In Ireland, fairy tales or legends are fascinating stories that have been passed down through the generations and often include larger-than-life warriors, kings, and hunters.
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Some speak to mythical lands of eternal youth, while others are much more sinister characters exclusive to the Irish, such as the banshee, the merrow, the pooka, and of course, the popular leprechaun.
Here are 4 Irish fairy tales that are great examples of Ireland’s traditions and beliefs.
The Children of Lir
The Children of Lir is a popular fairy tale that is one of three tales recounted in a book called “The Three Sorrowful Tales of Erin.”
This much-loved story is based on King Lir, a member of the Tuatha de Danaan clan, who, along with his wife Aobh (Eva), had four children.
Unfortunately, Lir’s wife dies but he remarries Aoife, his wife’s sister.
At first, Aoife loves her stepchildren. But over time, she grows jealous of their father’s affection for them.
Secretly, she plots to kill them but instead, takes all four to the nearby Lake Derravarragh in County Westmeath and casts a spell on them, transforming them into four white swans.
The spell would last for 900 years, with the children/swans also spending time on the Sea of Moyle between Ireland and Scotland, even settling for a time in Erris, Co. Mayo.
The spell finally breaks when they hear the ringing of a bell in the village of Allihies on the Beara Peninsula. That's when the swans turn into people again, albeit old and wizened at that stage.
Christianity had come to Ireland in the meantime and the four of them were baptized and died peacefully.
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As punishment, Aoife is struck with a druid’s wand that turns her into a demon. She flies off and never returns.
Among the memorials to this great Irish fairy tale/legend is a magnificent Children of Lir sculpture in Ballycastle, Co. Antrim designed by Malcolm Robertson and erected in 2011.
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The Story of Niamh and Oisín and Tir na nÓg
The story goes that Niamh (pronounced “Neve”) comes from beyond the sea on a white horse one day as the Fianna are hunting for deer near the Lakes of Killarney.
Niamh identifies herself as “Niamh of the Golden Hair” and the daughter of the King of the Land of Youth.
Soon after, she declares her love for Oisín, the son of Finn McCool of the Fianna.
Her wish is to take him to Tir na nÓg, which she does after convincing him of the promises that this far-off land holds for them both.
Niamh and Oisín live in Tir na nÓg for more than 300 years and have two sons and a daughter there.
After many years, though, Oisín is anxious to see Ireland again and so Niamh reluctantly allows him to return.
There is a condition, however. If Oisín touches the ground in Ireland, he will immediately age and be unable to see Niamh again.
When Oisín returns to Ireland, he discovers that the Fianna are long gone and that Christians now inhabit the land.
At one point, he is asked to help lift a marble flagstone. But at that moment, the horse’s belt breaks and Oisín falls to the ground, immediately turning into a blind, feeble old man.
The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne
This love triangle of a tale concerns Diarmuid, a member of the Fianna, and the princess Gráinne, the daughter of Cormac Mac Airt, a High King of Ireland.
The story begins with an aging Finn (Fionn) McCool, who is to be married to the much younger Gráinne.
At their betrothal feast, Gráinne is upset that Fionn is so much older than her and becomes enamored with the younger, handsome warrior Diarmuid.
After giving a sleeping potion to the other guests, she encourages Diarmuid to run away with her. He hesitates at first out of loyalty to Fionn, but when Gráinne threatens him, he complies, and a lengthy pursuit follows.
At first, Diarmuid and Gráinne hide in a forest across from the River Shannon.
Eventually, peace is made with Fionn and the couple settle in County Sligo, where they have five children.
Toward the end of the story, Fionn organizes a boar hunt near Benbulben and Diarmuid agrees to participate.
The boar, however, injures Diarmuid and despite the fact that Fionn has the capability of saving him, Fionn instead decides to let him die.
Diarmuid and Gráinne’s Cave located at the back of the Gleniff Horseshoe in County Sligo is a popular spot for hikers and provides great views of the surrounding countryside.
The cave is one of the highest in Ireland.
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Deirdre of the Sorrows
This fairy tale involves a beautiful young girl named Deirdre, the daughter of a royal storyteller, a druid named Cathbad, and Ulster’s High King Conchobhar Mac Nessa.
While Deirdre is still a child, the druid prophesizes that her beauty will cause kings and lords to go to war over her, even forcing three of Ulster’s greatest warriors to flee the country.
But instead of getting rid of her, the king decides to take her away from her family and raise her himself in a secluded area of the province.
When she is old enough, Deirdre expresses an interest in meeting a man with skin as white as snow and cheeks as red as blood.
The king introduces Deirdre to his nephew, Naoise, and they fall in love.
Both know, however, that if the king discovers their love for each other, he will have them killed, so Naoise and Deirdre, along with his two younger brothers, flee to Scotland.
The furious king eventually tracks them down and lures them back to Ireland. On the night of their return to Emain Macha, Deirdre and Naoise are treated to a royal feast.
Emain Macha, otherwise known as Navan Fort in County Armagh, is one of the great royal sites of pre-Christian Ireland and is a popular tourist attraction.
They are told that they will meet with the king and that he will be happy to see them.
Deirdre doesn’t trust the plan but goes ahead with it anyway.
Her instincts prove to be right. No sooner has the king appeared but he orders his knights to seize Deirdre and to kill the others.
After Naoise’s death, Deirdre lives with Conchobhar for a while, much to her despise.
After a year or so, the king, tired of her sullen silence, has Deirdre’s hands and feet bound and has her thrown into a chariot, with orders to take her to the man who has killed her husband.
On the way, Deirdre throws herself out of the chariot and is instantly killed.
The fairy tale was so popular in Irish culture that in 1971, the Irish Naval Service named a vessel after her.
The famous playwright John Millington Synge began writing a three-act play called “Deirdre of the Sorrows,” but it was unfinished at the time of his death in 1909.
Watch the entire play performed at the Druid Theatre in Galway below.
Have you read any of these 4 Irish fairy tales or similar Irish folk legends? Let me know in the comments below.