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Popular Mythology of Northern Ireland

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Although Northern Ireland is only 80 years old itself, its history goes back millennia. Here are just a few of the myths that are related to Northern Ireland. There are plenty of myths, and these are some of the most well known national examples.

The Shamrock Sermon

St Patrick's ministry, although not exclusive to Northern Ireland, did have a lot of influence in the North. A couple of legends about Patrick may have been northern, but then again they may not have been.

The first relates to that symbol of Ireland - the Shamrock. Upon landing in Ireland, Patrick saw the three-leafed plant growing everywhere. So following Jesus' example for illustration, he used it to explain one of the toughest concepts in Christian theology - the Trinity. The shamrock, despite having three entirely separate leaves which can, if they become separated, survive and breed more, all share the one stem, just as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit form the one godhead, while being separate entities.

Of course Patrick is most famous for making Ireland a snake-free zone by banishing them from the Emerald Isle. There have been calls by some political commentators from both sides down the years that this banishment needs to be used again to get rid of the political snakes which are entwining through and constricting Northern Irish politics.


Cuchulain was the nephew of King Conor of Ulster, and is renowned as the 'Achilles'1 of Ireland. Along with two other heroes, Laegire and Conall, he was put to a test by King Ailill of Connaught.

First, the three dined in a separate room at King Conor's court. Ailill sent in three magic beasts in the form of cats. While the other two hid in the rafters, Cuchulain continued to eat until attacked. Then he drew his sword, struck the monster, and was not attacked all night. The creatures disappeared in the morning.

Laegire and Conall moaned that the test had been unfair, so they were all sent to Curoi of Kerry, who was a wise man. He was to use wizardry and enchantments to determine the greatest of the heroes. Laegire and Conall stood outside Curoi's castle but were overcome by a giant. Cuchulain withstood the giant, then a dragon, and a succession of other foes. Still, Laegire and Conall refused to accept him as the champion and the three returned to Armagh.

A stranger bearing a large axe approached King Conor and said:

Behold my axe! The man who will grasp it today may cut my head off with it, provided that I may, in like manner, cut off his head tomorrow. If you have no champion who dare face me, I will say that Ulster has lost her courage and is dishonoured.

Laegire was present at Conor's court and readily accepted the challenge. He beheaded the stranger, but rather than falling dead, the stranger simply gathered the axe and head, and departed. The stranger returned the following evening to redeem the second part of the challenge, but Laegire refused to come forward. Conall accepted the challenge in his place and beheaded the stranger as before, and just like Laegire, Conall failed to step forward for the second half of the challenge the next evening. Finally, it was Cuchulain's turn. He beheaded his opponent in battle as the others had done, and then waited in fear to lose his head. But when the stranger turned up the following evening, the fear departed and Cuchulain placed his head on the block to face his fate. The axe was raised and came down... on the blunt edge, which hit the floor beside the unharmed and relieved Cuchulain. Only then did the stranger reveal himself to be none other than Curoi, who had simply propped a false head above his own to ensure his 'beheading' wasn't terminal.

Curoi said:

Rise up, Cuchulain. There is none among all the heroes of Ulster to equal you in courage and loyalty and truth. The Championship of the Heroes of Ireland is yours from this day forth.

Then he promptly vanished.

There are many fables and poems about the exploits of Cuchulain and the successes he achieved. He is definitely a figure of legend to rate with the greatest in Roman or Greek mythology.

The Giant of the Causeway

The Giant's Causeway is of course one of the great geological wonders of Northern Ireland, but before the geologists spoiled the fun this was how the basalt columns were believed to have come into being.

Finn MacCool was the giant who lived on the North Coast of Ireland. He had a great rivalry with Benandonner across the sea in Scotland. After a dispute about their respective fighting ability, Finn grabbed a rock a threw it towards Scotland issuing a challenge to settle this claim. Benandonner responding with another rock, saying he could not swim. Finn MacCool then tore slabs of volcanic rock from the plateau around him to pave a causeway to get across to his rival, the remains of which are the Giant's Causeway.

Benandonner had to accept his challenge, came across the causeway and entered Finn MacCool's house to find the comparatively small (by giant standards) Finn dressed as a baby. Benandonner picked up the 'baby', whereupon Finn bit his rival's hand and chased him back to Scotland, pelting him with clumps of dirt. Legend has it that one of these clumps left a hole in the Irish land (a hole now filled in as Lough Neagh), but this missed its target and landed in the Irish Sea to become the Isle of Man.

Further Reading

1The noted Greek hero.

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