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Irish Folk Tales: amaze your friends with strange stories

We have all heard fairy stories and folk tales as children. Little girls expect one day they will go to the ball to meet a handsome prince. We wish a fairy godmother would come and wave a magic wand to swish us into a magical existence. However, history shows us that the original stories are usually much more gruesome. I found this out when I read the original Grimm’s fairy tales to my children. People sometimes wonder why were the original fairytales so dark? I can’t say for sure, but children were often left alone while parents were doing work. These tales often acted as a deterrent to kids for avoiding danger. While the brothers Grimm were German, Irish folk tales are no different.

Last year I found out through Ancestry DNA that I have Irish blood in me. This led me to seek out Celtic mythology.

Luckily we found an online experience through Airbnb. We had the pleasure of meeting with Mark and some other virtual travelers for a virtual tour of Irish folk tales and weird true stories from Dublin, Ireland. These are meant to be a sample of short Irish folk tales. If you enjoy these Irish folk tales, you may enjoy additional tales paired with a virtual Irish Whiskey tasting.

Ancient History

During the last ice age, glaciers connected Ireland and England. When the ice melted Ireland stood as a lone island in the Atlantic Ocean. The Celts from Gaul migrated north which is where the Gaelic language and culture originate from. However, the Romans never made it this far north due to the cold climate. They referred to Ireland as Hibernia (land of eternal winter.)

Irish Folk Tale of the Shamrock

shows a shamrock, symbol of Irish Fairy Tales but also symbolizes the Holy Trinity
Symbol of Holy Trinity

Pagans who worshipped many gods inhabited Ireland until Saint Patrick arrived from Wales. One version of the story says Irish raiders kidnaped Patrick. However, he managed to escape. After that he studied to become a priest and returned to Ireland to get rid of the pagans. He used the 3 points of the shamrock as a symbol to represent the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This symbol has stuck ever since. Sadly, in 2020, Ireland did not celebrate St. Patrick’s Day in public due to Covid-19. At this time pubs have reopened, so this year will be a happy Saint Patrick’s Day.

Viking Lore

The Vikings invaded and took over Ireland in the 9th century and controlled Ireland for 300 years. Finally the English helped defeat the Vikings. However, the English “forgot” to go home and stayed in Ireland.

The Pirate Queen: Irish Folk Tale or Truth

Shows legendary pirate queen Grace O'Malley meeting with Queen Elizabeth
By crop from File:Grace O’Malley – Anthologia Hibernica – full page.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9980590

During the 16th century pirate queen Grace O’Malley roamed the seas with her fleet of ships. Rumor states that the Queen of England heard tales of this pirate queen which intrigued her. After all the two had the rare position of being rulers over men during a time when that was unheard of. The tale goes on that the two became great friends.

Another story about the pirate queen states that she stopped ashore for some provisions and found a castle gate locked. The owners told her she would have to wait until the next day. As a result she kidnaped a child from the castle. Her ransom demands included a public apology, that the castle never lock their gates, and that an extra place always be set for dinner. She got her wishes, and the castle gates remain open with an extra place setting at the table to this day.

Grace O’Malley is often the heroine of stories for girls as a feminist role model.

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True Horror Story

Since the conversion to Catholicism Irish countryside contains numerous Abbeys. Each Abbey has its own graveyard. One such Abbey dating back to 1042 still contains gravestones as far back as 1452. The Abbey had a gate around it. The wealthy would buy a burial spot within the gate while the poor were buried outside. Coffins were usually buried three deep. Since the coffins were made of wood, the bottom coffin would rot by the time a fourth coffin would need to be placed on top so graves were usually dug 6 feet leading to the term “6 feet under”.

As time went by newer buildings began being built closer and closer to these graveyards due to needing more room for living spaces. About 10 years ago after severe rains a mudslide ran down the hill where this Abbey and graveyard sat. The mudslide knocked down a section of the gate churning up graves as it went. Unfortunately for residents, these graves came crashing into their apartment building at the bottom of the hill. Residents awoke to broken windows with bones protruding from them.

Near Death Experiences

Imagine drinking too much homemade whiskey and waking up buried alive? Although it sounds crazy, lead often seeped into what people ate and drank through their cookware, plates, and cups. The lead then slowed their heart rate. Add that to the Irish love of strong homemade whiskey, and people often appeared dead when they were passed out. Medical technology often could not detect a pulse and would declare a person dead. This led to what we know as a wake. Literally, families would display the dead person at home for 2-3 days before burial in case they woke up. During this time the family and friends would sit up drinking and telling stories about the dead person.

As far fetched as this seems, the same thing occurred in Victorian England. There, they would bury people with a bell tied to their fingers. The caretaker at the graveyard would patrol at night in case he heard the bells. Then he would have to dig up the grave. This is where we get the saying, “saved by the bell”. This is also where the term “graveyard shift” comes from.

History of Halloween

Shows a carved turnip used to scare away evil spirts of Irish Fairy Tales
By Rannpháirtí anaithnid at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7788068

In America, we celebrate Halloween as a children’s holiday associated with costumes and candy. However, the holiday originated as a Celtic festival held on October 31st. The pagans believed the barrier between our world and the spirit world was weakest on that night and that spirits could pass the barrier and come back to the living. People would welcome ancestral spirits with treats. On the other hand, they would dress up to disguise themselves from evil spirits to prevent them from following them home. They would also carve faces into turnips to scare away evil spirits. When Irish immigrants came to America they found pumpkins much easier to carve, hence creating the modern day jack o’ lantern.

Irish Folk Tales of Giants and Fionn Mac Cumhaill

Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland , Irish Fairy tales state that it was built by giants to meet each other for a fight
By Chmee2 – Own workThis file was uploaded with Commonist., CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9103972

The only World Heritage site in Ireland, the Giant’s Causeway looks like a bunch of mammoth stepping stones. Irish mythology says that the great warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill, also know as Fin MacCool, wanted to fight a giant in Scotland wanted to fight. Legend has it that Fionn created this causeway of stones to reach the Scottish giant. However, when Fionn caught sight of the giant, he realized the Scottish giant was much bigger than him. He went home and told his wife. Irish folklore says that she then came up with a plan. She dressed Fionn as a baby and put him in a cradle. When the Scottish giant came she told him Fionn was not at home. However, she invited him in saying she had to feed the baby. Once the Scottish giant saw how large the “baby” was he feared the size of its father and quickly turned around and went home.

As with most folk tales, the story has changed through word of mouth throughout generations. Now there are several versions of this folklore.

Irish Fairy Tales

modern depiction of the Irish Fairy Tale creature of the Leprechaun
FAL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=385145

Ireland is known for fairies. However, they are not the cute pixies we think of as in Disney’s Tinkerbell. There are 3 main fairies associated with Irish culture. The first is the Banshee whose scream foretells death. Then there is the impish Leprechaun. He mostly an annoying prankster. The last in the Pooka. This one is a shape shifter that steals people’s babies. However, as if this isn’t bad enough, the Pooka replaces Irish babies with deformed babies of his own.

You can book this virtual experience with Mark yourself through airbnb.

3 thoughts on “Irish Folk Tales: amaze your friends with strange stories

  1. I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your blogs
    really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site to come back
    later.
    All the best

  2. I wonder what things I might research if I got my DNA tested! How fun to check out some of the interesting Irish Folk tales. The tale about the Giant’s Causeway was one was heard a lot about when we visited.

  3. Yes, I believe that Irish are a peculiar breed – ingenious and fun. I haven’t been to Ireland yet, however, all the Irish I’ve ever met were fun – and had great stories to tell 😉 Congrats to your genes and thanks for the cool stories – some of them made me shiver 😉

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