Irish mythology focuses on myths that were told in Ireland only, whereas Celtic mythology includes myths from Ireland, Scotland, and Welsh.
Like Celtic mythology, Irish myths were part of oral tradition and were very rarely written down. Irish mythology includes stories told about deities, heroes, and mythical creatures.
These are some of the best Irish myths and legends with an explanation of each of the cycles that are found in Irish mythology.
The Cycles of Irish Mythology
1. The Mythological Cycle
This cycle of Irish mythology is where you will find the myths about the first inhabitants of Ireland; specifically the descendants of Danann, the Irish goddess of nature and life.
During this cycle is where you will read the myths that describe how Ireland gained population and where the inhabitants came from.
It is said that a woman named Cesair led the Tuatha De Danann to Ireland. The Tuatha De Danann were a supernatural group of people in Irish mythology who possessed magical powers and were god-like creatures.
They were often seen with Danann, the Irish goddess of nature and were regarded as wise, smart, and skillful.
Once they had inhabited Ireland, there was a great flood that caused mass casualties of the Tuatha De Danann. All but one of the Tuatha De Danann survived. The survivor’s name was Fintan, and he helped repopulate Ireland with new settlements.
2. The Ulster Cycle
This cycle of Irish mythology is more well-known than its predecessor cycle.
The main character in this cycle of mythology is King Conchobar. He is the king of Ulster, a kingdom in northern Ireland, and of which this cycle is named after.
King Conchobar is large, athletic, and a fierce warrior.
He has the ability to grow in size, and one of his eyes will roll back in his head when he heads into battle.
Further, the King can cause blood to drip from his hair, causing a truly frightening sight that causes terror to his foes.
In addition to King Conchobar, Deirdre is also a prominent character during this cycle.
When Deirdre was born from her mother’s womb, she gave an ear-piercing scream that scared all who heard it.
A legend was told that Deirdre would be the most beautiful woman in all of Ireland and cause many men to want to marry her, resulting in great destruction for the fight for her hand. Therefore, she should be ordered to death as soon as she was born.
Instead, King Conor MacNeasa spared her life and ordered that she should be raised in seclusion. Deirdre was taken care of by a nurse in seclusion.
One day, Deirdre witnessed a calf get slaughtered, an act that affected Deirdre.
From that day forward, she vowed to marry a man who possessed the three colors she saw before her as the calf was slaughtered:
- Skin as white as the snow that lay on the ground
- Cheeks as red as the blood that came from the calf
- Hair as black as the raven that fed on the carcass of the calf.
Deirdre found out that this man did exist, and his name was Naoise, the son of Ushna.
She was desperate to meet this man, as she had been in seclusion since she was born. It was arranged for Deirdre to meet Naoise in the woods on a hunting trip.
Falling in Love
Deirdre met him and immediately fell in love with him, begging him to elope with her. Naoise refused, knowing that King Conor MacNeasea wanted Deirdre as his own wife. Deirdre would not take no for an answer, and finally, Naoise gave in and married her.
Once they were married, King Conor MacNeasea would not let them live in peace. King Conor MacNeasea would send his men to try to steal Deirdre and bring her back to him, but Naoise’s men would always kill the intruders. King Conor MacNeasea finally had to change his gameplan if he wanted to steal Deirdre.
One day, the king asked his best advisor to deliver a message to Naoise. The message stated that King Conor MacNeasea would allow Naoise and Deirdre to return to Ulster and live in harmony without any retribution from the king.
Deirdre did not believe this message and warned Naoise and his men that they should not return. Her husband and his men did not listen, and they made their way back to Ulster.
Once they returned to Ulster, the king and his men killed Naoise and all of his men. Afterwards, they took Deirdre captive, and lived with King Conor MacNeasea for one year.
A year later, the king took Deirdre to meet his militant who had killed her husband. Deirdre was overstruck with grief as she stood between the two men that she hated the most.
Deirdre bashed her head on a stone until her brain seeped through her skull.
The only time that Deirdre found peace after her husband died was when she killed herself.
3. The Fenian Cycle
The Fenian Cycle focuses on Irish warrior Fionn MacCumhaill. Fionn was a leader of loyal followers known as the Fianna. It is different from the first two in that it follows a warrior rather than a deity or king.
The Fenian Cycle followed Fionn in his quest to avenge his father’s death. During this quest, Fionn eats a magical salmon that would end up giving him all of the wisdom in the world.
After that, he quickly became the leader of the Fianna and, shortly thereafter, met his wife, who had been trapped inside of a deer’s body.
The Fenian Cycle is filled with intricate stories of goblins, deer, fawn, and a newborn son. It is the cycle of Irish mythology with the most interwoven stories.
4. The Historical Cycle
The last cycle of Irish mythology is the Historical Cycle. This cycle focuses on the history of kings, rulers, and the courts. This cycle combines both history and mythology to create a blend of truth and legend.
Best Irish Myths and Legends from Irish Mythology
The Legends of Finn McCool
Taking place in the Fenian Cycle is the legend of Fionn MacCumhaill. He is also known in modern terminology as Finn McCool. Finn McCool hunted monsters and was a fearless leader. One of his most famous legends is when he ate the salmon of knowledge and wisdom that gave him all of the wisdom in the world.
The most famous legend of Finn McCool includes the creation of the Giant’s Causeway. The Giant’s Causeway is an area in Northern Ireland made up of over 40,000 interlocking rocks, known as the Giant’s Causeway.
Legend says that the Giant’s Causeway was created when Finn McCool challenged a giant on the other side of the Northern Channel to fight. In order to meet the giant to fight, Finn McCool built the causeway.
The giant named Benandonner, whom Finn McCool was attempting to fight, had fled back to Scotland when seeing that Finn McCool’s size was as large as a giant.
During Benandonner’s return to Scotland across the causeway, he destroys the pathway so that Finn McCool could not follow him back to Scotland.
While Benandonner believes that Finn McCool is a giant, he is not a giant in Irish mythology. Instead, Finn McCool is a hero with supernatural abilities; as a mythical Irish superman during his time.
The Lady of Death Fairy (Banshee)
Irish mythology includes many stories of fairies. One of those legends describes the Lady of Death fairy. Folks call her a Banshee.
The Lady of Death fairy appears during the night. She has red eyes and unruly hair. The Lady of Death fairy will show up at the home of a family who will lose a family member in the next few upcoming days. The Lady of Death fairy is an ominous sign that tells the family whom she is visiting that they will be experiencing a death in the family in the upcoming days.
Irish mythology has four main cycles that each contain specific characters or themes throughout the cycle. Irish mythology sometimes includes Celtic and Roman attributes, geography, and characters.
Irish mythology frequently mentioned fairies, giants, and tragedy. Like Celtic mythology, Irish mythology was shared orally from generation to generation. Because of this, some Irish mythology was lost over time.
Additionally, Irish mythology was absorbed into Roman mythology because there was no proof of the Irish mythology in writing. Rather, the Irish mythology was told orally from generation to generation.