While the small island of Ireland only typically comes to our minds once or twice a year when we’re celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, Ireland is a country filled with a rich history, mythology and lore. Some of the western world’s best known superstitions are traced back to Ireland, and much of the world celebrates Irish traditions without even realizing their roots.
There’s much more to Ireland than shamrocks, leprechauns, and beer. In fact, thanks to the Celts and the Druids, Ireland has a wealth of different myths and folklore that are both delightful and terrifying.
But are these myths and legends all a sham, or is there some truth behind the lucky shamrock? There is a saying that every truth has a bit of fairy tale, and every fairytale has a bit of truth. And when it comes down to it, all of these myths and legends are based in some glimmer of truth.
Whether you’re a big celebrator of St. Patrick’s Day, have Irish roots, or you’re just intrigued by the mysterious country’s lore and history, the country’s myths and legends have something to teach everyone.
10. Selkies and Mermaids
Mermaids aren’t just the center of Disney stories and legends. Mermaids are believed to inhabit the Irish coastline, often leading sailors to their deaths by luring them with their singing voices. Or, if you have a good mermaid on your hands, then they would deter sailors away from the deadly rocks. For centuries, there have been tales of sailors seeing mermaids from their ships and from the beach.
Then there are selkies, which are similar to the mermaid legend – but they were seals by day, and humans by night. It was common to hear of men marrying selkies in their human form after falling in love with their beauty. Even though these selkies got married, they would always yearn for the sea, but were unable to return because of their captors. If they were released, they would never stray too far from home and constantly watch over their human families from the ocean.
It’s believed this myth came about as a way to warn intrepid voyagers about the dangers of the sea and the coastline; it’s beautiful, but dangerous if you get too close.
9. Finn McCool
Finn McCool, or Fion mac Cumhail, is an Irish hunter with mythological origins who is believed to be responsible for shaping Ireland into what it is today. Sometimes believed to have been a giant, Finn was adopted by a female Druid named Bodhmall and a female warrior named Laith. So, Finn was raised with Druid roots and learned the ways of magic. With his mighty size and strength, it is written that Finn stood at over 52 feet tall and shaped the coastlines by hand.
Finn was victorious in numerous battles, as well as getting married and having his own children. While there is no record of Finn’s death, it is believed that he actually faded away into the Otherworld, and never really died. His entire life story is a fascinating one and his mythological dealings with magic set the foundation for Ireland’s magic, mythology and lore.
There is no fairy in Ireland more feared than the puca, or pooka. It’s a fairy that only comes out at night and takes the form of a black horse with yellow eyes. When the puca comes into town, it takes on the form of a short goblin and goes to each house in the village, demanding a share of the crop – the puca’s share. If someone refused, the puca would come back in the night and vandalize the property, preventing hens from laying eggs and cows giving milk and stealing horses.
Of course, this could have been a way of trying to explain vandalism in a small village where everyone is believed to be innocent. But given that there are documented sightings of the puca among several different towns, far apart, it’s possible that this legend holds quite a bit of truth.
7. The Black Nun
Anyone who lives in the town of Ballycastle knows the legend of Julia McQuillan, also known as “The Black Nun”, who lived in the Bonamargy Friary in the 1600’s. The Friary still stands today in ruins.
Julia was a nun who was famous for her “seven prophecies” throughout her life. She was seen as an oracle and a prophet, but not all of her predictions came true in her lifetime.
For example, she predicted that boats would be made of iron, man could press a button and water would flow from Knocklayde to Ballycastle, and that a red-haired cleric would drown after visiting Ballycastle and leading mass. When it comes to the red-haired cleric, a priest by the name of James McCann went swimming the day after mass in Ballycastle and drowned at Pan’s rock.
6. St. Patrick
Some people outside of Ireland might not realise that St. Patrick was a real person. Depending on who you ask, it is believed that the reason there are no snakes in Ireland is because St. Patrick drove them away to the sea while he was in the midst of his 40-day fast on a hilltop.
So, if you’re afraid of snakes in anyway, then Ireland is definitely your country. Even in the Irish postage stamps, the photos depict St. Patrick standing amongst snakes.
It is also believed that St. Patrick was the reason why Christianity came to Ireland in the first place. While he was originally British, Patrick was captured in Ireland, and when he was freed, he stayed and dedicated his life to bringing Christ to the Celts and the Druids.
Most people associate leprechauns as little green men who will give you gold at the end of their rainbow, or even as the keeper of Lucky Charms. Leprechauns are believed to be fairies who take on the form of old men, stand at about three feet high, wearing green or red suits, and having a beard. Normally, they are solitary creatures who enjoy bringing getting up to mischief, typically targeting an unsuspecting outsider. If you have ever experienced a long string of bad luck, then you might have a leprechaun on your hands.
Leprechauns are also believed to affect the Irish tourist industry, but not in the way you might think: When tourism was low, there was rumor that the leprechauns were trying to get some peace and quiet by keeping the foreigners out. There have been numerous leprechaun sightings over the years; Carlingford, in County Down, is regularly cited as a spot where these little men show up.
If you’ve ever watched, “Gone With the Wind”, you might remember when Scarlet O’Hara believed that Rhett Butler’s illegitimate child was a changeling. This alone shows the power and influence this particular legend holds. But what exactly are changelings?
According to the myth, they are the children of fairies who have been deformed. And since fairies seem to be shallow and won’t love these children no matter what, they would often sneak into town and swap out their changelings for human babies, who were more aesthetically pleasing.
Changelings are often miserable creatures who only experience joy when there was grief, pain, or destruction occurring. So if you think that perhaps that baby you heard on the airplane wasn’t exactly human, you might be right. But you’ll never know because changelings look exactly like human babies, thus leaving out ways to debunk this phenomenon.
3. The Lucky Shamrock
Yes, believe it or not, the shamrock is the center of Irish myth and legend. The Celts believed that the shamrock was a holy plant that could ward off evil. Why? Well, the shamrock has three leaves, and the number three is considered to be a holy number based on the Bible (from the Christian perspective). And of course, most of us are aware that the rarer four-leaf clover being lucky.
Also, since the shamrocks leaves are shaped in the form of hearts, that is another reason the Irish believed in the power of the shamrock so much. The Celts especially would put shamrocks on their clothing and helmets when they went off to war. If you’re an Irish-Christian, then you’ve probably heard of the shamrock being the physical representation of the Holy Trinity as well.
When you hear the word, “fairy”, you’re probably thinking about Tinkerbell, television shows, or dolls that little girls play with. They are usually perceived as tiny, beautiful women with magical powers and wings that take care of the forest and want everyone to live in harmony. The real legend of fairies isn’t quite the case, and there is a strong belief that they are real.
Fairies, also known as fae, have become a central part of pagan belief, with altars, gifts, and small houses left for the fae to play and reside in while giving their hosts good fortune and health. Why so much effort to appease these tiny creatures? They are also known to wreak havoc and destruction just for fun. The fae can take on different forms, but they enjoy taking on the human form the most.
We know what you’re probably thinking; there’s no way that a mythical ghost-fairy woman could possibly be real. But let’s take a closer look at the legend of the banshee. She is believed to be a fairy who is the messenger of death and the underworld. When someone is about to die, she lets out a piercing wail that shakes the souls of anyone hearing it. The banshee can be seen as an old haggard woman or a beautiful young woman. Either way, if you see and hear her screams, you or someone in your family will die soon.
There have been numerous reports and sightings, with 1948 being one of the most recent. Historical figures have said to have encountered the banshee, one of them being King James I of Scotland, right before he died at the Earl of Atholl. Families have been linked to having their own specific banshee, and a delegated cry, which is rather terrifying just by itself.
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