IRELAND: WHERE MYTH & LEGEND LIVE ON
IRELAND: WHERE MYTH & LEGEND LIVE ON
It’s no wonder Ireland is known throughout the world for its fabled landscapes and entertaining stories. When you travel around the country it feels like there’s a tale in every field, a myth in every mountain and a legend surrounding every stream, river and lake. The native inclination for a good tale has come down through the ages, the generations and the evocative Irish language, leaving a myriad of old Celtic stories rooted in actual places you can still see, touch and experience.
If you want to hear about them, just ask. The talkative characters, artists, writers, poets of practically any Irish village or town will only be too happy to recount the local lore – and usually with a bit of craic and the gift of the gab.
Take County Meath, one of the best places to explore a beautiful touring region called Ireland’s Ancient East. It’s the location of some of the country’s most important historic sites and ancient monuments, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Brú na Bóinne (Palace of the Bend of the Boyne) and the royal site at the Hill of Tara.
Legends abound here and one of the best loved had been told by the druids of old. In a still, dark pool in the shade of the hazel trees overhanging the River Boyne there lived the Salmon of Knowledge. According to prophecy, the one who would eat the salmon would gain its knowledge for themselves.
A boy called Fionn caught the salmon for his master, the wise Finnegas, a man of vast knowledge to whom he had been sent to learn. While cooking the fish, Fionn accidentally burnt his thumb, and putting it in his mouth to ease the pain, unwittingly tasted the fish and took the prize. And so it was that when Fionn MacCumhall grew up, he did indeed become a wise poet and leader of the greatest band of warriors Ireland has ever known…
From the heights of the Hill of Tara it seems you see not only into the distance, but into Tara’s great legends of Fionn MacCumhall, chariot-driving high kings and old hags who transform themselves into beautiful women. But in more modern times the lands around Tara formed part of the vast Bellinter Estate and were once thought to hold one of the world’s most mythical treasures.
In 1890, its then owner, Gussie Briscoe, was approached by the British Israel Association of London, who believed the fabled Ark of the Covenant was buried near the Hill of Tara. Gussie gave permission to excavate the site in 1899 and works continued for three years – but to no avail. Some say the Ark of the Covenant may be the basis of the concept of the mythical crock of gold. Others will tell you the origin of the ‘Emerald Isle’ is due to the emerald birthstone of one of the Lost Tribes of Israel which allegedly migrated to Ireland.
Briscoe himself was a character. Stories of his exploits are legion, including the one where he rode his horse up the servant’s stairs at Bellinter House, now a lavish hotel. When his poor horse reached the top of the stairs it refused to descend, and having stubbornly remained there for more than a week eventually had to be winched down to safety.
In Irish mythology the Tuatha De Danann (People of the Goddess Danu) were a race of deities and heroes, skilled in art, science, and poetry and magic. One of the places they are associated with is the ancient Grianan of Ailigh Fort in Inishowen in County Donegal.
Widely regarded as one of the more intriguing places to visit in Ireland, this Celtic fortress was built on the site of a former Tuatha de Danann palace, which legend says was called the Palace of the Northern Princes.
The nearby An Grianan Hotel gains its inspiration from the fortress and on site the hotel incorporates the Old Church Visitor Centre, where you can meet characters from the Tuatha de Danann clan and learn of their heroic battles throughout the ages.
Celtic Feast Nights at An Grianan Hotel also celebrate Irish mythology in word, dance, music and food – a great place to dine with ancient gods and warriors, get fun photo opportunities and enjoy battle re-enactments, mead and traditional live Irish entertainment.
In Celtic mythology Aonghus was the god of love and he is eternally youthful. His true name is Aonghus Óg (‘Young Aonghus’), and his summer residence was the stunning Dun Aonghus, an amazing site on Inis Mór (Inishmore), the largest of the three Aran Islands on Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. From this place Aonghus Óg was able to reach the land of eternal youth, Tir na Óg.
One night in a dream Aonghus saw Caer – and fell in love. He searched for Caer for years and years. Each year she changed shape – from swan to beautiful woman, to swan, to beautiful woman. Aonghus’ searches led him to find her among 150 swans. His love was so deep he turned into a swan himself so he could be with her. Together they became the protectors of loving couples.
Four bright birds represent Aonghus Óg’s his four kisses, so if four birds encircle your head and sing when walking the winding hill to Dun Aonghus, it could just mean you are charmed and ready for love.
Learning about Ireland’s myths and legends can be combined with walking the ancient sites and novel and memoir writing retreats organised by the internationally renowned Creative Writer’s Workshop on Inis Mór.
Naturally, the legendary figure of St Patrick features in many aspects of a trip to Ireland, and throughout the country there are many places to explore the fable, folklore and facts about the country’s world-famous patron saint.
County Armagh and County Down are two of the locations on the island most closely associated Patrick and an 82-mile Pilgrim’s Way walking route which runs between the city of Armagh and the town of Downpatrick has recently been launched.
The two magnificent cathedrals and the Navan Fort Centre in Armagh, as well as Saul Church, St Patrick’s Grave and the St Patrick Centre in Downpatrick provide plenty of opportunities to delve into the myth and the legend.
It must be said that the actual dates of Patrick’s life cannot be fixed with real certainty, but with the Irish people’s renowned love of stories and storytelling, that can only mean the legends will continue to grow – and fascinate.