6 of the best Irish myths and legends
By Heather Keane
Irish folklore goes deep when it comes to weird creatures, spooky old women and epic tales of magic and wizardry. Leprechauns barely scratch the surface, and you’re more likely to bag yourself a horrific generation-spanning curse than a pot of gold when dealing with legendary Irish figures. Here are some of the best myths, legends and folklore from the home of Halloween, along with where you might spot them in contemporary fantasy and horror.
1. Samhain (pronounced SOW-in)
Ireland has excellent pagan history, and Samhain is the best known of all the traditions – it birthed contemporary Halloween. Timed around important seasonal farming changes, Samhain was the night where the boundaries between our world and the fairies’ blurred, and you best avoid their ire. Offerings were left out, bonfires were lit and people disguised themselves as Aos Sí (the spirits or fairies) so otherworldly figures would mistake them for one of their own. These people spent the night reciting songs in exchange for food, hoping their audience would think they were actual fairies – the pagan version of trick-or-treating. Samhain is mentioned across horror, from Trick’r’Treat to True Blood.
2. The Banshee
The other Irish myth that’s most likely to be known outside the country is that of the Banshee. The Banshee is a wraith-like spirit who appears around the house or farm of a family the night before one of their members dies, shrieking in warning and lament. She’s been preserved up to the present day by the tradition of keening – in which a wailing woman, often a professional, is a key member of the mourning process – and Banshee Bones crisps, naturally. You might know the name from the Halo vehicle, Mass Effect, or Seamus Finnegan’s boggart.
3. Na Púcaí (the pookas)
The púca is similar to the poltergeist, and not unlike Harry Potter’s Peeves. Devilish and a trickster, but known to also lend a helping hand, the shapeshifting púca is more menacing than evil. Children are warned not to eat overripe blackberries, because that means the púca have been messing with them, and you’d be scared to walk long distances alone at night for fear of running into one. The only day of the year they could be trusted was November 1st, after the appeasement of Samhain. They’re featured in The Spiderwick Chronicles, and Frank the Rabbit in Donnie Darko is based on the púca.
Selkies are a bit like mermaids, except they’re fully human on land and take the form of seals in water. However, instead of the usual siren-style myth based around the seductive power of female sexuality, male selkies also appeared and were said to couple up with married women waiting for their fishermen to return home. Selkies are bound to the sea and any affair with a human is usually cut short by their need to return to the water. Song of the Sea is a very excellent 2014 Irish animated film that follows a young boy’s discovery that his mother is a selkie sent to land in order to free faeries, and the selkie is also seen in games like Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles and Dungeons & Dragons.
5. Queen Méabh (pronounced like Maeve)
Queen Méabh was an OG feminist. Wife to multiple husbands, none of whom satisfied her, she’s a figure of fierce passion in Irish mythology and has a record to prove it. Determined to have equal wealth as her husband at the time, she learned that he was one champion bull richer than her. When seducing the owner of the rival bull fell through, she started a war to get it. Her grave is at the top of a mountain in the west of Ireland and she’s said to be buried upright so that she will forever be facing her enemies. Queen!
6. Abhartach (pronounced OW-err-tuck)
Abhartach was a chieftain said to be imbued with some sort of evil powers, a cruel ruler whose people wanted rid of him. Another chieftain was persuaded to kill him, but the following day Abhartach returned and demanded a bowl of blood drawn from his subjects’ veins. He was appeased before being slain a second time, only to have the exact same pattern happen day after day. A local druid instructed the chieftain to slay him once more but with a sword made of yew wood, and to bury him upside down with a heavy stone atop the body. Attempts to move the stone over the last century have led to freak accidents, and the land is avoided. Though vampires are traditionally associated with Transylvania, there’s evidence to suggest that Abhartach was an original inspiration for the beast.