Irish myths and legends ( 1 ) - The Giant's Causeway

by Veronica

I am fascinated by myths and legends and I hope to start doing some Irish myths and legends. Where best to start than with the most famous Irish myth of all? The Giant's Causeway.

The mythology of Ireland is long, vast and colourful. It developed out of tales told around the fire on stormy, dark nights in a beautiful landscape and seascape. The tales were elaborated on and embellished until we have a host of traditions and stories which every child in Ireland is raised on.

How do we distinguish a myth from a legend. ?

A myth is a story from long ago. Some were told to explain a geological, meteorological phenomenon. Some just developed from tales to entertain in days before electricity, TV film. It is usually logically impossible.

A legend is a tale from long ago which most probably has an element of truth in it and is usually about a place or a person.

Simply Beautiful

The Giant's Causeway, County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
The Giant's Causeway, County Antrim, Northern Ireland.
Belfast Telegraph

Giant's Causeway, County Antrim

What and where is The Giant's Causeway ?

The Giant's Causeway is in County Antrim on the north east coast of Northern Ireland.

It consists of tens of thousands of stone pillars like a pathway leading out into the sea. The stones are mainly hexagonally shaped although some are four, five, seven or eight sided. The tallest are nearly 40 feet high. They were formed by volcanic activity thousands of years ago. The volcanoes spewed out their lava and as it cooled it contracted and caused the spectacular shaped columns we see today; thousands of them like stepping stones.

It is a beautiful place looking out to Scotland over the sea, very ethereal and spiritual. The causeway runs under the sea between Scotland and Northern Ireland and indeed comes out on the other side in Scotland with another causeway. On the Scottish side, it is not accessible but it is still there. The Scottish Causeway therefore is not as well-known as the Northern Irish Causeway.

Volcanic activity shaped the stones

Look at the shapes
Look at the shapes
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Irish mythical creatures

  • puca- a mischievous shape changer, malevolent or benevolent
  • bean sidhe ( ban shee ) - a female spirit who foretells the death of a family member by wailing
  • dullahan - irish fairy
  • leprechaun- a little, drunk fairy shoe maker, beer drinker
  • merrow - a sea fairy
  • sideog ( she -og ) - an irish fairy
  • cluricaun - irish spirit who drinks anything alcoholic
  • Fear Dearg - a  mischievous spirit like a leprechaun but dressed all in red

The myth of the Giant's Causeway

Finn McCool

Given the traditions and the geology it is not surprising that a myth about such a beautiful place developed.

The giant Fionn (Finn) appears in a few Irish myths and legends

The Irish giant Fionn mac Cumhall (Finn McCool), was at home with his wife Oonagh one day when a stranger arrived and delivered a challenge to Fionn to fight a Scottish giant variably known as Angus, Cu Challain or Benandona.

Fionn accepted the challenge and worked hard to build a causeway across the sea so that the two giants could meet.

One evening Fionn came home and Oonagh was looking anxiously at him. She had heard that the Scottish giant was much bigger than Fionn and was definitely stronger.

Fionn announced that if he couldn't beat the Scottish giant by strength, he would beat him by being clever.

Oonagh promptly set to work sewing big baby clothes, disguised Fionn as a baby and put him in a big cot. When the giant arrived, Oonagh invited him in and said that he must not wake the baby. When the giant saw how huge “the baby" was he thought how HUGE Fionn, the baby's father, must be.

The giant ran back to Scotland across the causeway in fright, destroying the Causeway behind him, picking up the stones and throwing them down in the sea so that Fionn would not be able to follow him. Only a few stones remained jutting out into the sea.

The Scottish giant never returned to Ireland.

 

Updated: 05/17/2018, Veronica
 
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Veronica on 03/17/2019

Ty Irish mythology is full of amusing and scary tales. I can always visualise them being told around the fire on dark, cold, bad weather nights.

Mira on 03/17/2019

This is quite a funny story :) Thank you so much for sharing! Also, as always, your comments and Frank's are fascinating.

Veronica on 03/17/2019

Yes quite so. Folk lore in Ireland has remained an important tradition and feature. This I think comes about because of " yarning " which is when families gathered together before TVs and computers and told stories " yarning " by the fire . Love it !

frankbeswick on 03/16/2019

Irish people treat sheogy places with respect. People are wary about disturbing a hawthorn. .

Veronica on 03/16/2019

Great information on the Gaelic pronunciation . TY for the tips.

frankbeswick on 03/07/2019

Another point about a sideog is that a place where the fairies are present is said to be sheogy. In England such places were said to be fey [hence Morgana le Fey.] Fairy forts are said to be sheogy. These are bronze age structures a bit small to be real forts, and are simply mounds,probably family dwellings. Certain spots are in local lore deemed sheogy.

A note on pronunciation and spelling. Sidhe is pronounced she as Irish does not pronounce median dentals [d, t, dh,th]. Hence Tuatha de Danaan is pronounced Tua. Atha is an Irish ending for a plural noun. A median dental is one of these sounds in the middle of a word.

Veronica on 03/06/2019

Frank, thanks for all your input. Your knowledge of Ireland and mythology is always greater than mine so your input is hugely appreciated .

Veronica on 03/06/2019

Derdriu, hello, Yes, this is possibly one of my top two Irish myths and legends. I think it is because there is a place to visit, ( Giant's causeway ) associated with the myth. The Causeway is a stunning almost mystical place and I can see why a myth would have grown up surrounding the place.

As Frank says, the dullahan is more on the darker side of the mythology.
When I was in Galway, our tour guide told us that a Sidehe / sideog ( she-og ) was a West of Ireland name for a fairy.

Thank you so much for returning. Irish mythology is superb isn't it.

frankbeswick on 03/06/2019

Sidhe means burial mounds [singular si, pronounced she]' Hence the Aos Si were the mound people. A sideog is then one of the Aos Si. The term for mounds became synonymous with those who dwelt in them, hence the Sidhe are the Irish fairies.

Legend has it that the Sidhe are the Tuatha de Danaan,the people of the goddess Dana, the ancient great goddess, who was the deity of the neolithic culture of Ireland before the development of sky god cultures across Europe.People believed that the Tuatha de Danaan were the original inhabitants of the isle displaced by the invading Milesians [Celts] but genetic research has shown that the invasion was slight and cultural rather than a large population shift, and that the modern Irish are in fact substantially descended from the first inhabitants of the isle.

The defeated Tuatha de Danaan were said to be a magical folk who retreated to their mounds where their ancestors were buried and where they still dwell today. These mounds are sometimes known as fairy forts and are treated with great respect by many people, who never disturb them, and go not near them at night. Similarly, the hawthorn, a tree associated with the goddess and the fairies, is treated with respect by some people, who will never disturb a mature one. This is a remnant of the old fairy faith of these isles.

frankbeswick on 03/06/2019

The word dullahan originates in the word dhu, which means dark or black. I am unsure of the rest of the word, but I suspect the word means "dark one." Note though that a black man is fear gorm [pronounced far gorum]so the word dhu does not denote ethnic blackness. It denotes the darkness of night and/or moral darkness.


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