Irish Legends and Folklore

Baby Names of Ireland has collected some of the most fascinating Irish Legends and Irish Folklore. We have partnered with the Coolderry National School in County Offaly, Ireland to help us with artwork produced by their students. We hope you enjoy these Irish Legends and Myths.

Niamh and Oisin – Irish Legend

Artwork and story research by Fionnuala McLoughney and Clodagh Dooley, Coolderry National School, County Offaly, Ireland.

Artwork and story research by Fionnuala McLoughney and Clodagh Dooley, Coolderry National School, County Offaly, Ireland.

One morning the Fianna were deer hunting on the shores of Lough Lein in County Kerry. They saw a beautiful white horse coming towards them. Riding on the horse was the most beautiful woman they had ever seen. She wore a long dress as blue as the summer sky and studded with silver stars. Her long golden hair hung to her waist.

“What’s your name and what land have you come from?” asked Fionn, leader of the Fianna. “I am Niamh of the Golden Hair. My father is king of Tir-Na-nOg,” she replied. “I have heard of a warrior named Oisin. I have heard of his courage and of his poetry. I have come to find him and take him back with me to Tir-Na-nOg.” “Tell me,” Oisin said, “what sort of land is Tir-Na-nOg?” “Tir-Na-nOg is the land of youth,” replied Niamh. “It is a happy place, with no pain or sorrow. Any wish you make comes true and no one grows old there. If you come with me you will find all this is true.”

Oisin mounted the white horse and said goodbye to his father and friends. He promised he would return soon. The horse galloped off over the water, moving as swiftly as a shadow. The Fianna were sad to see their hero go, but Fionn reminded them of Oisin’s promise to return soon.

The king and queen of Tir-Na-nOg welcomed Oisin and held a great feast in his honor. It was indeed a wonderful land, just as Niamh had said. He hunted and feasted and at night he told stories of Fionn and the Fianna and of their lives in Ireland. Oisin had never felt so happy as he did with Niamh and before long they were married.

Time passed quickly and although he was very happy Oisin began to think of returning home for a visit. Niamh didn’t want him to go but at last she said, “Take my white horse. It will carry you safely to Ireland and back. Whatever heppens you must not get off the horse and touch the soil of Ireland. If you do you will never return to me or to Tir-Na-nOg.” She did not tell him that although he thought he’d only been away a few years, he had really been there three hundred years.

Ireland seemed a very strange place to Oisin when he arrived. There seemed to be no trace of his father or the rest of the Fianna. The people he saw seemed small and weak to him. As he passed through Gleann-na-Smol he saw some men trying to move a large stone. “I will help you,” said Oisin. The men were terrified of this giant on a white horse. Stooping from his saddle Oisin lifted the stone with one hand and hurled it. With that the saddle girth broke and Oisin was flung to the ground. Immediately the white horse disappeared and the men saw before them an old, old man. They took him to a holy man who lived nearby.

“Where is my father and the Fianna?” Oisin asked. When he was told that they were long dead he was heartbroken. He spoke of the many deeds of Fionn and their adventures together. He spoke of his time in Tir-Na-nOg and his beautiful wife, Niamh, that he would not see again. Although he died soon after, the wonderful stories of Niamh and Oisin have lived on.

The Legend of the Fianna

Artwork and story research by Ollie Carroll & Billy Bulfin, Coolderry National School, County Offaly, Ireland.

Artwork and story research by Ollie Carroll & Billy Bulfin, Coolderry National School, County Offaly, Ireland.

The Fianna lived many hundreds of years ago. Every man of the Fianna was chosen for his strength and bravery and was specially trained in warfare and was made a champion among warriors.

Usually before any man could officially become a Fianna warrior he had to undergo some tests:

  • While standing in a hole as deep as his waist he had to be able to defend himself against nine warriors using only a shield and a hazel rod.
  • He had to escape from nine warriors by running through the forest without breaking a twig under his feet or tearing his clothes on bramble.
  • He had to be able to jump over a branch as high as himself and run under another as low as his knee.
  • While running at top speed through the forest he had to be able to pick a thorn from his foot without stopping.
  • He had to learn twelve books of poetry by heart and also know many of the old legends and stories.
  • Not to take a dowry with a wife.

This band of warriors were sworn to fight for the high king of Ireland and to keep the peace among the sub-kings of Ireland. When there was peace they lived lives devoted to the chase, for they were great hunters and food was never in short supply because in that time Ireland was heavily wooded where the boar, the deer and the wolf roamed in plenty. The Fianna hunted with their famous dogs – the Irish wolfhound, as large as a small pony and now, alas, almost extinct. In a single day’s hunting it is said that they would go from Killarney, in County Kerry, in the west to Ben Eadar in the east, near where Dublin stands today, crossing the trackless bogs and forest and climbing the mountains’ slippery sides. A wet or a fine day, winter or summer, were all the same to them, for they heeded neither wet nor cold.

Legend of Nial of the Nine Hostages

Artwork and story research by Stephen Corcoran & Jack Molloy, Coolderry National School, County Offaly, Ireland.

Artwork and story research by Stephen Corcoran & Jack Molloy, Coolderry National School, County Offaly, Ireland.

Niall was one of the great Irish kings. He was the only son of Eochaid Muighmedon, high king and his wife Catharann, daughter of an English king. Eochaid later married Mong-Fionn, daughter of the king of Munster, and had another four sons. These sons were Brian, Fiachra, Ailill and Fergus.

It is said that Mong-Fionn was jealous of her stepson Niall; she wanted Brian to succeed to Eochaid. She did not rest until she had Niall as an outcast and his mother reduced down to servant.

As Niall was entering manhood, he was returned to the court and welcomed by his father. One of his first acts was to restore his mother to her rightful place. Niall underwent many tests and did excellent on every one.

Niall’s stepmother still had her hopes for Brian and upon Eochaid’s death, she managed to get her brother king until Brian came of age. Once in power, however, Crimthann betrayed his sister and took full control of the kingdom instead of regency. To Crimthann’s credit, he proved to be a strong king and ruled for twenty years.

During his early reign, Niall consolidated his power and home by subduing his enemies and taking hostages from the families in opposition. Meanwhile the Picts were getting wary of the small Lirsh colony of Dalriada which is now Scotland. They attacked and severely damaged the colony. In response Niall ventured to Scotia Minor and the land of the Picts, here again subduing all and gaining submission through the taking of royal hostages – hence the name, Niall of the Nine Hostages.

After a short consolidation, he marched south with his Scot and Pict allies against the Romans in Britain. It was there that Niall’s forces took hostage one Succat, who is better known by his later name of St. Patrick.

Besides taking St. Patrick in his youth, Niall is known mainly for two things. First, he consolidated the northern region of Ireland and created a dynasty that kept his descendants High Kings of Ireland for six hundred years. Second, his military ability led him to the Irish taking control of all of Alba and a large part of Britain.

He seriously damaged the Roman’s ability to control Britain and even managed to carve out some Irish controlled territory in France. It is said this Irish empire was only eclipsed in size by Dathi’s, Niall’s nephew and successor.

The Legend of Fionn MacCool

The Legend of Fionn MacCool

Artwork and story research by Alan Bergin, Coolderry National School, County Offaly, Ireland.

Fionn MacCool, was no ordinary giant. He was the biggest and the strongest giant in all Ireland. His voice could be heard for miles around. He was so strong that he could lift a hundred men in one of his enormous hands. Fionn lived with his wife in the hills of County Antrim. Fionn’s wife was called Oonagh.

One day a messenger came to Fionn’s castle. He had come all the way from Scotland with news for Fionn. The messenger told Fionn that a Scottish giant called Angus wanted to fight him. Angus wanted to show that he was stronger than any giant in Ireland. Fionn had never seen Angus before, but he knew that he was the biggest giant in Scotland. Fionn was not afraid.

The next day, Fionn began to build a path across the sea to Scotland. This path was called the causeway. It was made of thousands of rocks. Fionn built many miles of the causeway with his great hands. When Angus heard about Fionn’s causeway, he decided to build the Scottish end of the causeway himself. For weeks the two giants worked hard at building the causeway.

One morning Fionn was in the forest near his castle. He saw his wife coming towards him. He ran over to her.
She said to him, “I have heard that Angus is the biggest and the strongest giant in all the world. He is twice as big as you and twice as strong!” Fionn was very worried. “I cannot fight a giant that is twice my size!”

As the sun was setting, he heard a knock on the door. It was the messenger. “Angus wants to fight you tomorrow at sunrise,” he told Fionn.
“Yes, of course,” replied Fionn.

He went into his bedroom when the messenger left. He took the blankets off the bed. Fionn and Oonagh worked through the night. They cut the blankets and made giant baby clothes. Fionn put on the baby clothes and got into the giant cradle.

At sunrise the next morning, Oonagh heard a knock on the door. It was Angus. Angus asked Oonagh was Fionn there. Oonagh told him that he was gone for a walk and that he would be back soon. She invited him in. It was not long before Angus heard a cry. He asked whom it was, pointing to the cradle. Oonagh said, “That’s young Fionn, our baby.
Angus thought that if this is the size of their baby, how big could Fionn be. Then he ran out of the castle as fast as he could. He ran across the causeway and did not stop until he reached his country. He was afraid that Fionn might follow him.

Today, if you go to County Antrim, you can still see a small piece of the causeway. It is called the Giant’s Causeway, because it was built by Fionn Mac Cool, the most famous giant in the history of Ireland.

The Legend of the Salmon of Knowledge

Salmon of Knowledge

Artwork and story research by Barry Maher & John Gannon, Coolderry National School, County Offaly, Ireland.

Finegas was a poet. He was one of the wisest men in Ireland. He lived near the River Boyne. Finegas read books and wrote poems. Finegas was watching all the time to try and see the salmon of knowledge in the river.

The salmon of knowledge was a magic fish. The first person to taste the salmon would be the wisest person in Ireland. Its skin was the colour of gold. Its eyes were magic. A lot of people tried to catch it but they failed.

There was no school but young warriors were taught by wise men like Finegas. People went to live with poets and they learned a lot and after that people became true warriors. Fionn was a son of a warrior called Cumhall. Fionn was training to be a warrior. Then Fionn went to live with Finegas the poet.

Suddenly Finegas saw a huge powerful fish swimming in the river. It was the salmon of knowledge. He had never seen a fish like it before. He rushed to get a strong net. Fionn was sitting with his back to the river so he never saw the salmon. Finegas was very careful not to look into its eyes because if you did you would fall into a deep sleep. Finegas tried to catch the fish but couldn’t. All of a sudden the fish jumped high into the air towards him. The old poet was taken by surprise when he looked at the fish. He fell fast asleep.

Fionn saw him asleep and rushed to wake him up before the salmon got away. When Finegas woke up he asked Fionn to fetch him a cloth. Then Finegas covered his eyes with the cloth. He threw in his net again. For hours and hours he tried to catch the fish.

Night was falling. He had one last try. This time he was lucky. He caught the salmon. The huge fish struggled to get out. It pulled and tossed and turned but could not escape. Finegas was tired after this so he told Fionn to cook the fish. Finegas warned Fionn not to eat the fish, not even a mouthful. Fionn promised he would not eat any of the salmon. Fionn built a fire and when it was ready he placed the fish over the fire. A drop of oil went onto his thumb. Fionn put his thumb in his mouth.

When the salmon was done he brought the fish to Finegas. The wise poet noticed there was something different. His cheeks were redder and his eyes were a lot brighter.
“Have you eaten any of the salmon?” Finegas asked Fionn.
Fionn told him the truth. “I did not eat any of the fish.
Finegas was still not happy. “Have you even tasted the fish,” he asked.

Then Fionn remembered that he had burnt his thumb and put it in his mouth. He told this to Finegas. Finegas knew at once he had the wisdom of the salmon of knowledge. At first he was very sad. He knew he would never be the wisest man in Ireland. But he was happy that Fionn got the gift. Finegas knew that Fionn would become the greatest warrior that the Fianna had ever known.

The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne

Artwork and story research by David Ryan & Liam Burke, Coolderry National School, County Offaly, Ireland.

Artwork and story research by David Ryan & Liam Burke, Coolderry National School, County Offaly, Ireland.

Grainne was the daughter of Cormac MacAirt, the high king of Ireland. No woman could compare to her beauty. Many princes and chieftains wanted to marry her but Grainne was proud and she spurned each one after another. Fionn MacCool wanted to marry again after his wife died. He heard about Gráinne.

He went to Gráinne and asked her to marry him. She said yes. That night a great party was given in honour of them. But Grainne fell in love with Diarmuid, one of Fionn’s warriors. Grainne put a sleeping draught to everyone except Diarmuid and tried to persuade him to take her away. But Diarmuid was loyal to Fionn. So Grainne put a magic spell on Diarmuid. If he did not marry her he would die from the magical powers. If he took her, Fionn would destroy him. So they left Tara and crossed the river Shannon.

With Fionn on their trail, Fionn’s son Oisin warned him that Fionn was closing in on him. Diarmuid ignored his warning. As they travelled southwest a warrior named Muadham became their servant.

Meanwhile Fionn hired three soldiers along with three poisonous hounds to capture Diarmuid. After Muadham left, the couple travelled north again. Diarmuid finally gave up being loyal to Fionn and he married Grainne.

Soon Grainne became pregnant. One night the couple heard a sound of a boar in the woods. Grainne, suspecting Fionn of treachery, could not dissuade Diarmuid from facing the boar. Diarmuid killed the boar with his sword and as he lay dying, he asked for a drink of water which had curing properties if drunk off the hands of Fionn. Fionn refused twice. Oisin threatened to kill him but Diarmuid died by the time Fionn had got the water.

Cuchulainn – Irish Story and Legend of Cú Chulainn

Long ago, a king called Conor MacNessa had warriors called the Red Branch Knights. He trained them to be strong men. King Conor also had a nephew called Setanta who wanted to be a Red Branch Knight. From a very early age he showed superhuman qualities of wisdom, warfare, magic and poetry.

One night he said to his mother, “I want to be a Red Branch Knight.” But she said he was too young.

Cu Chulainn - Irish Story and Legend of Cuchulainn

Setanta was a happy child who played the game of hurling [the national sport of Ireland - like lacrosse or field hockey] with his friends. His team always won. When Setanta was ten he said to his father, “I want to join the Red Branch Knights.” His father said he was still too young. So he stayed on milking cows, carrying water to his house and chopping wood.

One night a man came to the house to tell stories. He told lots about King Conor and his knights. That night, while everyone was asleep, Setanta got his hurling stick and ball and left for King Conor’s castle.

It was a long trip but when he got there, a hurling match was on. Setanta joined in and the other boys did not like it because he was such a good hurler. He went to meet King Conor and King Conor said he could stay.

Some days later, the king said to Setanta, “I am going to a party at Culain’s, do you want to come?” Setanta replied, “I will come later as I am playing a hurling match.”

Later that night he set off. It was a long trip. He got to the fort and found a wolfhound guarding the fort. He hit the ball and killed Culain’s hound. The man heard the dog’s cry and ran out. He said, “I am sorry to see my dog go but glad you are okay. But who is going to guard my house now?” “I’ll be your guard dog until you can replace the one I killed. I’ll be the “Hound of Culain” ["CuChulain"],” said Setanta.

So that’s how Cuchulainn got his name. Soon he became the best guard of all and joined the knights. He was the best Red Branch Knight ever.

The Legend of the Tuatha De Danann

The Legend of Tuatha De Danann

Artwork and story research by Jack Molloy, Shareen Maloney & Yvonne Talbot, Coolderry National School, County Offaly, Ireland.

Once upon a time, thousands of years ago, there lived in Ireland a race of tall, beautiful people. They loved music, poetry and sport and they were called the de Danann [people of Dana] because they descended from the goddess Dana.

Then one day a savage band of robbers came over the sea from Scotland. Their king was an ugly giant called Balor, with only one eye, but that eye had the power of magic. One look from it was enough to kill a man or even a whole army. This gave the robbers a mean advantage over the de Danann and they soon defeated them and made “Balor of the Evil Eye” King of Ireland.

He was so powerful that he made the de Danann work as his slaves, digging ditches, chopping firewood, sweeping paths and paying heavy taxes. Once a year every man had to give him one ounce of gold and one-tenth of his wheat or cattle.

One day a Druid told Balor that sometime in the future his grandson was going to kill him. Balor’s daughter had triplets and they were sentenced to death. One of them survived and his name was Lugh.

By the time he was eighteen he had become a very strong and brave warrior. A druidess had taught him every skill and talent in the world. He went to the home of the chief of the de Danann at Tara to get a job. After much persuasion he eventually got a job. When the chief realized how talented “Lugh Lamhfada” ["Lugh of the Long Arm"] was he knew that at last he had a warrior who was capable of killing Balor.

The day came when the de Danann were due to pay their yearly tax to Balor. Each year they all went together to hand over their taxes but this time the de Danann were not going to pay, but they were going to fight instead. Balor’s men were killed by the hundreds and just when it seemed that Lugh and his warriors were going to win, Balor himself came onto the battlefield.

By now Balor was an old man and his great eyelid drooped over his one eye. So that he could still use it as a deadly weapon he had fixed a handle to the lid which his warriors could lift with ropes. When they did this it was then the turn of Lugh’s men to die by the hundreds and the chief of the de Danann was amongst the dead. Then Lugh got a great stone and slung it with all his force into Balor’s eye. The stone drove Balor’s eye through his head and out the other side, so that it now looked on his own men and wiped out his own army.

Balor had died at the hands of his grandson as predicted and Lugh was made chief of the de Danann.

The Legend of The Children of Lir

Children of Lir

Artwork and story research by Mary Teehan & Damhnait O'Connor, Coolderry National School, County Offaly, Ireland.

The Children of Lir Irish story – Long ago there lived a king called Lir. He lived with his wife and four children: Fionnuala, Aodh, Fiachra and Conn. They lived in a castle in the middle of a forest. When Lir’s wife died they were all very sad. After a few years Lir got married again. He married a jealous wife called Aoife.

Aoife thought that Lir loved his children more than he loved her. Aoife hated the children. Soon she thought of a plan to get rid of the children.

One summer’s day Aoife took the children to swim in a lake near the castle. The children were really happy to be playing in the water. Suddenly Aoife took out a magic wand. There was a flash of light and the children were nowhere to be seen. All there was to be seen was four beautiful swans, with their feathers as white as snow.

Aoife said, “I have put you under a spell. You will be swans for nine hundred years,” she cackled. “You will spend three hundred years in Lough Derravaragh, three hundred years in the Sea of Moyle and three hundred years in the waters of Inish Glora,” Aoife said. She also said, “You will remain swans for nine hundred years until you hear the ring of a Christian bell.”

She went back to the castle and told Lir that his children had drowned. Lir was so sad he started crying. He rushed down to the lake and saw no children. He saw only four beautiful swans.

One of them spoke to him. It was Fionnuala who spoke to him. She told him what Aoife had done to them. Lir got very angry and turned Aoife into an ugly moth. When Lir died the children were very sad. When the time came they moved to the Sea of Moyle.

Soon the time came for their final journey. When they reached Inish Glora they were very tired. Early one morning they heard the sound of a Christian bell. They were so happy that they were human again. The monk (some even say it was St. Patrick himself) sprinkled holy water on them and then Fionnuala put her arms around her brothers and then the four of them fell on the ground. The monk buried them in one grave. That night he dreamed he saw four swans flying up through the clouds. He knew the children of Lir were with their mother and father.

The story of The Children of Lir Irish legend

Read more from Wikipedia about Children of Lir

The Tain – The Story of the Cattle Raid of Cooley (Tain Bo Cuailnge)

Artwork and story research by Kevin Connolly and Colm Larkin, Coolderry National School, County Offaly, Ireland.

The Tain -Conor MacNessa ruled Ulster; Queen Maeve and her husband Ailill ruled in Connacht. One night Maeve and Ailill were boasting about their riches. Ailill also boasted about his great white bull. Maeve had no bull and she was jealous. The next day Maeve called her messenger MacRoth. Maeve asked him if there was any bull in Ireland equal to Ailill’s bull.

MacRoth said, “Not one as good but twice as good.” Maeve was delighted when she heard this. MacRoth said, “The bull’s name is the Brown Bull of Cooley. He belongs to the Daire of Cooley in the province of Ulster.”

Maeve sent MacRoth and other messengers to Daire to ask for the loan of his brown bull. Maeve said she would give a gift of cows and return the brown bull at the end of the year.

Daire agreed to lend the bull to Maeve. One of Maeve’s men boasted, foolishly saying Daire was a wise man to give the bull because if he had not given it Maeve would have taken it by force. Daire was furious when he heard this. “Tell your queen,” he said, “if she wants my bull she had better take it by force.”

When MacRoth told Queen Maeve about this, she was raging. Maeve gathered all her fighting men and marched to Ulster. Then Queen Maeve and Daire had a battle. Queen Maeve won the battle and she took the bull.

This is how the great Cattle Raid of Cooley, The Táin took place.

The Legend of Tir Na nOG

Artwork and story research by Lauren Ryan and Aoife Nolan, Coolderry National School, County Offaly, Ireland.

Tir Na nOg is a very beautiful land. In Tir Na nOg the leaves don’t fall from the trees or die. The flowers bloom all year round, and you can smell the scent of them miles away. If you are ever lucky enough to go to Tir-Na-nOg you would see young, happy people there.

If you spent five days in Tir-Na-nOg, it would be about three or more years in Ireland. Tir-Na-nOg has a stream going through it and green hills all over. The people there have beautiful clothes, and you would eat off of gold plates and drink out of crystal glasses.

For entertainment the people would play tin whistles or play gold harps. The scenery is beautiful and the sun shines most of the time. The people tell wonderful exciting stories, and the children play lots of games.

Tir Na nOg translation means “THE LAND OF EVER YOUNG.” It is sometimes spelled as Tir Na Og and Tir a nOg

Brian Boru Legend and History

Artwork and story research by Nicholas Kennedy and Brian Kelly, Coolderry National School, County Offaly, Ireland.

Brian Boru is remembered as a very famous Irish king. He was part of the family of the Dal gCais. The Dal gCais had its fort near Kincora in County Clare. He learnt the skills of fighting when he was young and grew to be a great and skillful fighter.

Brian Boru and his older brother Mahon Boru fought against the Vikings of Leinster. In 967 A.D. they had a great victory over their enemies and Mahon made himself King of Munster. Mahon was king for nine years. Then he was killed by other princes.

Brian made other kings accept him as their overlord. He made peace with King Malachy and they divided the country between them. Malachy kept the northern half while Brian got the bottom half. In 999 A.D. he defeated Maol Morda in a bloody battle because Morda and the Dublin Vikings wouldn’t submit. Brian made Malachy accept him as high king.

In 1013 A.D. Maol Morda fell out with Brian and war broke out again. Sitric the Norse king of Dublin called his Viking friends in the Scottish Islands and the Isle of Man to help them.

At the Battle of Clontarf, Good Friday 1014 A.D., a great battle raged on. In the end the Leinster men were heavily defeated. However Sitric, the Norse king, survived and wisely remained inside the walls of the town.

King Brian was too old to fight in the bloody battle. He was later killed in his tent by a Viking. His son and grandson were also killed in the battle.

Brian Boru is remembered as one of the greatest Irish kings that ruled Ireland.

The History of Tara Brooch Celtic Symbol and Meaning

The Tara Brooch is considered one of the most important extant artifacts of early Christian-era Irish Celtic art, and is housed and displayed in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin.

What does a tara brooch represent?

Made in about 700 AD, the Celtic symbol brooch is composed primarily of white brass and is embellished with intricate abstract decoration (termed “Celtic knotwork”) both front and back. The design, the techniques of workmanship (including filigree and inlaying) and the gold, silver, copper, amber and glass are all of high quality, and exemplify the advanced state of goldsmithing in Ireland in the seventh century.

Although the brooch is named after the Hill of Tara, seat of the mythological High Kings of Ireland, the meaning of the Tara Brooch in fact has no known connection to either the Hill of Tara or the High Kings of Ireland, and was discovered in County Meath in Laytown along the seashore.

The History of the Irish Celtic Cross

The huge Celtic Crosses rising from the Irish landscape embody the union between the old religions that St. Patrick found and the Christianity he brought to the island.

Legend says the Saint traced a cross through the circle sacred to the moon goddess and created the symbol that now speaks of eternal love and the unity of faith and tradition in Ireland and the Irish.