Most Famous Tales, Part 2
Missed part 1? Check it out here!
We’re back again this week with some of the most famed tales in Irish mythology! Much like Americans grow up hearing all about the Headless Horseman (which likely comes from an Irish myth originally!) and Rip Van Winkle, the French Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, and the Danish the Little Mermaid and Chicken Little (though those have made their way here, as well,) the Irish have their own common folklore and fairy tales. (Though, theirs tend to have actual faeries.) Enjoy!
The Pangs of Ulster
This one’s for all the mom’s out there! Long ago there was a cattle farmer named Crunniuc mac Agnomain (aka Crunden,) who tragically lost his wife. He struggled to work and take care of his three children, until one day he returned to the field to find the house in perfect order, dinner bubbling in the hearth, and a beautiful woman sitting at his table. She said her name was Macha and that she has decided to be his wife—Crunden agreed, and though he could tell she was of the Otherworld (more on that later) by how swiftly she could run, she was a wonderful partner and they were very happy. Then, one day, all of Ulster was invited to see the King Connor of Ulster’s fine new horses and before Crunden left, Macha warned Crunden not to boast of her of disaster would follow. However, when the King claimed no one in the land was as fast as his new horses, Crunden couldn’t help himself and bragged his wife was faster. King Connor declared Crunden prove it or forfeit his life, even though Macha begged the King and his men or mercy as she was heavily pregnant. When they all refused, Macha ran the race and the won, but the activity caused her to go into labor. When the twins she bore didn’t make it, Macha cursed the warriors of Ulster. Whenever they most needed their strength, it would desert them and give way to the pangs of labor for nine days and nine nights, lasting for nine generations.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley (Táin bó Cuailgne)
Considered the Ulster cycle’s most epic story, this tale takes place in the 1st century AD and centers around Queen Mebh/Maeve, jealousy, and fragile egos. As daughter of the High King of Ireland, she was greatly offended when her husband, Ailill, proved himself to be wealthier due to the prized white bull in his possession. Maeve learned there was only one other bull in all of Ireland more prized than her husband’s: Donn Cuagilnge, the Brown Bull of Ulster, owned by the powerful Daire of Cooley in Ulster. Maeve asked him to loan her the bull for a year in exchange for many treasures and he agreed—but when he overheard Maeve’s men boasting that if the Daire hadn’t agreed they would have taken it by force, he was angered and reneged on the deal. Maeve and her husband combined forces, and with the Daire’s men also afflicted with the Pangs of Ulster, Maeve thought she would be victorious. However, a great warrior named Cú Chulainn from Connacht defeated each of Maeve’s warriors one at a time, including the greatest (Ferdia) in an epic, five-day battle. Finally, the bulls fought, with Donn Cuagilnge emerging as the winner. Queen Maeve and the Daire then made a peace treaty that ensured there would be no battle between them for seven years.
Oisín and Niamh
The most commonly known legend of the Otherworld (aka Tír na nÓg, the Land of Youth,) is the tale of Oisín and Niamh. Many years ago lived a legendary warrior named Oisín, son of the leader of the great warriors known as the Fianna, and together they explored and protected all the beautiful green hills of Ireland. One day, Oisín and warriors came upon a beautiful maiden on a stately white horse surrounded by golden light. She introduced herself as Niamh, and said she was looking for the warrior Oisín, as she had heard tell of his skill, so she could bring him back with her to her home in magical land of Tír na nÓg where no one aged or knew sadness and lived forever. Oisín agreed, promising his father he would return soon, and though Tír na nÓg was all Niamh had promised and they were happy together, he missed his homeland. Niamh was reluctant to let him return, for though Oisín believed only a few short years had passed, 300 years had passed in the human world. But she agreed, with one condition—he would ride her white horse to visit and never let his feet touch the ground while he was there. Oisín was saddened by the changes he saw, but stayed to help a few old men move a rock—however, when he leaned off his horse to assist, he fell. When Oisín touched the ground he aged immediately, living only long enough to tell his tale.
Diarmuid and Gráinne
Another famous hero in the Fianna’s ranks, Diarmuid, was known for his fighting skills, but even more for his great beauty--he was born with a Bol Sherca (“love spot”) in the middle of his forehead, causing all who saw him to fall in love. Diarmuid was very loyal to the Fianna’s leader, Finn Mac Cumhaill (aka Finn McCool,) and was there at his side when Finn decided it was time to take another wife. He chose Gráinne, the most beautiful woman in Ireland. Gráinne had fallen in love when she was only 12-years-old with a boy she saw playing hurling, but many years had passed and she hadn’t seen the boy again, so she agreed to marry. But at her wedding feast she saw him again for the first time in so long: the boy she had always loved was none other than Diarmuid. Gráinne hatached a plan—she drugged the wine of all the warriors so they would sleep and put Diarmuid under a geasa to run away with her (meaning an act had to performed or great misfortune would ensue—a kind of oath.) Though it broke his heart to betray his leader, Diarmuid could not break a geasa. Aengus Óg, the god of love, approved of their match and decided to help them, though Finn McCool pursed them in revenge and they could never stop running. They ran for years and years, while Diarmuid and Gráinne lived as man and wife and raised five children, but they were tired and wanted to make peace with Finn. Though they resolved their issues and lived peacefully for a time, Finn McCool eventually got his revenge. When, years later, Diarmuid was gored by a boar, Finn McCool initially refused to heal him with water from his hands (one of his magical abilities.) Though he changed his mind, it was too late and Diarmuid passed on.
As we say in English: The End! Or, if you prefer, in Gaeilge: Sin Sin (which really means: that’s that!)
This post is part of a series. Read our last mythology post, filled with four other famous Irish tales, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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