It makes sense that much of Ireland’s landscape has a colourful story behind it.
The land is inspiring and diverse; and it’s always had a disproportionate number of poets, songwriters and storytellers.
So, it’s perhaps inevitable that Ireland has produced a rich tradition of folklore that flourishes to this day. And, as you might expect, numerous landmarks are still untouched by time, natural monuments and inspirations for some of our best-known folklore.
Here are some Irish landmarks steeped in mythology. You’ve probably heard one of two of these stories…
Knocknarea Mountain, Sligo
Atop the limestone hill of Knocknarea, sits a famous sight that can be seen for miles. The huge, flat-topped cairn called ‘Miosgan Meadhba’ (Maeve’s Cairn) is 55m in diameter and 10m high.
This cairn is made with local stone: Quartz from the Ox Mountains nearby has been found dotted around the peak. The name of the monument, along with folklore, suggests it was built for the mythical Maeve, the Iron Age Queen of Connaught.
The warrior queen was arguably best-known for The Cattle Raid of Cooley, which all started with a dispute over power with her partner Aillil. Legend has it that each vied to prove their superiority in the relationship. To settle the matter, they counted out all their belongings, and the only difference between them was that Aillil had a magnificent white-horned bull and Maeve had nothing that could compare to it. There was only one bull to match it: the Brown Bull of Cooley. And so, began epic story of the Táin.
The story of Oisín, Niamh and Tír na Nóg is one of Ireland’s most enduring and famous myths. This might be because its themes of love and eternal youth remain relevant, even to modern audiences. While many of us heard it in school or from relatives, the story also found a new audience when it was discussed in the film Into the West.
Tír na Nóg (or “Land of Youth”) is where the godlike Niamh comes from, a land where nobody ages or dies and life is filled with reverie and fun. She falls in love with Oisín, a human, and takes him to this magical place. But after many years in Tír na Nóg, Oisín becomes homesick and returns to Ireland. When he falls from his magical horse and touches Irish soil, he instantly ages and dies.
Oisín’s tragic ending is said to have happened in Kerry’s Glenbeigh. It’s a beautiful part of the world, with miles of beach and a glorious view of the Atlantic. No wonder he wanted to come back.
Beara Peninsula, Cork
Another iconic story, the Children of Lir tells of four children who were turned into swans by a resentful and jealous stepmother. They remained in this form for hundreds of years.
The last 300 years as swans were said to be spent on the Atlantic, and (depending on who you ask) they returned to their natural forms before passing away in Cork’s Beara Peninsula.
Like a lot of places mentioned here, the Beara Peninsula would feel mythic even if there wasn’t any associated folklore. It’s charming, with a great fishing and seafood scene, stunning coastal vistas and more than its share of ancient archaeological wonders.
Westmeath is sometimes seen as a gateway county, but it’s worth visiting in its own right, with several fine walking spots; a rich history and a healthy nightlife.
In ancient times, it was seen as a different kind of gateway – to another world! This was a burial place for a queen, and it was where many kings held their seats. And they say that Uisneach is where Sun God Lugh ended his days. He never fully went away though, according to the myth, and can be seen as a passing comet in the Westmeath skies.
The Uisneach Festival is still an annual tradition, celebrating the fire god every May.
Louth is positively steeped in folklore, as it’s here that they say Cú Chulainn fought for Queen Maeve (her again!) for the Brown Bull of Cooley (him again!). Cú fought his foster brother Ferdia in this battle, which ultimately led to Ferdia’s demise. In more recent years, a public bronze sculpture was built to mark the story.
Going from myth to fact, Ardee Castle is worth a visit. Dating back to the 1400s, it saw several fierce battles, before being turned into a prison in the 1700s.
Another absolute titan of Irish mythology is said to be buried in Louth – the mighty Fionn mac Cumhaill. Speaking of which…
The Mottee Stone in Avoca is often referred to as Fionn mac Cumhaill’s Hurling Stone. The 150-tonne boulder does indeed look like it was flung there by a giant and – the story goes – Fionn pucked this giant sliotar with his hurly from Lugnaquilla Mountain (also in Wicklow).
In the last century, a more scientific theory took hold – that it was brought there by a glacier some 10,000 years ago.
This part of Wicklow also plays host to several hawthorn trees, which have been referred to as “fairy trees”. A lone hawthorn is said to be a meeting place for fairies, so woe betide anyone who cuts one down.
Regardless of whether you believe the folklore, there’s something magical about a story surviving for generations, leaving an invisible imprint on a country’s natural landmarks. These storytellers’ footprints are everywhere in Ireland, if you know how to look.
OSI will help you find these places.