing stuff up, eating whole herds of cattle, scorching villages, and generally keeping it 100 (by dragon standards). Anyway, through various trickery involving turning reeds into iron through prayer, St Murrough traps Lig-na-Paiste and banishes him to the bottom of Lough Foyle where he is to this day. There are other great dragon stories from Ireland and it is well worth a bit of your time and a dig.
Mary Hannigan was her name, being a unit was her game. Mary was over 6ft tall and well built, could out labour any guy on the farm by day and outdrink them at night. She also loved to dance and there was no match here either except for one man, whom she married. One day after a wedding there was drinking and dancing and Mary was cheered on to dance, she obliged but as she was twirling around the dance floor her dress got snagged and came off, earning her the nickname 'petticoat loose', as you can imagine she wasn't a fan of this and would lay a good wallop on the head of anyone brave or stupid enough to say it in her earshot. One year, and one suspiciously vanished husband later Mary was getting her drink on with the other workmen when she was challenged to show off her drinking prowess (a gallon should do it) she downed the gallon, began to gloat, then dropped dead. Years later she began to be spotted around the village, people believing she had become a witch. Her most famous escapade was when she tried to hitch a ride in a cart, the driver wanting none of that, tried ignoring her, but she jumped on anyway. To punish the chap she said "I have one tonne in this hand", the cart slowed, she raised her other hand "I have one tonne in this hand", the horse slowed more, repeat this process for both legs and once more for the belly and what you are left with is a dead horse, a shocked man, and a laughing Mary. Sick of her nonsense the villagers got a priest involved and he banished her to Bay Lough until she could empty it with a thimble. That should give her time to calm down.
Rostons sea serpent
Sir Arthur Henry Rostron was the captain of the Carpathia, the ship that raced to save survivors of the titanic making him a global hero and earning him a knighthood and a congressional medal. Despite his standing, he wasn't afraid to talk out on his belief in sea serpents and even sighted one in the flesh.
We've talked about Selkies many times before, we aren't going to get into it again. But given we are talking about Irish Selkies we will recommend the rather excellent Irish film "Song of the sea" it is moving, and visually stunning, just watch it. No arguing, run along now.
saint colmans ducks
In a pond that supplied a well, lived St Colman's ducks, they were friendly and pleasant enough creatures, but their ability to survive is what makes them so special. Said to be under the saint's protection they lived on for generations beyond the passing of their saint. On a dark night, someone was sent to fetch water for the pot, they traveled down to the pond and scooped up a duck with the water, unaware of this the contents were thrown into the pot, no matter how the wood was stacked or how the fire was coaxed and cajoled the water would stay cold until the person realised there was a happy enough duck swimming around in their would-be soup and returned the bird. There are further stories of their nonchalant dodging of death, notably by choking foxes that try to eat them and kites dropping dead when attempting to do similar.
salmon of knowledge
A hazelnut falls from each of the 9 trees surrounding the well of wisdom, a salmon ignores all his previous dietary urges and eats them, it gains the whole world's knowledge, so should now know what a salmon is doing eating hazelnuts. Now in turn, if someone can eat that salmon they will gain all that tasty, tasty, knowledge. The poet Finn Eces spent 7 years trying to catch the salmon before succeeding, he passed the fish to his servant Fionn (yes that Fionn) to cook it, but under no circumstance to eat it, not even a nibble. Fionn obliged and cooked the salmon turning it over and over and then tested to see if it was cooked by poking it with his thumb. Well, what would you know, his thumb got burnt and when he sucked on it to ease the pain he got the knowledge. Finn was surprisingly sound about this and gave the rest of the salmon to Finn to eat, despite spending 7 years trying to catch this thing. 7 years! Sushi had not yet caught on in Ireland and if it had this entire thing could have been avoided.
Another big old beast, and here comes another saint to kill it. For peaceful men of god, these lads aren't afraid to get down and dirty. Suileach the many-eyed was one such beast, ginormous and covered in eyes. St Colmcille took a local chieftain with him to slay this one, when the beast erupted from its cave the chieftain legged it, leaving the saint to go it alone. It was going well, he had chopped the beast in half. Victory was short-lived though, the beast wrapped its tail around him whilst the head advanced chomping away. St Colmcille dug deep, bust out of the restraint, and gave the beast a few more jabs with the pointy end until the job was done. In particular un saint-like behaviour he then hunted the chieftain down and decided to put him to death. The chieftain knowing he was no match for a warrior saint submitted on one condition, that he cleans the blade first. As he cleaned the blade and the water washed away all the blood downstream, Colmcille's anger flowed away with it and he spared the chieftain's life. It just goes to show how powerful mindfulness can be, the simple act of washing up can be enough to stop you from murdering those who have wronged you.
I hope you enjoyed our walkthrough of the creatures on our latest map. Well done for making it this far, we hope you enjoyed it and have some new creatures to look into.