Irish mythology is a unique part of Ireland’s culture. These tales are passed on from generation to generation but are sometimes still referenced in every-day life. The creatures that feature in these tales are weird, wonderful and terrifying. They are also used to teach life lessons to children- no child will venture towards an unsupervised river after hearing the story of the Kelpie! Below are some of our favourite Celtic legendary creatures.
1. The Leprechaun
You’ve probably heard of The Leprechaun, but did you know that he is an Irish mythological creature? Before becoming a mascot for St. Patrick’s Day and all other things Irish, the Leprechaun was originally a shoe cobbler! Many dress up as this infamous character on March 17th, using fake ginger beards and green top hats (available from our St. Patrick’s Day costume section).
Often seen as a symbol of luck, the Leprechaun collects gold and hides it at the end of a rainbow. If you see him, he must grant you three wishes before he can be released. However, use these wisely! He may try to trick you. One story tells of a man who captured a leprechaun and wished to be taken to the gold. The leprechaun showed the man the tree under which the gold was hidden, but the man did not have a shovel to uncover the treasure. He set the leprechaun free and marked the tree with his garter so he could go and get a shovel. However, when he returned he found that every tree in the area had an identical garter tied to it. The moral of the story is, get rich quick schemes never work!
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2. The Banshee
The banshee is considered an omen of death and the fear of every Irish child. The sighting or the sound of this ominous character’s cry is a prediction of death. King James I of Scotland was said to have been confronted by a banshee shortly before he passed away. Her appearance comes in a number of guises, a young woman, a stately matron or withered hag, but always dressed in a white cloak. Some stories say the banshee can appear as a crow, weasel or stoat: all animals of witchcraft.
However, the story behind the Banshee is not a callous one and traces back to the 8th century. The tradition was that some women took on the role of a ‘keener’ at funerals, where they sang sad songs, called ‘Caoineadh’ – the Irish word for ‘crying’ – at the graveside. The best keeners attended the funerals of the affluent and well-known people and were well paid by wealthy families. Many powerful families referred to their keeners as a ‘bean sidhe’, or a ‘fairy woman,’ fairies being more talented singers than any human. This is where the name ‘Banshee’ originated.
3. The Pooka
The Pooka is the most feared type of Irish fairy. They are violent tricksters who emerge solely at night. Pookas often take the form of a black horse who stampede at night trampling fences, properties, and crops. If chickens or cows see a Pooka they will be too traumatised to produce eggs or milk for weeks. Like many other Irish folklore creatures, different areas of Ireland claim that Pookas have different forms. In County Wexford Pookas are said to take the form of large, dark eagles while in Laois, Pookas take the form of a terrifying boogeyman character.
Pookas are shapeshifters. While they take the form of a horse to wreak night-time destruction, they will take the form of a goblin to claim a share of the harvest. Farmers would often leave a share of their harvest in their fields as the Pooka’s share in an attempt to appease them.
Pookas are said to have mastered human speech. They use this to call their victims’ names one by one from outside their house. If the person emerges they are dragged away by the Pooka, but if no one comes outside the Pooka will vandalise the property. Many believe that Puck, from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was based on a Pooka. The similarities in the name and Puck’s mischievous behaviour certainly support this theory.
4. The Merrow
The word Merrow comes from the Irish words Muir, meaning sea and Oigh, maid. Merrow-men are hideously ugly male sea-creatures, whereas the female of the species, Merrows, are strikingly beautiful. They are not to be confused with mermaids as they have human-like legs instead of a tail. However, unlike humans, Merrows have large, flat feet and webbed fingers to improve swimming.
The Merrow’s ability to travel in water is gained from her clothing which, again, varies from region to region. Some say her abilities come from a red-feathered cap while others claim it comes from a sealskin cape. Either way, for her to walk on land she must abandon her cap or cape. If a man finds and hides these garments, the Merrow is forced to become his wife and she cannot return to the ocean. Merrows are desirable brides with their extreme beauty and riches collected from the ocean floor. However, as soon as she finds her garments again, she is overwhelmed by the urge to return to the sea and will leave her husband and children. Many families claim to be descended from Merrows entrapped by fishermen.
5. The Kelpie
Kelpies are evil water spirits who haunt rivers and lakes. They often appear as a foal or horse with a perpetually soaking wet mane. Their cute, dishevelled appearance attracts people, often children, to get onto their back. Once the poor rider is on the back, the Kelpie’s skin becomes adhesive and traps its victim. The Kelpie then rides into the water drowning their victim. They eat the victim leaving only the heart and liver.
Kelpies have been known to appear as incredibly handsome men and, less commonly, beautiful women. Like the Merrow, Kelpies can be trapped on land in human form if a person steals and hides their silver bridle. There are many stories of women marrying Kelpies in human form. This story is often used by Irish parents to keep children away from the water.
6. The Changeling
A Changeling is believed to be the replacement of a human child stolen by fairies. This could be either a fairy’s baby, an elderly fairy in disguise or an object made to look like an infant by fairy magic. Fairy births were said to often result in deformation. As adult fairies are obsessed with beauty, they will try to swap their child with a human baby.
Changelings all have old, wrinkled, yellow skin and screech all day and night. They feed on good fortune and find joy in disaster striking their adopted family. Truly any parent’s nightmare. As changelings grow, they are drawn towards instruments. They have a mesmerising skill, causing anyone who hears them play to become entranced.
7. The Far Darrig
The Far Darrig is the Leprechaun’s evil twin. Their name translates to Red Man, which is apt as they wear a red cape and hat. They are gruesome practical jokers and carry a human-sized burlap sack ready to kidnap people with. They trap their victims in a room and use their ventriloquist skills to project inhuman noises around their victims. Their most terrifying noise is the laugh of a dead man. Far Darrigs have also been connected to the stealing of human babies to be replaced with changelings. They are associated with nightmares and find delight in terror.
There are stories of Far Darrigs luring men to their house and ordering them to cook dinner, only to find that dinner is a skewered hag cooking over a fire. There is one sure-fire way to avoid being subject to The Far Darrigs tricks; you must say ‘you will not mock me’ before you are trapped. This, however, is much harder than it sounds as Far Darrigs set well-hidden traps.
8. Fear Gorta
Fear Gortas appear as walking corpses. With their protruding bones, deathly skinniness, blueish skin and rotting flesh they truly are a terrifying sight. They wander during famine asking whoever they encounter for food. Those who give the Fear Gorta food are rewarded with lifelong wealth and prosperity, those who do not will suffer bad luck and poverty. The moral of the story is to always share.
There is another story stating that the Fear Gorta is a cursed patch of grass above a grave and anyone who steps on it is cursed with eternal hunger. If this hunger is not met with food, the person will die.
Another Irish death omen, the Dullahan is a headless man riding a black horse wearing a black cape. In his left hand, he holds a human spine for a whip and in the right, he holds his grinning head. The Dullahan rides to the area in which the death will take place and calls the name of the soon to be deceased. The story goes that if you see a still Dullahan, someone in the area will die imminently. The Dullahan holds his head up high in any direction in order to observe the death.
Dullahans do not take kindly to onlookers. If a Dullahan catches you looking he will either blind you in one eye using his whip or cover you in blood. There have been countless local reports of Dullahan sightings right before a death.
10. The Abhartach
There was once a magical Irish tyrant who enforced great cruelties on his people. Thankfully he was killed and buried standing up. However, the relief was not long-lasting. The next day the dwarf emerged from the grave, using his magical powers, more cruel and vicious than ever. The Abhartach has been known to drink the blood of his victims. Some say that he is the inspiration behind Dracula. There is only one way to stop the Abhartach; you must kill him and bury him upside down.
There is no doubt that the mythological creatures of Ireland are truly unique. As well as giving an insight into Irish beliefs and culture, many of them tell a life lesson. Whether this is to be sharing, kind or simply to keep your wits about you, the tricks and cruel acts performed by these creatures are sure to set you straight! If this post sparked your interest in Irish Mythological Creatures, uncover more with this book of Irish Legends that shares myths, photographs, and Ireland’s most enchanted places. Were you told of any other Irish mythological creatures as a child? Let us know in the comments below!