Ireland is full of fantastical fairy tales and folklore that have been passed down through generations. Here is a list of our top five Irish fairy tales and folktales to feed your imagination.
Banshee’s, fairies, leprechauns, pots of gold at the end of the rainbow, changelings, and many more things you’ve probably heard about before all come from Irish fairy tales and folktales.
Storytelling is a huge part of Irish culture and heritage. Storytellers would gather in the evenings to tell their tales. Many of them told the same stories, and if any version varied, it would be put to the counsel to determine which version was correct. Stories were passed down from generation to generation, and many are still told today.
If you want to find out a little more about Irish traditions and beliefs, there is no better way to do it than by hearing some Irish fairy tales, so here are our top five Irish fairy tales and folktales.
5. Children of Lir – a tragic tale of cursed children
King Lir, the ruler of the sea, was married to a beautiful and kind woman named Eva. They had four children, three sons, and one daughter. Eva sadly died while giving birth to her two youngest twin boys, Fiachra and Conn, and King Lir married Eva’s sister Aoife to ease his broken heart.
Aoife became increasingly jealous of the time Lir was spending with his four children, so she plotted to use her magical powers to destroy the children. She knew that if she killed them, they would come back to haunt her forever, so she took them to the lake near their castle and turned them into swans binding them to spend 900 years in the lake.
Aoife told Lir that all his children had drowned, so he went to the lake to mourn for them. His daughter, Fionnuala, in her swan form, told him what happened and he banished Aoife, spending the rest of his days down by the lake with his children.
The children spent their 900 years as swans and were soon well known all across Ireland. One day they heard a bell toll and knew their time under the spell was coming to an end, so they returned to the lake near their castle and met a priest who blessed them and transformed them back into their now elderly, human bodies.
4. The harp of Dagda – beware the harp’s music
Another of the top Irish fairy tales and folktales to feed your imagination is about Dagda and his harp. Dagda was a god from Irish mythology who is said to have been the father and protector of the Tuatha dé Danann. He had exceptional powers and weapons, including a magical harp made from rare wood, gold, and jewels. This harp would only play for Dagda, and the notes he played made people feel transformed.
However, a tribe known as the Fomorians had inhabited the island before the Tuatha dé Danann had gotten there, and the two tribes fought for ownership of the land.
During one battle, the great hall of the Tuatha dé Dannan was left unguarded since every single tribe member was off fighting or aiding the fight. The Fomorians saw an opportunity and entered the hall, stealing Dagda’s harp from the wall where it hung so they could use it to put a spell on Dagda’s army. However, they were unsuccessful as the harp only answered to Dagda, and the Tuatha dé Dannan figured out their plan and followed them.
The Fomorian’s hung Dagda’s harp in their great hall and were feasting below it. Dagda barged in during the feast and called to his harp, which promptly leapt off the wall and into his arms. He struck three chords.
The first played the Music of Tears and made every man, woman, and child in the hall weep uncontrollably. The second chord played the Music of Mirth, making them laugh hysterically, and the final chord was the Music of Sleep, which made all the Fomorians fall into a deep slumber. After this battle, the Tuatha dé Dannan were free to roam as they pleased.
3. Finn MacCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill) – a tale of giant tricks
Finn MacCool is associated with the story of the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
It is said that Irish Giant, Finn MacCool, was so angry at the Scottish Giants, his enemies, that he built a whole causeway from Ulster across the sea to Scotland just so he could battle them!
One day he shouted a challenge to the Scottish giant Benandonner to cross the causeway and fight him, but as soon as he saw the Scot getting closer and closer on the causeway, he realised Benandonner was much, much bigger than he had imagined. He ran home to the Fort-of-Allen in County Kildare, and told his wife, Oonagh, he’d picked a fight but had since changed his mind.
Finn heard the stamping feet of Benandonner who came knocking on Finn’s door, but Finn would not answer, so his wife shoved him in the cradle with a couple of sheets over him.
Finn’s wife opened the door saying, “Finn is away hunting deer in County Kerry. Would you like to come in anyway and wait? I’ll show you into the Great Hall to sit down after your journey.
“Would you like to put your spear down next to Finn’s?” she said, showing him a huge fir tree with a pointed stone at the top. “Over there is Finn’s shield,” she said, pointing to a block of building-oak as big as four chariot-wheels. “Finn’s late for his meal. Will you eat it if I cook his favourite?”
Oonagh baked bread with iron inside it, so when Benandonner bit into it, he broke three front teeth. The meat was a strip of hard fat nailed to a block of red timber so Benandonner bit it and cracked his two back teeth.
“Would you like to say hello to the baby?” asked Oonagh. She pointed him to a cradle in which Finn was hiding dressed in baby clothes.
Oonagh then showed Benandonner into the garden which was scattered with boulders as tall as the giant. “Finn and his friends play catch with these rocks. Finn practises by throwing one over the Fort, then running round to catch it before it falls.”
Benandonner tried, but the boulder was so massive he could barely lift it above his head before dropping it. Feeling fearful, he said he could wait no longer, as he had to return to Scotland before the tide came in.
Finn then leapt from the cradle and chased Benandonner out of Ireland. Digging a huge piece of earth out of the ground, Finn flung it at the Scot, and the hole he made filled up with water becoming the biggest Lough in Ireland – Lough Neagh. The earth he threw missed Benandonner and landed in the middle of the Irish Sea becoming The Isle of Man.
Both giants tore up the Giant’s Causeway, leaving the stony paths at the two shores, which you can still see today.
2. Tír na nÓg – the land of youth comes at a price
Tír na nÓg, or ‘land of the young’, is an otherworldly realm from Irish mythology whose inhabitants are gifted with everlasting youth, beauty, health, and happiness. It was said to be the home of the ancient gods and fairies, but humans are forbidden. Mortals could only enter Tír na nÓg if they were invited by one of its inhabitants. Tír na nÓg features in many Irish stories, but the most famous one is about Oisín, son of Finn MacCool.
Oisín was out hunting with his father’s tribe, the Fianna, when they noticed something moving across the ocean on a wave. Fearing an invasion, they hurried to the coast and prepared for a battle, only to find the most beautiful woman any of them had ever seen. She approached the men introducing herself as Niamh, daughter of the God of the Sea, from Tír na nÓg.
The men were afraid of her as they thought she was a fairy woman, but Oisín introduced himself. The two instantly fell in love, but Niamh was bound to return to Tír na nÓg. Unable to bear leaving her beloved Oisín, she invited him to come back with her. Oisín accepted her invitation leaving his family and fellow warriors behind.
Once they crossed back over the sea to the realm of Tír na nÓg, Oisín received all of the gifts it was famous for; everlasting beauty, health, and of course, the ultimate happiness with his new love.
However, he began to miss the family he left behind, so Niamh gave him her horse to travel back to see them, but warned him he could not touch the ground or he would become mortal again and would never be able to return to Tír na nÓg.
Oisín travelled across the water to his former home, only to find everyone was gone. Eventually, he came across three men so he asked them where his people were. They told him they had all died many years ago. Realising that time passes much slower in Tír na nÓg than on earth, Oisín was devastated and fell to the ground instantly transforming into an old man.
As he had touched the ground, he was unable to travel back to Niamh in Tír na nÓg and soon after died of a broken heart. This is truly one of the top Irish fairy tales and folktales to feed your imagination.
1. Changelings – be careful your baby is really your baby
A changeling is the offspring of a fairy that has secretly been left in place of a human child.
According to the Irish folklore, there is often a secret exchange made where the fairies take a human child and leave a changeling in its place without the parents knowing. The fairies are believed to take the human child to become a servant, because they love the child or for purely malicious reasons.
Some changelings were even believed to be old fairies brought to the human world to be protected before they died.
It was believed being over-envious of someone’s baby, being beautiful or able-bodied, or being a new mother, increased the chances of being the baby swapped for a changeling. They also believed placing a changeling in the fireplace would cause it to jump up the chimney and bring back the rightful human.
Those are our top picks for the best Irish fairy tales and folktales. Have we missed any of your favourites?