Happy Patrick's Day
Some of the Popular Myths and Legends of Ireland
The Harp of the Dagda
This story concerns the most ancient Irish Celtic gods, the first generation of the Tuatha Dé Danaan who had to fight off the giant races of the Firbolgs and the Formorians. Their history is found in the Lebor Gabála, ‘The Book of Invasions’.
When the fairy race of the Tuatha Dé Danann arrived in Ireland, they came like a mist across the waters, bringing with them magical gifts. These were the Lia fail – the coronation stone, the spear of Lugh, the sword of Nuada, and the great cauldron of the Dagda, which was said to be able to restore life.
The Dagda himself was known as the Good God and he was chief of the gods at this time. Besides his cauldron, he had a harp which was battle-scarred and made of oak. It was covered in rich decorations including a double-headed fish which ran up and down the curved pillar and had jewels for its eyes. Although he had a harper, Uaithne, he could also play it himself.
The Dagda had this harp with him always – he even took it into battle. So it was that after the second Battle of Mag Tuiread, or Moytura, the Dagda discovered that his harp, together with his harper, had been captured by the Formorians and taken with them in their flight. Angered beyond measure, he set out with his son Aengus-Og to reclaim it.
Stealthily they approached the Formorian camp. Soon they could hear the sounds of the feasting hall in which Bres, the Formorian king, was dining. Approaching the doorway, they could just make out through the smoke and candle-flame the outline of the old harp hanging on the wall. Then the Dagda entered boldly and summoned his harp with this chant:
Come Daurdabla, apple-sweet murmurer
Come, Coir-cethair-chuir, four-angled frame of harmony,
Come, Coir-cethair-chuir, four-angled frame of harmony,
Come summer, come winter,
Out of the mouths of harps and bags and pipes!
Immediately the old harp flew to his hand across the hall, killing nine men as it came. A shocked hush fell on the company. In the silence the Dagda laid his hands on the strings and unleashed the Three Noble Strains of Ireland that he had bound into his harp. First he played the goltrai, or strain of weeping, so that all present began to mourn and lament their defeat. Then he played the geantrai, the strain of merriment, so that the company turned to laughter and drunken foolery. Lastly he played the suantrai, or sleep-strain, whereupon the warriors fell into a profound slumber. After this the Dagda and Aengus-Og left the camp as quietly as they had come, taking Uaithne and the harp with them.
The three green leaves of the Shamrock are more than the unofficial symbol of Ireland and one of the marshmallows in Lucky Charms. The Shamrock has held meaning to most of Ireland’s historic cultures. The Druids believed the Shamrock was a sacred plant that could ward off evil. The Celtics believed the Shamrock had mystical properties due to the plant’s three heart-shaped leaves. The Celtics believed three was a sacred number. Some Christians also believed the Shamrock had special meaning- the three leaves representing the Holy Trinity thanks to St. Patrick’s teaching.
Finn MacCool or Fionn Mac Cumhail is a mythological warrior/hunter who led the band of Irish warriors known as the Fianna and created the Giants Causeway that appears in several Irish legends. He is sort of Irish version of the classical Odysseus. One popular story tells of a salmon that knew all of the world’s knowledge. Finn decided to eat the Salmon to gain the knowledge. As he was cooking the fish, juice squirted out and burned Finn’s thumb. Finn stuck his thumb in his mouth to stop the pain and instantly learned the knowledge the salmon carried. From then on, anytime Finn sucked his thumb he gained whatever knowledge he was seeking.
Faeries exist in some form in mythology all over the world but hold a special importance to the Irish. The fairy society in Ireland is thought to be very much alive, and far from Peter Pan’s Tinker Bell. The Celtic name for fairies is sídhe, a word that means a burial mound, hill or earth barrow, since this is where many fairies live. It is said that when the Celts invaded Ireland, the resident people, the Tuatha Dé Danaan who had supernatural powers, were forced to retreat into the hollow hills and were only occasionally seen after that, though people left offerings of meat and milk on their mounds. Fairies can assume a human form, either male or female, for good or evil, to meddle in the affairs of mortal.
They are very tall and thin, eternally young and beautiful in appearance, and generally dressed in white. Although fairies are represented as mischievous, capricious, and even demonic, they could also be loving and bountiful. Sometimes fairies entered into love affairs with mortals, but usually such liaisons involved some restriction or compact and frequently ended in calamity.
The leprechaun is likely the most widely known type of fairy living in Ireland. Leprechauns have been in existence in Irish legend since the medieval times. Traditionally, leprechauns are tall fairies and often appear to humans as an old man – much different from the modern view of a small, childlike fairy in a green suit. As legend holds, Leprechauns love to collect gold, which they store in a pot and hide at the end of a rainbow. If a human catches a leprechaun, the fairy must reveal before he can be released. But by his nature the Leprechaun is cunning and mischievous and will try anything not to hand over his gold. In one tale, a young farmer captures a Leprechaun and forces him to hand over his gold. The Leprechaun says that the gold is hidden beneath a tree in the woods and shows him which one it is. The farmer ties his red scarf around the tree and after making the Leprechaun promise not to remove the scarf he heads to his farm to get a shovel. But when the farmer returns he finds that the Leprechaun has tied a red scarf around every tree in the woods.