Some lessons from ancient folklore and mythology that may have escaped your attention before now

By Stiofán Ó Cadhla and John Carey, UCC

The Irish landscape is supercharged with supernatural powers

From the Early Middle Ages, the Irish landscape was felt to be charged with supernatural powers, and many of the beliefs about this seem far older than the coming of Christianity. The River Boyne was thought to flow from a magic well in the Otherworld, and different stretches of it were identified with the limbs of a dismembered goddess. Stories about the burial mound of Newgrange, which revolve around the magical manipulation of time, and control of the movement of the sun, are reminiscent of the solar alignment that was built into the original structure five thousand years ago.

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From RTÉ Archives, Richard Dowling reports for RTÉ News in 2006 on how experts now believe Newgrange was the site of an ancient Roman prayer site or temple.

The myths of the pagan Irish formed the basis of Ireland's medieval literature

The myths of the pagan Irish provided the materials for many elements in medieval Irish literature. The fairies, or dwellers in the hollow hills, were originally gods and goddesses: early sources call them 'the gods of the earth' or 'the Tribes of the Gods'. Some of them have names that are versions of the names of divinities worshipped elsewhere in the Celtic world: Lug, Ogma, Núadu. One of their greatest kings was called the Dagda, meaning 'the good god'.

One story speaks of the Tribes of the Gods as coming to Ireland not in ships, but in clouds of the air: they descended on the tops of mountains, and darkened the sun for three days and nights. They were still reigning over Ireland when the ancestors of the Irish people of today arrived: the mortals conquered the gods using magic and poetry, and exiled them to the underground realm where they have been ever since.

The druids did not disappear with the coming of Christianity

Ireland has always been famous for its saints. In the early Middle Ages, Ireland was looked to as a beacon of Christian learning in dark times. At the same time, though, the Irish cherished a vivid sense of continuity with a much more ancient past. The druids, who had been the priests of the old religion, did not disappear with the coming of Christianity: they still existed as a recognised profession as late as the eighth century, and kings relied on their magic in time of war. Thanks to the druids, and to other tradition bearers, the myths of the pagan Irish provided the materials for many elements in medieval Irish literature.

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From RTÉ Archives, Alasdair Jackson reports for RTÉ News on druids celebrating the summer solstice on the Hill of Tara in Co Meath in 1997

It was a land of kings and high kings

Gaelic Ireland was a land of kings and high kings; and kingship was believed to have profound connections both with the world of the gods and with the fruitfulness of the earth. Some stories tell how the next king would be seen in a dream by a man who had eaten a ritual meal of bull's flesh, and over whom druids had chanted a special spell. If the king spoke truth, the crops and animals would flourish, but if he spoke a lie all things would wither. The king of Tara was supposed to stand on the outer wall of his stronghold every day before the sun rose, to make sure that the old gods did not take back the land while he slept.

Ireland had the largest archives of folklore in the world

Geographically and culturally located at the western edge of Europe, Ireland has gained a considerable reputation for the rich quality of its folklore, notably in the Irish language, but also in English. In the twentieth century a concerted effort was made by the then Irish Free State to collect this material, assembling one of the largest such archives in the world. This comprises a wide and varied repository of the imagination and creativity drawn upon by many famous writers, poets and playwrights, while also serving as a wellspring of ongoing vernacular culture.

In the past, folklore has sometimes been associated with backwardness, piseoga, and superstitions, and with outmoded customs and habits. This is not the last word, fortunately, and much can be learned by going back to the primary sources. Writer William Carleton listed many of the tradition bearers in 1840: the cosherer, the shanahie, the keener, herbalists, and the foster-nurse. But he gave pride of place to the midwife, who had the secret of brewing beer from heather in gratitude for having done a good turn for the Vikings. The list could be extended considerably, to include the banshee and wise women, illustrative of tenacious ancestral beliefs.]

Dr Stiofán Ó Cadhla is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Folklore and Ethnology at the School of Irish Learning at UCC. Prof John Carey is Head of the Department of Early and Medieval Irish at the School of Irish Learning at UCC. He is a former Irish Research Council awardee.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ