Category: Irish Character Profiles

Aife

Overview:
Aife was the mother of Connla, Cú Chulainn’s only son. She was a deadly warrior queen and the archenemy of Scathach, who trained Cú Chulainn in the arts of war.

Stories of Aife:
Afraid that her star pupil would be hurt, Scathach gave Cú Chulainn a sleeping potion before going into battle against Aife. On any other man, that potion would have lasted twenty-four hours, but on Cú Chulainn it only lasted one, so he went into battle against Aife’s army without her knowing.

Aife’s three champions, Ciri, Biri and Blaicne, the sons of Eis Enchenn the bird-headed, challenged Scathach’s two sons to a fight. Scathach was worried about the outcome as they were two against three, but Cú Chulainn joined the fight, and Aife’s three soldiers were killed.

Aife then challenged Scathach to single combat, a type of battle that meant that either both women could fight one-on-one, or they could nominate a champion. Cú Chulainn insisted on fighting as Scathach’s champion, but before the fight, he asked Scathach what Aife held most dear in the world. Scathach told him: her two horses, her chariots and her charioteer. Cú Chulainn met and fought with Aife, and she was deadly in battle leaving him only the stump of his swords.

“Oh look,” Cú Chulainn cried when he was sorely pressed, “Aife’s charioteer, her two horses and her chariot are falling over the cliff!”

Aife looked around, distracted, and Cú Chulainn took his chance, seizing her and holding her down by her two breasts. Now in a position of power, Cú Chulainn bargained with Aife for hostages for Scathach’s army, a promise never to attack her again, and for her to bear him a son. These she granted him, and Cú Chulainn left Aife with a child and with a gold thumb-ring which he was to wear when he was old enough to come to his father. He named their son Connla before he left her.

Conclusion:
Aife was the equal in prowess to Cú Chulainn, one of the greatest warriors of Irish myth. Where he won most victories against famous warriors with ease, Cú Chulainn had to resort to trickery to get the better of Aife, which shows just how formidable she was.

Gobán Saor

Background:
The Gobán Saor was a famous craftsman of Irish legend, being a rather more homely version of the smith god Giobhnú. He was as famous for his quick witted responses as he was for his great skill. He had no airs or graces about himself, always creating objects of beauty and craftsmanship, no matter how little the person was able to pay him for the work, but he hated any sign of meanness. Many of the stories of the Gobán are about outwitting people who try to cheat him out of a fair payment. As a craftsman he had such skill, finesse, deftness and accuracy that he could hammer a nail into a high beam by tossing both nail and hammer into the air. He could fashion a throwing spear while you counted to five, and shape a spearhead with three strokes of a hammer.

Stories of the Gobán:
While building a monastery for a group of monks the monks demanded that he lower his price. To force him to agree they removed the ladder from the tower he was working on, trapping him. The Gobán started to remove stones from the structure and toss them on the ground, jovially saying that it was as good a way to reach the ground as any. The monks swiftly returned the ladder, and paid him in full.

The Gobán and his son built a fort of a foreign king that was of such exquisite quality that the king grew jealous. He decided to kill them so that his fort would go unrivalled. One look at the king, and the Gobán sussed out his intention. He told the king that he could not complete the work without his “crooked and more crooked”, a tool he had left at home. Unwilling to let them go, the King sent his son to fetch it, not realising that the name of this implement was actually a coded message for Gobán’s wife. She held the king’s son, and ransomed him for her own husband and son.

On their way home they came across a group of carpenters who were desperately trying to figure out how to build a bridge without pegs, dowels or nails, as had been demanded by their king. “Sure let’s see if we can figure out a way to help” the Gobán said to them, and proceeded to build a sturdy bridge, cleverly using its own weight as a means of holding it together, so it became stronger the more weight was put on it. The carpenters were impressed, but grumbled a bit that he was more able than they at their own trade.

They stopped at a house where there lived two sisters. The Gobán advised them to keep the head of an old lady by the hob, to warm themselves with their work in the morning, and to take a sheepskin to the market and come home with the skin and its worth. One of them dug up a skull, then burnt her carded wool to keep herself warm, then made a fool of herself by asking for the price of the sheepskin without handing it over. The other sister fetched in an old, destitute lady to sit by her fire, wormed herself by her industriousness, and sold the wool from the sheepskin, while keeping the skin. The Gobán, impressed by her wit, asked her to marry his son.

Conclusion:
Helpful, jovial and always generous. The trait the Gobán finds hardest to forgive is meanness, and the trait he likes best is to see the same quickness of wit he has himself. This smartness gives him an air of brightness and an irrepressible twinkle in his eye.

Etain

Background:
Etain (Eadaoin) was a maiden of the Tuatha de Dannan, renowned for her beauty, who fell in love with Midir of the seven-pointed spear. Unfortunately for her, Midir’s wife took exception to this, and Etain had to endure terrible hardship.

Stories of Etain:
Etain met Midir while he was staying with his foster-son, Aengus Óg, the god of love. Midir was wounded, losing an eye while under Aengus’ protection, and this was such a blow to his status that even after his eye was restored, he demanded that Aengus make it up to him. Now, being the god of love, Aengus made it up to Midir by introducing him to the beautiful Etain. The two began a passionate love affair, and all was well with them until the time came for Midir to return home. Midir was already married, to Fuamnach, a powerful woman and his equal in every way. She had raised children and foster-children with him, and was deeply insulted when he brought this strange woman home with him. She took her anger out on Etain, turning her into a shower of rain, which fell in a puddle and condensed into a jewelled fly. However, to Fuamnach’s surprise, the fly Etain did not leave Midir, and his love for her did not diminish. The sound of her wings was sweet music to him, and the fly perched on his shoulder wherever he went.

Fuamnach then sent a storm to blow Etain away. Aengus managed to rescue her for a short time, but the storm found her again, and Etain was blown and battered about for time out of mind. At last, she was blown in through the window of a mortal king’s hall and fell into the goblet of the king’s wife, who swallowed the fly Etain, and became pregnant at that instant. Born again as a mortal woman, Etain grew up with no memory of her past life, though her appearance was the same. When the High King of Ireland, Eochaid Airem, asked for her hand in marriage, she agreed, and was a loyal and good wife to him. At last, Midir found her. He had been searching for her for thousands of years, and begged her to run away with him, but Etain refused to break faith with her mortal husband, demanding that Midir get Eochaid’s permission before she so much as kissed him. Midir managed to trick King Eochaid into giving him permission to kiss and embrace his wife, but Eochaid spent a whole month training and equipping his army to prevent Midir from claiming this prize. This was no obstacle to a man of the Tuatha de Dannan, and Midir simply appeared in the king’s hall next to Etain on the appointed day. When he kissed her, Etain’s memories of him returned, and the two of them vanished from the king’s hall to live their immortal life together.

Conclusion:
Etain was faced with terrible hardship, but held onto her essential self, and her love for Midir, through her transformation into a fly. Her integrity and strong sense of values come through in the story when she refuses the beguilement of her faery lover, and insists on keeping faith with her husband. But love wins out, and she follows her heart in the end.

Conán Mac Morna

Background:
Conán is the brother of Goll Mac Morna, Fionn’s great rival in the Fianna. He was fondly nicknamed Conán Maol, for his bald head. He was also known as Mallachtán, which means insulter, as he often voiced how great he was, how deserving of respect and adulation, and how nobody else fared well by comparison.

It is clear that throughout the years the Baoiscne Clan is painted in a better light than the Morna Clan, with members of the Morna clan often depicted as having some major character flaws. Conán is no different. He displays a great lack of tact and delicacy, often acting as a bit of a troublemaker within the Fianna, cutting quite a comical buffoonish figure at times with his blustering ways. He is fat, greedy, and ostensibly favours the members of the Morna clan. He is, however, very loyal to Fionn, and will never run from a fight. In fact, within the Fianna he is most valued for his quarrelsome nature. They appreciated that he was always first into the fray of any fight. He never held back in defence of any of his brother, though they may be from the Baoiscne clan.

At one point, Fionn suggested that he should take the blackthorn as his totem plant, as the uncompromising, stubborn and prickly nature of the plant resembled his nature, but that occasionally it could blossom with masses of pure white flowers, brightening the entire plant. There was a great feeling of tolerance towards his behaviour among the Fianna, as they all understood that it was just his way, and that he meant nothing by it.

Stories of Conán:
On one occasion, when out hunting, the Fianna sought shelter in a cave. They slept well, but each man woke to find that they had been put under a spell, and that they were stuck to the ground. Caílte, who had spent the night running with animals, came to the cave and found them in this state. He released them by pouring magical water between their skin and the ground. Unfortunately, by the time he arrived at Conán, the water had run out. Fionn and Goll caught Conán by his wrists and heaved him off the ground with all their strength. As he was released from the ground Conán let out a big roar, as all of the skin on his back was torn off him. The Fianna laid him down, killed a sheep, skinned it, and pressed the raw hide to Conán’s back. This succeeded in replacing his lost skin. The Fianna sheared his back regularly, and the black glossy curls of his back were used to make a new jacket and trousers for his each year. Having to suffer this indignity is one explanation for his ready temper, and for his need to bolster up his position within the Fianna.

Conclusion:
Conán is a bit of a diamond in the rough. He is lucky that he is well understood by the members of the Fianna. His brothers know to take his roughness in good nature, as they know that beneath that bluster and the insults lies a true-hearted member of their tribe. He will always end up with his foot in his mouth, however, and when his protests at his own greatness go too far, he is often brought down to earth by one of the others. He can be misunderstood by people who don’t know him that well.

Bran

Background:
Bran son of Febal was the High King of Ireland who ne day was visited by the Queen of the Island of Women, one of the three times fifty Islands of the Otherworld, in the seas West of Ireland. Enraptured, he set sail through the seas of the Otherworld to find her.

Stories of Bran: 
One day, while out walking near Tara, King Bran heard beautiful music, but he could not figure out where it was coming from. No matter which way he turned, it always seemed to be coming from just behind him. Lulled by the lovely sound, he fell asleep and dreamed of a beautiful woman, holding a sliver branch and singing to him of a perfect place, an Island of Women, where there was no death, or war or conflict, and where she was Queen. When he woke, he found the silver branch in his hand, and brought it with him to Tara. That evening, at the feast, the faery woman appeared again, this time in front of the whole company. She retrieved her silver branch, and asked Bran to sail across the sea to find her.

Bran set out at once, accompanied by his three foster-brothers, who brought nine men each with them. When their ship was underway, Bran met Mananan Mac Lir, riding on his white horse, on his way to Ireland to father King Mongan. Mananan spoke to Bran of another way of perceiving, and told him that the waves Bran saw were grassy plains to Mananan’s eyes, with chariots racing to and fro over them. Along with this other way of seeing, Mananan gave Bran back the silver branch, as a token of his new perception.

Bran and his men came first to the Island of Joy, where the people all gaped and laughed without speaking. One of Bran’s men went to investigate, but lost his wits as soon as he set foot on the island, gaping and laughing mindlessly with all the others. After this experience, they were wary when they reached the Island of Women, but the Queen threw a magic ball of yarn to Bran, which stuck to his hand when he caught it, forcing them to land. Bran and his men lived in bliss and ease on the Island of Women for an unknown time, but one man, Neachtain, was homesick, and begged to go back to Ireland. Eventually, Bran agreed. The Queen gave him directions back to Ireland, and gave him the magic ball of yarn so he could retrieve his man from the Island of Joy.

But when at last Bran and his men came back to Ireland, they found the coastline changed, forests gone, and all the people small and grey. Calling to shore, they found that no one knew who they were, save one very old storyteller, who remembered an ancient king called Bran. Neachtain, overcome by homesickness, leaped from the ship to the shore, but turned to dust as soon as he landed. Realizing they could never go home, Bran wrote down an account of his adventures on stone tablets and tossed them to the people on the shore, and then he turned his ship around and sailed back to the islands of the Otherworld. And his adventures from that time are unknown.

Conclusion: 
Spontaneous and imaginative, Bran leaped at the invitation to explore the Otherworld. His encounter with Mananan shows his ability to see things from an unconventional perspective.

Áine

Background:
Áine was the wife of Laoghaire Lorc, the high king of Ireland. When her husband was killed by his jealous brother, Áine protected her young son, and raised him to be a great king.

Stories of Áine: 
Laoghaire Lorc was high king of Ireland. His brother Cobhthach was jealous, and killed him. He then poisoned Laoghaire’s son, Aillil. He saw Aillil’s young son Labhraidh as being no threat, and showed his control over the child by gruesomely feeding him the heart of his father and his grandfather. Labhraidh’s mother, Áine, was made to watch while this occurred, held by two strong men to prevent her from doing anything to help her son. She was broken hearted, and the child was so traumatised by this incident that he was struck dumb.

She then cherished her dumb child, making sure that he received an education fit for a king, and also making sure that nobody discounted him as a person because of his affliction. He became so learned under her attentions that he became known as “Labhraidh Ollamh”. Eventually, as he grew older, he got over the trauma and began to speak again.

Cobhthach was jealous of Labhraidh, as he was perceived to be more generous than Cobhthach. And now that speech had returned to him, and that he was an educated man, Cobhthach began to realise that Labhraidh might be a threat to him. Áine advised him to go into exile until he was ready to come back.

When he was old enough to seek revenge, he attacked Lenister and won. He then sent a message to Cobhthach telling him that he would be satisfied with the kingship of Leinster, and invited Cobhthach to a feast. The feast was to be held in a magnificent building made entirely of iron. Cobhthach did not trust Labhraidh and decided to bring with him his entire armed retinue. When he arrived for the feast he was suspicious, and refused to enter. He sent in half his men, and when nothing happened to them, he was somewhat mollified. Áine saw that he was still reluctant to enter the building, and realized that her son’s plan was about to fall apart. She decided to take matters into her own hands.

She whispered to her son “I am nearly dead anyway, regain your honour though me”, and walked straight into the building before he could stop her. Seeing this, Cobhthach believed it was safe to enter. As soon as the last man stepped inside Labhraidh closed the great iron doors, fastened great chains around the entire building and, weeping for his mother, placed faggots all around the building to be set alight. The burning faggots transformed the building into a giant oven. Áine died exultantly, knowing that her husband had been avenged, and that her son had achieved the birthright of which he had been robbed.

Conclusion:
Áine was an extraordinarily strong figure, who survived the death of her husband, protected and raised her son to be a formidable and worthy king, and ultimately had her revenge on the man who had devastated her family.

Maeve

Background:
Maeve (Medb) was one of the daughters of the king of Tara, who killed her pregnant sister. Maeve then married Aillil and took over the territory of Connacht, which would have belonged to her sister had she lived. She was most famous for her role as the queen of Connacht during the Battle for the Brown Bull of Cooley, but she also has many mystical qualities, which mark her out as one of the many Celtic goddesses. She was the goddess of sovereignty and territory, as can be seen from her independent and territorial character. She refused to let any king rule at Tara who had not first mated with her, and she was generally depicted as extremely promiscuous. Her name has strong links to the word ‘mead’ and her constant seducing of different men is related to the intoxicating effects of this drink.

Stories of Maeve:
One evening, Maeve and Aillil began to tease each other about which of them had the higher status. Their teasing quickly grew earnest, as each vied to prove their superiority in the relationship. They were equal in birth, equal in status, and equal in power. To settle the matter, they counted out all their belongings, and the only difference between them was that Aillil had a magnificent white-horned bull, and Maeve had nothing that could compare to it. Unable to bear a subordinate role in her own marriage, Maeve sent messengers to search all of Ireland for a bull as splendid as Aillil’s. There was only one: the Brown Bull of Cooley. Maeve sent messengers to the bull’s owner, Dara of Cooley, offering gold and lands if he would agree to let her have the bull. He was initially inclined to grant her request, until he heard one of her messengers drunkenly boasting that if he would not sell it, Maeve would surely take it by force. Dara resented being dictated to, and refused to part with the bull.

So began the famous Táin Bó Cuailnge, the “Cattle Raid of Cooley”, in which Maeve assembled a great army of her allies from all over Ireland to invade Ulster and take the bull. Thanks to the Ulster exiles in her ranks, Maeve knew all about the curse of Macha, which would put the Ulster warriors out of action for nine days and nine nights. During that time, only the young warrior Cú Chulainn stood between the invading army and the defenseless province. His skill as a warrior was so great that the army were in terrible trouble.

Maeve negotiated with Cú Chulainn, through Fergus MacRoich, to fight in single combat against one of her champions every day, allowing the army to move while the fight was on, and stopping once the fight was over. He made such short work of her champions that she send a small band of raiders north to Cooley to steal the bull. She persuaded her greatest warrior, Ferdia, to fight against Cú Chulainn, who was his foster brother, and this led to the death of the last champion of Connacht. Her followers were then heard to repent that they had ever been guided by such a vengeful woman. On the eve of the final confrontation between the two armies, the Brown Bull of Cooley was smuggled into Connacht where it bellowed on entering new pastures and was heard and set upon by Aillil’s White-Horned Bull. The two animals gored each other to death, symbolizing the wasteful conflict between Connacht and Ulster. Maeve re-invaded Ulster in later years, taking vengeance on Cú Chulainn for the devastation he had wreaked on her army and killing him. Maeve was ultimately killed herself by the son of her murdered sister, and it was thought that she was killed by a sling shot bearing a piece of cheese!

Conclusions:
Maeve was a strong and independent character, with a knowledge of magic and sorcery. She never shirked her part of the work, and knew well how to encourage and lead her followers. She was definitely the stronger partner in her marriage with Aillil. She was always depicted as beautiful but was often seen dressed for war, leading the charge in her own chariot. At times she was depicted as laughable, but she was a strong woman who was not to be crossed. She could be harsh and domineering, and was willing to go to great lengths to assert her rightful status.

Liath Luachra

Background
Liath Luachra was a great warrior woman with a fierce spirit and the steadfast heart of a warrior. She lived in the mountains with Bodhmall, a druidess. Liath was not the marrying kind, preferring Bodhmall’s company, but she took in Bodhmall’s nephew Demne to raise from infancy.

Story of Liath Luachra
When Liath heard that Bodhmall was planning a journey to help her sister Muirne, She decided to accompany her, to ensure that everything was safe. On discovering that Muirne feared for the life of her newly born son Demne, Liath and Bodhmall resolved to take the child and rear him in the wilderness, away from his enemies.

While Bodhmall softly cherished her sister’s child, and taught him wisdom, Liath set about teaching him all the tricks of survival and all the martial skills she possessed. By night she slept with one eye open, keeping guard on her two precious charges. By day she would take Demne and teach him how to learn from his surroundings. Each week she would tell him to study a different animal and not to stop watching until he had learned something important from them. From the ant he learned to have an indomitable spirit. From the fox cubs he learned to be playful, but also to give as good as he got. From the salmon he learned the valuable art of being still, and from this lesson he came home with his arms filled with a large salmon for them to eat.

She would encourage him to race with the deer in the forest. She taught him to seek playmates in the animals of the forest, and to imitate all they did, thus allowing him to pick up the great arts of hunting naturally. She taught him how to cut and peel a birch bark to create an arrow that shot straight and true. She taught him to respect animals, but didn’t foster sentimentality. Demne knew well that to kill was a necessity for survival for them.

In this way Liath encouraged Demne’s independence, yet at the same time ensured that he was taught all he needed to know. When he was older she put a switch in his and, and held one in her own. She ran around a tree after him, hitting him with the switch when she caught up. He learned to run swiftly from this, and his desire to hit her back gave him the impetus to train as hard as he could. She demonstrated the great salmon leap and other great martial feats of the warrior, so that he could aspire to perfect them also. Eventually, when he hit her as many times as she hit him, Liath declared that he was fit to go his own way. So at the age of seven, Demne bid farewell to his foster mothers, and set out with a passing band of travelling bards. He was later to become the great hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill

Conclusion
Finding herself entrusted with the upbringing of a child, she dealt with it as she saw best, by teaching him the tools he would need in life. She put a lot of effort and focus into everything she did in life, from perfecting her own great skills to developing the warrior heart in a young boy. As a warrior she values competency, and the high expectations she had for Demne likely played a great part in making him the great man he was to become.

Caílte

Background:
It is said that the name Caílte means slender and fierce, which renders it a very suitable name for this character. He was a member of the Fianna who was as known for his athleticism as his willingness to help. He was a great personal friend of Fionn Mac Cumhaill, and most of the tales of the deeds of the Fianna involve Fionn and Caílte along with a few of the other more prominent members. Like Fionn, he was descended from the Baoiscne clan, a clan known for its generosity of spirit. There is nothing that he wouldn’t do for his brothers in the Fianna, and certainly nothing he wouldn’t do for Fionn. It is often his interventions that get the Fianna out of trouble. His feats usually involve great speed, as he was particularly known for his lightness of foot.

Stories of Caílte:
While out hunting, the Fianna were accosted by a hag. She refused to let them pass, and demanded that they race her. If they lost she would kill them and eat them. Caílte raced her, overtook her, turned around and cut off her head.

When Fionn wooed Gráinne, she demanded of him the gift of the male and female of every animal in Ireland in one single drove. Caílte ran the length and breadth of Ireland, collecting each animal, and managing to keep them all in one group, and drove them to Gráinne before the sun had set that very day.

He brought a herd of hares to Tara and placed them in a house with nine open doors. By racing around the house all night he was able to keep all the hares in until morning.

The king of Ireland wished to have a fistful of sand delivered to him every morning from each of the four shores of Ireland, as he could tell by the smell of the sand whether any enemies had landed during the night. Three men offered their services. The first man said that he could do the task as quickly as a leaf fall from a tree. The second man told him that he could do it as quickly as a cat slinks between two houses. The third man (Caílte) said that he could finish this task as fast as a woman changes her mind. The king, impressed by this, tasked him with the job. “I have just returned,” Caílte replied, holding out the bags of sand.

Conclusion:
Faithful comrade, good friend, and proactive member of the Fianna. You never get the sense that he ever expects to be owed any gratitude or service in return for his feats. He is delighted to possess such athletic skill as it renders him useful, but he does not let pride swell his head. For him, he is but one member of a tribe, and he never begrudges anyone else their place.

Objects in Irish Mythology

Each Hero in Irish Mythology had his favourite sword, and some of these achieved legendary status.

One of the most legendary objects in Irish Mythology was the Gae Bolga, granted to Cuchulainn by Scathach. This was a spear, which separated into many barbs on entering the body. It was impossible to remove, and its wound was fatal. Only one of these existed, and it was the preserve of Cuchulainn, thus further underlining his status as the champion of all Ireland.

Lugh of the Tuatha De Danann carried a sword named FreagarachAnswerer – which cut through anything.

Diarmuid had two swords depending on the type of fighting necessary; Moralltach – Great fury – and Beagalltach – Small Fury. It was with Moralltach that he slew the giant guarding the tree of the berries of youth, and it was because he left his sword at home on the day of his final hunt that he was unable to defend himself against the magical boar that attacked him.

The God Manannan owned a boat named the Wave Sweeper, which could grow to accommodate any number of passengers and did not require oars or sails in order to move.

Irish folktales are full of objects such as magic shoes for swift walking, magic cloaks of invisibility, magic keys to open any locks, and magic sticks that grew to form bridges or supports. Once these objects were used they generally disappeared and returned to the fairy world from which they usually came.

From the fairy world also came the Banshee – which literally means a woman of the fairies. It was said that the Banshee would only walk near the house of one who was about to die.

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