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21 Mar 2022

In the Saint Patrick’s Day season, we offer a sampling of some of the themes that will be explored in the forthcoming online MA in Irish Mythology and Folklore, offered by the Department of Early and Medieval Irish and by the Department of Folklore and Ethnology beginning in September 2022. 

Ireland has always been famous for its saints; and 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 in 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. 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 Irish landscape has always been felt to be charged with supernatural powers, and many of the ideas about this seem very old. 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.

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 wall every day before the sun rose, to make sure that the old gods did not take back the land while he slept.

A version of this text has appeared on RTÉ Brainstorm: 

Roinn na Sean- agus na Meán-Ghaeilge

Department of Early and Medieval Irish

Bloc A, Urlár na Talún, Áras Uí Rathaille / Block A, Ground Floor, O'Rahilly Building, UCC, Cork