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Irish Mythology

We’ve held a long interest for the Mythology of Ireland, with Irish Folklore and Gaelic folk heroes playing a big part of our childhood and the Irish legends close to or hearts even to this day. It is difficult to accurately split Irish Myths from history, thanks to medieval bards and poets blending mythological and the historical in poems. But such is the affection for the characters that if they did exist (and some are documented in the annals of the four masters), then their prose have immortalised them even if some events were heavily twisted.

In Irish mythology, there are many well-loved tales of myths and legends retold including Fionn MacCumhaill (Finn McCool), the Salmon of Knowledge, Na Fianna, Sétanta (CúChulainn), The Aos Sí / Aes Sídhe, The Tuatha Dé Danann, the Children of Lir, Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley), and Tír na nÓg.

The Cycles of Irish Mythology

The folklore and fairy tales that make up the fictional history of Ireland have been documented and collected together and commonly divided into four key cycles in an attempt to classify them by area and time and put into order. They overlap, sometimes the stories have similarities or contain a story of a protagonist that belongs to another cycle, and some texts do not fit into any cycle of Celtic Mythology. Sources of Irish sagas include the Book of the Dun Cow (1100), the Book of Leinster (1160), Agallamh na Seanórach (1200), the Yellow Book of Lecan (14th century), and the Book of the Dean of Lismore (16th Century), but many early sources are believed to have been destroyed in Viking Raids. It’s fair to say that these were believed to be historically accurate for many centuries, until modern cynicism came into play. Here is a brief overview of the cycles

The Mythological Cycle

The earliest cycle – Detailing the five migratory invasions of the early Celtic people (Tuatha Dé Danann and Fomorians) on Ireland, and the settlement of the Milesians. Essentially the Old God’s but Christian scribers preferred to call the Pagans Godlike rather than deities. The main source is from Lebor Gabála Érenn, The Book of Invasions, an abridged compilation of both prose and poetry such as from 10th Century Poets Nennius and Eochaid Ua Flainn.

Notable stories in the cycle include the tale of Tuan mac Cairill, Fintan mac Bóchra, the First and Second Battle of Moytura (Battles of Mag Tuired), the Cath Tailten (Battle of Tailten), Orgain Tuir Chonaind (Massacre of Conan’s Tower),  Oidheadh Chloinne Tuireann (The Fate of the Children of Tuireann), the Oidheadh Chloinne Lir (The Fate of the Children of Lir), Tochmarc Étaíne (The Wooing of Étaín).

The Ulster Cycle

Arguably the most celebrated of the cycles (hard to say for a site dedicated to Finn McCool, but it was not fair to call my son Cuchulainn). The cycle of medieval Irish heroic legends and sagas of the traditional heroes of the Ulaid. Taking place on or before the 1st century AD, in what is now eastern Ulster and northern Leinster, particularly counties Armagh, Down and Louth.

This puts events around the time of Christ, with the stories of the birth and death of Conchobar mac Nessa synchronised with Christ. Ruling the Uliad from Emain Macha (Navan Fort) as they battle the Connachta. The real star of the show is his nephew and son of God Lugh, Cú Chulainn, whose superhuman fighting skills dominate the story Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley). Although Deirdre of the Sorrows may disagree.

The Fenian Cycle

The an Fhiannaíoch in Old Irish, or Finn Cycle (after the protagonist Finn McCool), or Ossianic Cycle (after its narrator Oisín, his poet son). Set during the reign of Cormac mac Airt, and around the tales of the mythical hero Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warriors the Fianna Eireann. The cycle contains many prose and most notably the Macgnímartha Finn (The Boyhood Deeds of Finn), Finn and Gráinne, Fianshruth, Annals of Tigernach, and Sanas Cormaic (Cormac’s Glossary). Other than the Finn McCool legend, it also details the notable members of the Fianna Fáil in the Fianshruth include Caílte mac Rónáin, Conán mac Lia, Cumall, Diarmuid Ua Duibne, Goll mac Morna, Liath Luachra, Oisín mac Finn, and Oscar mac Oisin (Fionn’s son and grandson)

The Cycles of the Kings

Also known as the Historical Cycle or the Kings’ Cycle. A body of old and middle Irish literature containing stories of the legendary high kings of Ireland.

Prose range from the almost entirely mythological Labraid Loingsech to historical Brian Bóruma (Brian Boru), and include Cormac mac Airt, Niall of the Nine Hostages, Éogan Mór, Conall Corc, Guaire Aidne mac Colmáin, Diarmait mac Cerbaill, Lugaid mac Con, Conn of the Hundred Battles, Lóegaire mac Néill, and Crimthann mac Fidaig.

The most notable story is Buile Shuibhne (The Frenzy of Sweeney)

The Heroes of Irish Mythology

There are many heroes in Irish Mythology, but two battle it out for the most famous; Fionn mac Cumhaill and Cu Chulainn. But could there be only one?

On other pages I have opened questioned if some of these stories have been mixed and there is certainly evidence to suggest that. I’m no Kuno Meyer, I’ve not spent any time at all reading any of the original documents let alone spent a lifetime piecing things together. But looking at the facts:

The are similiar stories with Finn McCool and Cu Chulainn with both gaining different nicknames than their birth names of Deinme and Sétanta. Both were trained by warrior women. Both lead armies when just entering adulthood. Cuchulainn was said to have been born and raised in Louth, which is on the River Boyne in Leinster and the same one where Fionn caught the salmon of knowledge. But of course Louth does border modern Ulster and it seems older boundaries might make it a part of Ulster at the time.

There are characters that appear in both the Ulster Cycle and the Fenian Cycle despite the geography and supposedly being centuries apart.

There is an explanation for the Geography cross-over. The Fianna were the guards of the High King of Ireland, and the Red Branch just Ulster. It certainly appears that the Fianna were made up of at least two the clans of Clan Baiscne (Leinster) and Clan Morna (Connacht), and the Clans of Munster united behind the Fianna too. So would make sense it was by clans from all over Ireland.

But two centuries apart? Perhaps there is an issue with similiar names like that with Liath Luachra meaning there were people with the same name? You also need to take into account that with the Christians documenting everything, that they made comparisons with Cu Cuthlainn and Christ and moved the timeline to fit his birth and death. Incidently, there are versions of Cú Chulainn’s miraculous birth as an immaculate conception with the god Lug.

So if the 10AD documentation put the Irish Hero’s futher apart in time then they actually were, then it could be said Finn McCool and CuCuthlainn could be the same person.

Finn McCool vs Cúchulainn

If you’ve ever wondered who would win out of a fight with Cú Chulainn and Fionn MacCumhaill, then the Legend of Knockmany has the answer. It’s basically a twist on both the Salmon of Knowledge and the Giant’s Causeway legend but instead of Benandonner, it was ya man from Ulster instead.

In this version Cúchulainn’s power was in his middle finger, and he travelled to Fionn’s house for a fight. With his wife’s help mac Cumhaill disguised himself as a baby and Oona baked some special cakes. Cú Chulainn got the ones with griddle irons inside, which he was unable to bite through. Baby Finn’s had none so he ate them easily. Cu Chulainn was amazed and went to feel the babies teeth, allowing Fionn to bite off his middle finger, taking both his power and his strength.

What are the Annals of the Four Masters?
The Annals of the Four Masters (in old Irish Annála na gCeithre Máistrí) are extensive historical chronicles of ancient annals of Ireland and document medieval Irish history.

These Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland (Annála Ríoghachta Éireann) were compiled at a Franciscan friary in County Leitrim between 1632 and 1636 by Brother Mícheál Ó Cléirig (a Franciscan friar) and three laymen Fearfeasa Ó Maol Chonaire , Cú Choigcríche Ó Cléirigh, and Cú Choigríche Ó Duibhgeannáin.

The entries start in AD 242 to AD 1616 and are a compilation of now lost earlier annals and some original work. Records include deaths of the High Kings of Ireland and other prominent people, major battles and plagues.

These were later translated into English by scholar John O’Donovan.

Who were the High Kings of Ireland?
The High Kings of Ireland (Ard-Rí na hÉireann) were historical or legendary figures who had lordship over Ireland for centuries. Ruling from the Hill of Tara over lesser regional Kings.

Despite records of Kings going back to 1514 BC, modern historians believe that only records since AD 846 can be considered genuine.