The Animals within Irish Myth

Many animals within Irish Mythology play important parts.

The Salmom of Knowledge is one such creature, and it has already been described how tasting the skin of this fish was enough to endow Fionn MacCumhal with great wisdom and foresight, making him the most respected of men among his contemporaries.

The Wild Boar is another popular animal in the cycle, and often plays a more sinister role. The most famous boar was the one responsible for the death of Diarmuid. It was in fact an enchanted human. When Diarmuid was a boy he was fostered in the house of Aengus Og, and was close friends with the steward of the household’s son. Diarmuid’s father, Donn, came to visit one day and was jealous of the attention bestowed on this other boy, feeling his more noble child was being slighted. When two hounds began to fight Donn seized his opportunity and broke the boy’s neck and threw the body into the midst of the fight, where it would look like the dogs had killed him. The steward was anguished and called for an inquiry where it was discovered that no mark from a dog was found on the child’s body. It was found that Donn had killed the boy, and in anger the steward struck his son’s corpse with a druidical wand and changed him into a boar. He then promised that one day Diarmuid would meet this boar again, and that then he would be killed. Thus it was when Diarmuid went hunting many years later with the still vengeful Finn, that he was gored by this same boar, Finn having deliberately placed him in danger, and so met his death. This boar, and other boars in Irish mythology have come to represent the wild, mysterious and untamed aspects of ancient Irish life, and are therefore animals to be feared.

Tuatha Dé Danaan

After a great battle with the Formorians, where most of the Nemedians died, three groups managed to escape, and scattered around the world. One group worked hard to hone their skills and returned to Ireland under the aegis of the goddess Danu. Before their return, they had visited four great cities of the North. Falias, Gorias, Finias and Murias. In each city they added to their knowledge of science and craftsmanship, learning from the greatest sages. From each city they collected a magical treasure. From Falias they got the Lia Fáil, the stone of destiny, which roared when a rightful king took his seat upon it. From Gorias they brought the claíomh solais, or sword of destiny. From Murias came the cauldron of the Daghda, which could feed a host, however large, without ever being emptied. From Finias came the Sleá Bua, a magic spear.

Story of the Tuatha Dé Danaan:
Meanwhile, the Fir bolg had come to Ireland and settled there. A great mist descended on Western Connaught, and when it lifted the Firbolg discovered that a fortified camp had been built. They approached the fortifications, where they were met by a group of beautiful, tall, fair people. They curiously examined each other’s weapons. The weapons of the Tuatha were light, bright and sharp, and the weapons of the Fir bolg were blunt and heavy. They agreed that the two races should divide Ireland equally, and join to defend the territory against all newcomers. They bowed, and exchanged weapons.

The Fir bolg later decided to refuse their offer, and a battle commenced on the plains of Moytura. Nuada, the king of the Tuatha Dé Danann, had his hand cut off, but they were ultimately victorious. They magnanimously allowed the Fir bolg to keep the province of Connaught, while the Tuatha occupied the rest. Because of his blemish, Nuada could no longer rule as king. The warrior Bres was crowned in his place. Bres was only half Tuatha Dé Danaan, his mother being a Formorian. Because of this relationship with them, Bres allowed the Formorians to impose taxes and to oppress the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Tuatha eventually deposed Bres and refused to pay the tribute, and so the Formorians prepared for battle.

Lugh, also of mixed ancestry, arrived at the fort of the Tuatha. He took charge while the Tuatha were kingless, accepted because of his many talents. The Tuatha defeated the Formorians in this epic battle, where Lugh slew the leader of the Formorian, Balor, by smashing his poisonous eye through his forehead. Diancecht made a silver arm for Nuada, who resumed his post as king.

Notable personalities:
Daghdha (father god), Nuada (king of the Tuatha), Lugh (half Tuatha Dé and half Formorian), Brigit (goddess of the hearth, of wisdom and of poetry), Aonghas (love god), Boann (goddess of water and fertility), Diancecht (god of healing), Morrigan (goddess of war and death), Macha (goddess of war and fertility), Ogma (god of eloquence and language).


Trendhorn was a servant in the court of King Conor MacNessa, who was employed by the king on a spying mission.

Stories of Deirdre:
Conor MacNessa had sent word to the exiles Deirdre and the sons of Ushna that it was now safe for them to return to Ireland. He declared that Fergus MacRoy, his patron and advisor, would be their surety. But on landing in Ireland, the sons of Ushna were separated from Fergus, who had to attend a feast given in his honour. They settled for the night in the house of the Red Brand Knights of Ulster. Conor MacNessa, meanwhile, brooded in his fortress about the young hero, Naoise, who had taken his betrothed wife away. He sent Trendhorn to the house of the Red Branch in order to see what the sons of Ushna were doing. When Trendhorn arrived, the house had been locked up for the night. He therefore climbed a ladder to look in one of the windows. He saw Naoise and Deirdre playing chess together, but as he watched, someone looked up and caught sight of him. Naoise was angered, and seizing a chess piece, he threw it at the spying Trendhorn, putting out his eye. When the servant returned to Conor, the king called his soldiers together and urged them to avenge the wounded Trendhorn, and so the great battle against Naoise and his brothers began, in which they were all tragically killed.

Trendhorn was the catalyst for the long delayed conflict between Conor and the sons of Ushna. He was a loyal and obedient servant, and his wounding was all the excuse Conor MacNessa needed to go to battle.

Sleeping Ulstermen

Once a year the men of Ulster were stricken down with a sickness that lasted for nine days. During this time they were vulnerable and helpless and the reason was an ancient curse laid on them by the goddess Macha.

The Curse of Macha:
Macha was one of the great Celtic goddesses with responsibility for fertility and prophecy. She was a strong and independent woman and the story tells of how she took human form one day and went to the house of a rich farmer Crunnchu. Without saying a word to anyone she took over the household preparing and organising the servants. That night she lay down beside Crunnchu and they lived as man and wife for a long time.
Macha was pregnant when Crunnchu set out to attend the great assembly of Ulstermen and she warned him to say nothing of her to anyone, since to do so would mean the end of their union. Crunnchu promised to say nothing as he set out. In the course of this assembly, the horses of the king raced while everyone looked on in admiration and swore that no swifter creatures existed in Ireland. Crunnchu was then heard to boast that his wife could out run them. In fury the king had him seized and sent for Macha so she might prove her husband’s boast – or else he would die. Macha came and was ordered to face the king’s horses. She asked for a delay since she was heavily pregnant but the king threatened to kill Crunnchu if she stalled any longer. None of the bystanders came to her aid and so Macha raced against the two horses. As she ran she went into labour, yet she crossed the finishing line ahead of two horses. At the finish she gave birth to twins, then turned on the crowd and lay a curse on them. Since they refused to help her, she decreed that they themselves should feel what it is like to be in labour for nine days and nights, during which they would be as powerless as any woman in such a state. Only women children and men not descended from Ulster would be immune from this curse. And it happened exactly as she said. Each year the Ulstermen were laid low by their pangs and during this time they were utterly helpless. It was during one of these episodes that Meadbh and her Connaught men attacked Ulster in the Cattle Raid of Cooley and Cuchulainn, not being an Ulsterman, was the only man who could stand against them until nine days of birth pangs were completed.

The sickness of the Ulstermen was their one vulnerability and resulted from a curse they incurred through lacking consideration and respect for a goddess. During the nine days they were incapacitated that they might as well have been asleep and it was an excellent time for anyone to mount an attack on them.


Niall was the youngest son of the king. He himself reigned as king, and so did his descendants for 26 generations.

The Story of Niall:
The high king of Ireland, Eochaidh Mugmedon, had four sons by his first wife by Mongfind, and a fifth son by his second wife, Caireann Chasdubh. While Caireann was pregnant Mongfind was jealous and forced her to do heavy work, hoping that she would lose her baby. Caireann gave birth to Niall as she was drawing water from the well. Out of fear of Mongfind she left the baby on the ground. The baby was found by a poet called Torna, who taught him his skill. When Niall grew up he returned to Tara, was accepted as the son of the king, and rescued his mother from her imposed labour.

Niall grew popular among the nobles. Mongfind, afraid that Niall would get more and more popular and would overshadow her sons, demanded that Eochaidh Mugmedon name a successor. The king, unwilling to choose between his sons, gave the job to a druid. The druid trapped all the boys in a burning forge, telling them to save what they could. He then judged them on the objects they chose to save. Brión chose a sledgehammer, Fiachra chose a bellows and a pail of beer, Ailill chose a chest of weapons, Fergus chose a bundle of wood, Niall chose the anvil. Niall was deemed to be greater then the others. Mongfind refused to accept this.

The druid took the brothers to have weapons made for them. He then sent them out hunting. When they had successfully taken down a stag, Fiachra was sent to fetch water. He found a well guarded by a hideous hag. He asked could he draw water. She answered that he could if he slept with her. He have her a kiss, with a look of disgust on his face, but this did not satisfy her. He returned empty handed. The other brothers each went one by one, and each returned empty handed. Finally Niall went in search of water. He lay with her, and afterwards she revealed herself as a beautiful maiden. She granted Niall the right to draw water as well as the right to rule Ireland for many generations. Niall succeeded as king, and Bríon became his second in command.

Niall proved himself to be the rightful king by his choice of the anvil (stability and creation) over weapons (war), a sledgehammer (destruction), Beer (feasting), and wood (lack of masculinity), and then again by embracing the goddess and enlisting her help.

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