Irish Myths and Folklore to Know in Honor of Saint Patrick’s Day

Pictured is a UD student waving Ireland’s Flag on St. Patrick’s Day. Photo courtesey of Christian Cubacub for Flyer News (2018).

Kerry Kadel | Arts and Entertainment 

Saint Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, and in honor of the greenest and most exciting day not just for the University of Dayton, but all who share the Celtic heritage. As someone who is named after Ireland’s own County Kerry, I want to share some Irish myths and folklore that I know myself and researched. 

  1. The Mermaids of Ireland: The Merrow and the Selkie 

(Pictured is the statue Kópakonan (The Seal Wife), created by Hans Pauli Olsen, picture courtesy of The Irish Jewelry Company

There are two types of mermaid myths when it comes to Ireland: the Merrow and the Selkie. The Merrow have some same qualities as Sirens, where they both share the ability of enticing sailors in songs, but where Sirens are more the violent-type, the Merrow are more mellow. However, not all Merrow are kind, and there are tales of Merrow known to be violent. Merrow also were known to have “cohuleen driuth” or magic caps, which allowed them to transform into humans and walk on land to find mates. There are tales of men trying to steal the caps from the Merrow in order to keep them on land for themselves. 

Selkies, also known as “the seal people”, is also a half-fish, half-human myth, but these are not beautiful women as the tale of the Merrow. In water, Selkies are seals, and shed their skin on land to transform into humans. Like many mermaid myths, they are still irresistible to human attraction. It is believed that if one was to find a Selkie’s shedded seal skin on the coast and take it, the Selkie was unable to return to the sea. There is another side of the story to how Selkies become the myths that they are: when someone takes their own life by drowning, they are turned into the mythical creatures. Whichever story you choose to believe, Selkies are still a very beautiful myth to Ireland. 

  1. The Hag of Beara 

Also known as “the Winter Witch”, the Hag of Beara is Ireland’s oldest myth and is said to grow younger and more beautiful during the winter, but grows older and her powers weaken. She is Ireland’s version of Groundhog Day, where legend states that on the first of February–the celebration of St. Brigid’s Day–if the weather is poor it means that the Hag is asleep and that winter will come to an end. If the day is bright, it means that she is collecting firewood in order to make winter last longer. Some believe that the Hag turned to stone and that she is the stone that rises over Coulah on the Beara Peninsula. This version of the story explains how she is awaiting for the return of her husband Manannan, the god of the sea. Today, she is a strong and powerful female personage said to represent Irish women. 

  1. Fionn McCool 

The legend of Fionn McCool is a very interesting tale. He was an Irish giant who found himself in trouble with Benandonner, a hot-headed Scottish giant who had claimed Ireland. Angry with Benandonner claiming his land, Fionn threw boulders into the sea off the Antrim coastline in Northern Ireland. Seeing as how the boulders fell in the water, Fionn decided to use them to create a bridge all the way to Scotland’s Isle of Staffa. By creating the bridge, he could finally challenge Benandonner to a fight to reclaim Ireland. Leaving this bridge of boulders for his rival to find, Fionn’s wife Sadhbh (pronounced “Sive”) dresses him up as a baby in disguise. When Benandonner arrives for the duel, he finds Sive caring for their ginormous baby. This causes Benandonner to realize that if this is Fionn McCool’s child, then Fionn must be enormous. Benandonner runs back to Scotland, and while hurrying back, he tears away parts of the bridge, severing all ties between Ireland and Scotland to prevent McCool from following him. The bridge left over on Ireland’s side is what’s known as the Giant’s Causeway, reminiscent of Fionn McCool’s intelligent victory. 

  1. The Children of Lir 

There was once a great lord named Lir who only took the throne when the past king, Bodb Derg offered his own daughter, Aoibh’s (pronounced “Eve”) hand in marriage. This ended a feud between the two. The two lived a happy life together and had four children: their daughter Fionnuala, their son Aodh, and twin boys Fiachra and Conn. Aiobh died after giving birth to the twins, so Lir remarried and took the hand of Aoife–his wife’s sister. This story falls under the category of evil stepmothers, as Aoife grew jealous of the love Lir had for his four children. 

However, Aoife knew some magic and decided to murder the children. She proposed to the children a day out by the lake, and upon arriving, she realized she couldn’t bring herself to kill them. Instead, she told the children to swim in the lake, and once they were in the water, she casted a spell over them. The four children were turned into swans, and the spell would last for nine-hundred years, dooming the children to stay three-hundred years on the shores of Lough Derravaragh in Co Westmeath, another three-hundred on the Sea of Moyle, and a final three-hundred on a small island called Inis Glora in Co Mayo. 

Returning without the children, Lir and Aoife’s father Bodb Derg grew suspicious, until Lir was by the shores of Lough Dairbhreach and heard four swans singing in human voices, recognizing that they were his children. King Bodb found out from Lir, and in becoming furious with his daughter, he cursed her as a “demon of the air”, the worst shape a spirit could take, and in that state, she remains.

  1. Granuaile, the Pirate Queen of Ireland 

Granuaile (Grace) was surrounded by boats and water her whole life, as her father was the owner of a large shipping and trading company. She lived during the same time as King Henry the VIII, under the Tudor Conquest of Ireland, to give you a better understanding of time. Granuaile’s father was the leader of the O Maille (O’Malley) clan, and despite having a half-brother, she was to follow in her father’s footsteps to take leadership of the company. In Ireland at the time, “opportunistic piracy” was no strange act committed within the shipping company. Granuaile had 3 ships and numerous small vessels as she began imposing tolls on ships that passed through. She raided other ships, coastlines, and islands, and any boat left unattended was hers to plunder. When Granuaile’s sons and half brother were kidnapped for ransom during the Tudor Conquest, she created a meeting for her and Queen Elizabeth I, petitioning for their release. Agreeing to punish the kidnapper, Elizabeth agreed to help her, only if Granuaile agreed to support the monarchy instead of the Irish rebellions. The Pirate Queen accepted, though neither kept their word. Granuaile O Maille, or Grace O’Malley, embraced her life of piracy, and thus became a feminist legend in Irish folklore. 

  1. Celtic/Púca Fairies 

(Picture courtesy of Ireland Before You Die

If you think Tinkerbell falls under this category, think again. Folklore tells the story of the original natives of Ireland as the Tuatha de Danann, a supernatural race that looked like humans. They lived on the land until the Milesians (Celts), a warrior tribe, arrived and attacked. The Milesians drove the Tuatha de Danann underground, but the tribe used their magic to become “wee folk” and “little people”, or as we call them today, fairies. Having bad luck, turning ill, or disappearing meant that someone had offended the fairies. Bottom line: it’s best to avoid  angering fairies. 

One type of fairy rooted in dark Celtic stories is the Púca (Pooka), a goblin-like supernatural spirit that is able to take the form of any animal–and always with black fur. They are known for their dubious intentions and harbingers of bad luck, but can give one good luck, depending on their mood. The most common animal for the Púca to shapeshift into is a horse with jet-black manes and flaming eyes, and have animal-like features in their human forms. Stories of the Púca vary in variety, but a common tale is that the Púca will transform into a horse and find a rider after a night on the pub, taking them on a terribly wild ride. The Púca then hexes the rider to feel ill and have hazy memories of the night. Yet, there are darker tales of the Púca being blood-thirsty and accused of killing humans, but some say that the fairy can be a protective entity who helps crops grow, offer gifts, and aid in stopping ominous future events from happening. However, those stories are overshadowed by the darker tales of mischievous acts and bad luck that the Púca represents. 

  1. The Goddess of Ériu 

The story of Ériu is the best of blending fiction and fact. During the pre-Christian times of Celtic civilization, Ireland had a strong history of revering the Divine Feminine, and was perfectly personified in Ireland’s namesake, Éire. Ériu and her sisters, Banba and Fódla, are known as the Goddesses of Sovereignty, which means they are goddesses of the land. The three goddesses came from the tribe Tuatha de Danann, as previously mentioned they were a magical tribe who were equally led by great warriors, both women and men and had great equality within their society. 

Ériu and her sisters were asked to represent the Tuatha de Danann upon meeting their rival tribe, the Milesians, who intended to dominate the country. The Milesians were led by a patriarchal leader named Amergin. With their powers, the sisters sensed the age of the Milesians was upon them, and this meant that they were to return to the spiritual veil. On Uisneach, the sacred hill of Ireland, Amergin met the sisters where they requested that he name Ireland after them. The presence and impact Ériu had to and on the land led Amergin to have a change of heart, and he named the land after her, embedding her powerful feminine legacy for future generations. Don’t fret about Banba and Fódla possibly being overshadowed, as in Irish poetry, the names of all three sisters are often referred to as alternative names for Ireland. 

  1. The Harp 

If you say the shamrock is the national emblem of Ireland, you’d be right, but that it’s not just the little green leaf of good luck that symbolizes Ireland, but also the harp. In Irish mythology, it’s stated that an evil tribe called the Fomorians stole the very first harp from Dagda, a god in folklore and the leader of the Tuatha de Danann. He had powers and innovative weapons, but it was the harp that was rare. It was made from rare wood, was gold and covered in jewels, and would only play for Dagda. D uring a battle between the two tribes, the great hall of the Tuatha de Danann was unguarded, and was stolen by the Fomorians. They tried to use it in order to cast a spell on Dagda’s army, but the harp wouldn’t play for them, so they took it back to their territory. However, Dagda followed them, and saw that they hung the harp up in their great hall and had a feast. Barging in during the feast, Dagda called to his harp, which jumped off the wall and into his arms. He struck three chords which casted three different spells: the Music of Tears, making everyone cry uncontrollably; the Music of Mirth, which made everyone laugh hysterically; and the Music of Sleep, making all the Fomorians fall into a deep sleep, and from then on the Tuatha de Danann could rule the land and do as they pleased. 

  1. The Dullahan 

(Picture courtesy of Ireland Before You Die

Also widely known as the Headless Horseman. Would you believe it if I said that this mythological spirit was considered a fairy in Irish folklore? The tale is the same as it’s ever been: a headless rider on a black horse carrying his head in his arm. Stories say that he would ride fast through the towns of Down and Sligo, and that if he were to stop it meant that someone in the town was going to die. 

There isn’t much else to add to this story, but it’s fascinating to learn that one of the most told myths during the haunting season of Halloween is born from Irish folklore. Halloween is also bred from the Celtic tradition of Samhain, where costumes were worn to ward off evil spirits and ghosts, with everyone asking if they would like a treat or a trick. 

Before I list the last Irish myth, I want to list three honorable mentions from Irish folklore: 


“Leath bhrògan” or leprechauns as we know them as, are the cultural symbol of Ireland who were once thought to be the first to roam the land before humans. Oral traditions foretold that one can find their pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but be careful, leprechauns are not to be trusted. 

Shamrocks and clovers 

Clovers are very important in Irish legends when it comes to Christianity. Saint Patrick was trying to educate the Celts on the Holy Trinity, but they couldn’t understand exactly what he was trying to explain. Before him, Saint Patrick saw the three-leaf clover before him and used it as an example to explain the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as one in the same. As many also know, a four-leaf clover, better known as a shamrock, is considered to give its finder great luck. 


According to Irish mythology, butterflies are said to be able to move between worlds, bringing messages or warnings. Myths say that they are souls waiting to be reborn on earth. If a butterfly has dark wings it symbolizes bad news or an ominous omen, while white and yellow butterflies are said to bring good news such as success and good fortune. 

  1. Macha, goddesses of the horses 

This very popular story comes from Ulster, a province of Ireland. The story is about a mysterious woman named Macha who was rumored to have some knowledge and power of magic. She was forced to run against the king’s horses while pregnant, paying for her husband’s crimes…not very fair if you ask me and many women, I’m sure. Anyways, the pain that she had suffered caused her to cast a curse over all the men in town. The curse caused these men to suffer labor pain for nine decades. From researching the goddess, she is more than being associated with horses only, she is also a symbol of divine feminine and sovereign power, just like the goddess Ériu and her sisters. 

If you want to learn more about the myths listed here, check out these links to their articles! 

Wilderness of Ireland: 

Irish Celtic Jewels: 

Ireland Before You Die: 

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