There are many lessons to be learned from Celtic mythology. Here are some of the most important, along with a look at the protagonists of each story.
We all need a bit of an escape sometimes, and I’ve always found a sense of solace in curling up with a book of fairy tales in a window. There’s something about Celtic mythology that particularly warms my heart, as I’m reminded of my Irish heritage and the stories of my ancestors.
If you have kids, or are planning on having them in the future, you can also use this list as a jumping-off point on where to start with teaching them a little bit about Irish mythology.
But be aware: not all of these are child-friendly, unless you have older kids that are interested in spooky, disturbing stories. I’ll explain these pieces of Irish folklore to you and let your discernment guide the way.
Table of Contents
- Celtic Storytelling
- The Mythological Cycle
- The Ulster Cycle
- The Fenian Cycle
- The King Cycle
The Celts passed on their sagas and legends from one generation to the next through an oral storytelling tradition. Their stories were only written down around the 11th century when Irish monks starting recording the old stories and the Celtic way of life.
They probably recorded a more sanitized version of the tales, that did not carry the weight of the old Celtic religious beliefs.
These stories have origins all over the British Isles. However, Britain was ruled by Rome and many of these myths were suppressed by thier Roman conquerors. The Romans never made it to Ireland in far western Europe, so our old tales survived and flourished for centuries.
Celtic mythology is divided into four cycles; Mythological Cycle, Ulster Cycle, Fenian Cycle,and Kings Cycle.
Celtic myths come from several regions all over the British Isles and France. Most of the tales originate in Ireland, but additional sources are found in Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittany, the old Celtic nations.
The Mythological Cycle
This cycle of stories is the most ancient and therefore is remembered in less detail. Many of these stories were preserved by an oral tradition, whereby legends were not written down, but were told and retold to pass them down from generation to generation.
Some of these stories were written down by Irish monks between the 10th and 14th centuries. The Leabhar Gabhála Érenn (pronounced louw-ur gah-wall-ah ehr-in) means the Book of Invasions. This is not one specific manuscript, but a collection of legends, poems and prose that tell the legends surrounding the origins of the Irish people.
The Mythological Cycle consists of tales of gods and supernatural events, stories about successful settlements of the early Celtic godlike people in Ireland, such as the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Fir Bolg and the Milesians. Many of these people arrived in Ireland from Europe.
The Tuatha Dé Danann
The Tuatha dé Danann (pronounced too-ah day dahn-un) was a magical race who ruled Ireland with supernatural powers. They were god-like creatures and divine beings.
Their name means the Tribe of the Goddess Danu. She was an ancient Irish goddess who was often referred to as the mother.
The Dagda belonged to this race, and he was the god of life and death in ancient Ireland. In Irish myths he is portrayed as a father-figure, a king, and a druid and was known as the good God. He is assinged many attributes and is associated with fertility, strength, magic and wisdom.
The Morrigan was the Goddess of War, and Lugh was a Celtic warrior king and god of justice, oath keeping, and nobility. Many of the Celtic gods were members of this ancient tribe of Ireland.
The Fir Bolg
When the Tuath Dé Danann first came to Ireland, they found the Firbolgs were already there and ruled the land.
The name Fir Bolg means men of bags, but when I was in school in Ireland we learned that the name came from the words fir meaning men and bolg meaning belly or tummy.
The Fir Bolg and the Tuatha Dé Danann fought over Ireland and they fought on a few occasions.
I learned that the Firbolgs were finally defeated on the border of Counties Cork and Limerick in a place called Glenanaar. The name in Irish is Gleann an Áir which means Valley of Slaughter.
My father told us this story since he grew up in this valley, but I can find no supporting literature for this little bit of local Cork folklore.
After the battle the two races decided to split Ireland between them. The Firbolgs were only given Connacht, which is the Irish province west of the Shannon and the rest of Ireland was settled by the magical Tuath Dé Danann.
The Fomorians are another supernatural race that are said to have settled Ireland. They had a complex relationship with the Tuath Dé Danann, and were said to have been hostile giants and sea raiders.
The Celtic Goddess of the Horses
Macha is a part of Celtic religious tradition. She is a goddess with three parts - the name Macha can both refer to all three parts, or just one of the three goddesses. She has many other names in Irish mythology. Epona, the horse goddess, was linked to fertility, water, and death. The other two goddesses are named Morrígan and Nemain.
The Morrigan was the Goddess of War and was believed to hover over a battlefield taking the form of a crow or a black raven. When the mighty warrior Cú Chulainn died, tied to a rock, it is said that a raven landed on his shoulder.
This three-part divine figurehead paved the way for Saint Patrick to explain the Trinity to Irish people using a three-leaf shamrock. However, the goddesses had much different ways than the God of Catholicism, and their historical contexts in ancient tradition were very distinct. Their triune nature was the main similar factor.
The Children of Lir
One of the most popular stories from this Mythological Cycle is that of the Children of Lir. This is a sad tale and one that we loved as children.
The children of King Lir get turned into swans by their wicked step mother. The queen gets banished from the kingdom for refusing to reverse the curse, and the king comes to the lake every day to talk with his children, who swim on the waters. They remain as swans for 900 years.
Eventually, the king dies, and the children spend 300 years on Lake Derravaragh, 300 years on the Sea of Moyle and 300 years on Inis Glora. After 900 years they turn back into humans at the sound of church bells.
They are then baptized by a priest, and die shortly thereafter, and go to be with the souls of their parents. Swan Lake is rumored to have been based on this legend.
Irish folk tales would not be the same without faeries! They are rumored to dwell among us in the human world, and there are many different types, including the leprechaun, clurichaun, aos sí, changelings, banshees, púca, merrow, and selkie.
The faeries are believed to be the Tuatha Dé Danann. These mystical rulers of Ireland were defeated by the Milesians. The God of the Sea, Manannán Mac Lir, led them to the underworld, shielded by a great mist. They became the fairy folk of Ireland.
These faeries are very different from what you likely think of when you think of faeries. Several of them are very dark and dangerous, and the myths surrounding them can be frightening for sensitive children.
If you like horror, you might like reading about them! While some, like selkies, are cute and approachable, others, like banshees, are scary.
The Legend of the Banshee
Banshees are a type of faerie that are truly horrifying. They are frightening in appearance, and they are harbingers of death with magical powers.
Each Irish family is said to have its own banshee, and when someone in the family is going to die, the banshee shows up and screams, or keens.
The Ulster Cycle
The Ulster Cycle is set between the years of the first century BC and the first century AD.
These stories change from a focus on magic and god like people to warriors and great kings who wage war and bring sorrow.
Connor Mac Nessa and the Red Branch Knights
Connor was the King of Ulster around the time of Christ. He lived in County Armagh at Eamhain Mhacha or Navan Fort. In the Irish language his name is Conchobar Mac Nessa.
His army consisted of highly trained warriors known as the Red Branch Knights.
The most famous knight of all was Naoise (pronounced Nee-sha) one of the Sons of Uisneach. Deirdre of the Sorrows, who was promised in marriage to Conor, fell in love with the handsome Naoise. They ran away to Scotland and lived together there for seven years.
The jealous King of Ulster, Connor tracked them down and tragedy ensued. Naoise and his brothers were killed, and Deirdre was forced to marry Connor Mac Nessa. In the end, she took her own life by throwing herself out of a moving carriage.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley
If action and adventure are more your taste, The Cattle Raid of Cooley, also known as Táin Bo Cuailnge, is for you. It is part of the Ulster Cycle.
The Cooley Peninsula is in modern day County Louth, which is known as the land of legends.
This is a thrilling war story inspired by Irish history that’s known as the national epic of Ireland, or the Irish Iliad.
It is full of many Irish tales, and it follows the story of Cú Chulainn and Queen Medb or Maeve of Connacht. The whole tale revolves around Queen Maeve's desire to own the Brown Bull of Cooley, the greatest bull in all of Ireland.
A long war between Connacht and Ulster ensues and the brave warrior of Ulster, Cú Chulainn, fights to retain the bull in Ulster. He is one of the greatest heroes in Irish legends.
This ancient tale is such a famous story in Irish culture that it has stood the test of time.
The Fenian Cycle
The Fenian Cycle fetures stories of great giant warriors and protectors of Ireland known as the Fianna (pronounced fee-ann-ah).
These men were a group of nomadic warriors who lived to hunt and to fight. Their leader was Fionn Mac Cumhaill which becomes Finn Mac Cool in the anglicized version. He is the central character in the Fenian Cycle of ancient Irish stories.
Finn MacCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill in Irish) is one of the most prominent characters in Irish mythology, which makes him a great starting point. He is an Irish warrior, and one of the top Irish myths about him is the story of how he got his amazing wisdom.
He was cooking the salmon of knowledge, an Irish mythical figure, for his master. The first person to taste the salmon was said to recieve it's ancient wisdom. Finn burned his thumb, so he put his thumb in his mouth and received the salmon’s knowledge. From then on out, if he needed help with any issue, he would put his thumb in his mouth to know the answer.
Finn McCool is the center of many myths. For example, the Giant’s Causeway is said to have been created by Finn when he built a bridge to Scotland with his supernatural powers.
Oisín in Tír na nÓg
Finn's son Oisín (pronounced Usheen) fell in love with a golden haired woman he met one day. She belongs to the Otherworld, and when they fall in love she brings him to the land of youth called Tír na nÓg (pronounced tear nah no-gh), riding on a magical horse that can travel over water.
Oisín believes he spends only three years away from Ireland, and when he grows homesick he returns to Ireland on the magical horse. Niamh warns him not to set foot on Irish soil and to remain on the horse.
Oisín is dismayed to find he has been away from Ireland for 300 years and all of the Fianna have passed away. He falls off his horse and quickly ages. However, he meets Saint Patrick who baptizes him before he passes away.
The King Cycle
The King Cycle is probably the least well known collection of Irish stories. It is sometimes referred to as the Historical Cycle.
These stories focus on the fate of different kings and rulers, and the realms that they ruled. The prosperity of a kingdom or realm was dependent on the qualities of the King.
The most famous characters in this cycle are Cormac Mac Airt, Niall of the Nine Hostages, and Áine (pronounced Awe-n-yah). It even includes stories of Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland who defeated the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf.
We'll explore these characters and more Celtic and Irish myths at a later date.
I hope you found this little synopsis of Celtic mythology to be a good starting point as you explore some of our traditional Irish myths and legends.
Where do you recommend starting with Celtic mythology?
Do you have a favorite Irish legend?
Which character intrigues you the most? Let us know in the comment section below.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Mairéad -Irish American Mom
Pronunciation - slawn ah-gus ban-ock-th
Mairéad - rhymes with parade