Folklore is defined as the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth. When it comes to Irish folklore and mythology specifically, it is largely represented by folktales, music and balladry, dance, literature, and various other forms of artistic expression.
Like hundreds of other nationalities and communities across the globe, Irish folklore has its own recurring themes and popular motifs that give it a distinctly Irish identity.
There are simply dozens of Irish dances, songs, and ballads that have been passed from generation to generation for centuries in the Emerald Isle. However, in this article we are going to focus on two iconic tales and legends that have become synonymous with Irish folklore.
An Bradán Feasa
The story of Fionn MacCumhail and the Salmon of Knowledge (known in Irish as An Bradán Feasa) is one of Ireland’s most familiar and revered ancient tales. Legend has it that there was a magical fish called the Salmon of Knowledge that once lived in the River Boyne which flows through the province of Leinster. It’s said that the first man or woman to taste the flesh of the Salmon of Knowledge would become wiser than all those around them.
Fingeas was a poet who lived near the River Boyne and had been trying to catch the Salmon of Knowledge for seven years. One day a young warrior named Fionn MacCumhail came to live with Fingeas and was present when the poet finally caught the Salmon of Knowledge.
As Fionn helped Fingeas to cook the Salmon of Knowledge, the skin of the fish burnt his thumb forcing Fionn to put his thumb in his mouth to take the pain away. This accident brought about a new wisdom in Fionn MacCumhail’s eyes.
Fingeas knew at once that Fionn had now become the wisest man in Ireland, and despite waiting years to catch the Salmon of Knowledge, was happy for the young warrior who would go on to become one of the greatest fighters Ireland has ever known.
The Children of Lir
The Children of Lir is another legend from Irish mythology and perhaps one of the best known and globally recognised tales of Ireland. This pillar of Irish folklore, named in Irish as Oidheadh Chlainne Lir, is a story of loss, enduring love, and the freedom of suffering brought about by Christian faith.
Rather unsurprisingly, The Children of Lir is rooted in religious motifs and symbolism, complimented by spellbinding elements of druids and magical spells.
The Children of Lir recounts the story of Lir’s children’s new stepmother Aoife who, having grown jealous of the children’s relationship with Lir, casts a spell and turns them into four white swans. They remained as swans at Lake Derravarragh in Westmeath for four hundred years before fleeing to the Sea of Moyle off the Irish coast. Here they spent a further miserable three hundred years before travelling to Erris in Mayo.
They would go on to visit their childhood home at Sídh Fionnachaidh in Armagh to find their father long passed and their house derelict and unkept, before returning to Erris once more. Here they met a Missionary named St. Mochaomhóg who ended their seemingly endless enchantment and turned them into withered old men an old woman.
Finally, the Christian Missionary baptised the children of Lir before they died peacefully and were buried together.
As you can see, both of these iconic tales of Irish folklore incorporate magic and other similar motifs that are not uncommon in Ireland’s back catalogue of mythology.
Of course, to truly understand, embrace, and enjoy these tales we recommend finding a more detailed and comprehensive telling of them online. However, we hope that this article will have sparked your curiosity around Irish folklore, and that a deep dive of Irish legends is in your near future!
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