The following is a guest blog by Jo Zebedee, an author from Northern Ireland. I intend to write a series of blog posts exploring the history and concept of the hero in our culture. As I know nothing about Irish mythology, however, I allied myself with Jo to get a rundown on this topic, and I figured some of you would also find this an entertaining read.
On Best Fantasy Books forum this month, the subject came up of various mythologies and I mentioned the Irish myths, which drew mostly a blank. Which is a real pity when they offer such a rich mine of legends and myth, entwining with our history.
First, though, my get-out-of-jail-free caveat. I’m no expert on Irish myths. But, like most in Ireland, North and South, I’ve heard many of the main legends. I’ve read my Yeats, and various poets, and many retellings. I’ve also written a fantasy book (due in July 2017) set in Ireland and pulling on much of the fairy folklore. Between that and a bit of research, I thought I’d write a quick overview of where the Irish myths can be found and capture some of the better known ones.
A rare photo of the fabled Irish beast known as a W. B. Yeats
Photo by Alice Boughton
*A word on pronounciation – the phonetical capturing of Irish names is never easy. In this, I’ve used a mix of the pronounciation I’m familiar with (which uses the Northern dialect and might well differ from other regions) or the most commonly used pronounciation I could find.
Right; here goes. Irish mythology comes from four key places – known as cycles.
The Ulster Cycle includes the famous Tain Bo Cualinge (often shortened to the Tain – pronounced a little like tye-ain) as its centrepiece. This, as you’d expect of someone from the North of the island, contains characters and stories I’m familiar with, including those of CuChulainn (Coo-cull-ain, known as the Hound of Ulster) and Conchobar (Kon-chav-ar) Mac Nessa, King of Ulster.
Many of the stories in the Ulster cycle have links to Scotland – unsurprising since the two coasts are a mere 14 miles apart – such as the story of Deirdre of the Sorrows, the great tragedy of Irish mythology. It is told that Conchobar hoped to marry the beautiful Deirdre, but she fell in love with Naoise, (Knee-sha) one of the three sons of Uisneach (Is-loo), and they fled with Naoise’s three brothers to Scotland. But they were tempted back to Ireland and betrayed at Emain Macha (now known as Navan Fort, the seat of the ancient kings of Ulster just outside Armagh). The three brothers were murdered and Deirdre married to Conchobar against her will; she later killed herself.
I didn’t say Irish myths were cheerful...
Yet somehow the only thing we ever know about Irish folklore are the leprechauns
Source: FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=385145
A second cycle is known as the Fenian cycle, and dates from around the 3rd century. In this, we have stories of Fionn MacCumhaill (also known as Finn McCool, who created the Giant’s Causeway – don’t believe anything you might read about volcanic rock cooled by the sea), and the Fianna (pronounced Fee-anna, small independent warrior bands).
From this, we get the story of Oisin (Ush-een or Oh-sheen), the last of the Fianna. His most famous tale concerns Tir-na-Nog, the Land of the Young, to which he is taken by the beautiful Niamh (Neeve). He dwells there for what seems a short number of years, but is actually 300, before returning to Earth, where he is instructed to remain on his horse. But the horse trips, or the girth breaks, and Oisin falls to the ground to die. (There are numerous Oisin’s graves throughout Ireland – I use a stone circle named just that near Cushendun in Waters and the Wild.)
Of the remaining two cycles the Mythological Cycle is the least preserved and, once it is understood that the monasteries preserved much of what remains, we can see why. This cycle is concerned with the Tuatha de Danaan (the people of the Goddess Danu) who are claimed to be the first people in Ireland – and are also the basis of the sidhe (shee), or fairy, folk. Within this cycle, the Dream of Aengus is laid out, later used by Yeats in his poetry. More famous, however, is the story of the Children of Lir, forced to spend 900 years as swans before being released from the spell.
It is the mythological cycle where we most clearly see the crossover from Irish legend into the fairy myths still prevalent today. The fairy folk form the basis of the sidhe. The banshee, the pouka, the leprechaun – all are linked to the earliest people in the land, of which little is known.
In both Oisin and The Children of Lir, reference is made to St Patrick (Oisin in some tellings relates his story to Patrick, and in Lir the swans’ release occurs after Patrick and Christianity has come to Ireland) and this may be why the tales have survived – with that reference in place the monasteries were free to record the legends. Just how much the legends were changed to fit with the monastic culture is something we might never know – or indeed, what legends were lost over time.
The final cycle, the Historical Cycle, continues that theme of mixing legend with history. In it we are told about Brian Boru, undoubtedly a real figure, and also Suibhne (Sweeney), cursed by St Ronan to become ½ bird, ½ man, which seems a little less plausible.
This is really just a whistle-stop tour of a myth that is rich and very much alive today (and which forms a large part of Irish tourism.) In Ireland, old traditions are still known. Fairy forts are said to contain the sidhe world and be a crossing between them both. A faerie-thorn tree will never be cut down, for fear of the wrath of the fairies – farmers will work around them rather than cut them down. It’s also a mythology that’s seen in other’s – there are crossovers between the various Celtic mythologies, and into Arthurian legend – and with stories, such as Children of Lir, which are known far beyond the island itself.
It would be a pity if the stories were only contained in Ireland and not further afield, for they are timeless and special.
Jo Zebedee writes science fiction and fantasy, sometimes in her Space Opera world, sometimes set in her native Northern Ireland. She’s the author of the Inheritance Trilogy and Inish Carraig. Her first fantasy will be released in July 2017 from Inspired Quill, a dark fairy-story set in the Glens of Antrim. More about her books can be found on www.jozebedee.com.