Irish Folklore: Mythical Monsters and Terrifying Creatures

Irish Folklore

Updated On: April 15, 2024 by   Ciaran ConnollyCiaran Connolly

Irish folklore is thousands of years old. It offers a variety of myths and legends that have been passed down from one generation to another. Irish folklore became even more popular through Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but the Prince of Darkness is just one of many mythical monsters in Irish folklore.

In fact, most of the Irish monsters in this list are part of Celtic mythology and have existed for millennia and are just waiting to be discovered.

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There are many interesting legends in Irish folklore.

These stories and tales have stood the test of time, often focusing on the scary mythical monsters that locals claimed to have encountered, according to legend at least. In this article, we will explore Irish monsters and Celtic creatures that are both terrifying and fascinating.

Fairies in Irish mythology

In Irish mythology, fairy is a broad term used to describe magical creatures. There are two types of fairy classifications, namely the Aos Sí (good fairies) and lone fairies. The Aos Sídhe were actually descendants of the Ancient Gods of Celtic Ireland, known as the tribe of Danu or the Tuatha de Danann.

The legend goes that the people of Ireland descend from a race called Milesians. Milesians were once part of the Gaels tribe, but they had left Ireland and travelled the world for centuries. They eventually returned to Ireland to reclaim their home from the Gods in power.

According to myth, the Tuatha de Danann could make prophecies (The Morrigan had the gift of foresight, for example) and knew they would not win this war, so they agreed to reside underground in the Otherworld while our ancestors remained above ground.

Irish Folklore
Irish Folklore: Most Prominent Gods of Tuatha de Danann

Over time, the Gods became the Aos Sídhe (which means people of the fairy mound) and were known as fairies. They retained their human features for the most part. The Aos Sídhe were creative and generally kind beings.

Alternatively, Irish mythical monsters more commonly derive from the lone fairy category. This classification has many more subcategories. In general, these fairies or Irish monsters are smaller, with less humanoid features. Lone fairies are generally more mischievous than the Aos Sídhe. They include everything from Leprechauns to the Dullahan.

Fairy Trees (lone Hawthorn trees), burial grounds, and bodies of water were some of the places for fairies to travel between our world and the Otherworld.

When Celtic Christianity was formed (by merging Celtic customs with Christian ideals), some things were easy to adapt from Irish Folklore as they were positive. Still, more myths and creatures were either left out of Irish folklore altogether or portrayed as purely evil. Magical creatures, for example, were either phased out of belief systems or presented as evil.

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Lone Hawthorn trees in fields across Ireland are fairy trees.

In this article, we will explore Irish monsters and Celtic folklore creatures, including:

  • The Leprechaun
    • Creatures similar to the Leprechaun
  • The Banshee
  • The Dullahan – The origin of the headless horseman
  • Changelings
  • The Púca / Pooka – The trickster spirit
  • Failnis – Wolves in Irish folklore
  • Fear Gorta – The Hungry Man
  • Irish Vampires – The real origin of Dracula?
  • The Sluagh – Wandering souls
  • The Kelpie – A ferocious sea creature
  • The Selkie – The Irish mermaid?
  • Caorthannach – Evil’s mother
  • Gancanach – A fairy who meddles with love and obsession

The Leprechaun in Irish folklore

Perhaps the most notable “fairies” in Irish folklore, leprechauns are mostly known as friendly small creatures that like to cause mischief every once in a while. Leprechauns were first referenced in the medieval tale of Echtra Fergus mac Léti (Adventures of Fergus, the son of Léti).

In this story, the King of Ulster, Fergus mac Léti, falls asleep on the beach only to wake up as he’s being dragged into the sea by three leprechauns. He manages to capture the mischievous creatures, who grant him three wishes in exchange for their release.

Stories differ about whether leprechauns are actually harmless or evil creatures, and they usually fall somewhere in between the two extremities. Most tales of leprechauns in Irish folklore describe their love of shoe-making and general avoidance of humans.

If they are left alone to make shoes, they will be satisfied. It is only when humans interfere with their work that they get annoyed and cause mischief.

Irish folklore: An interesting perspective on the origin of Irish myth

Of course, modern pop culture has a different idea. Leprechauns are often portrayed as a wholly chaotic force to be reckoned with. They will go out of their way to cause mischief and trick humans. There is a bit of a pattern of seeing Irish folklore describe creatures as harmless or nuanced, only for pop culture and modern depictions to be simply evil.

Leprechauns are considered lucky in modern times; they even hide a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow! But did you know that the term ‘the luck of the Irish’ has nothing to do with the leprechaun?

In reality, the origin of the saying originates in California, of all places, and it wasn’t exactly a compliment…

You can read the full story in our blog about the true story behind the saying ‘the luck of the Irish‘ or check out other Irish sayings explained!

Creatures Similar to the Leprechaun in Irish and Celtic Mythology

Fear Dearg / Far Darrig

A Far Darrig or Fear Dearg is another faerie from Irish mythology. The name Far Darrig means Red Man and the fairies were named as such because they are said to wear a red coat and cap. These types of faeries are also sometimes known as Rat Boys, as they are rather fat and have dark, hairy skin, long snouts and skinny tails.

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There are two subcategories of fairies in Irish mythology.

According to Irish folk tales, the Far Darrig is a solitary fairy, like the leprechaun, that is described as the “most sluttish, slouching, jeering, mischievous phantom”.

The Far Darrig is also described as the one who “busies himself with practical joking, especially with gruesome joking”, like replacing babies with changelings. They are also said to cause nightmares and give bad luck.

However, they can also give good luck to those who pass through their practical jokes unscathed or take them in good humour. They also reward those who offer them hospitality.

The Clurichaun

Somewhere in between the Leprechaun and Fear Dearg in terms of pure chaos is the Clurichaun. The Clurichaun are believed to haunt breweries. Some claim that the Clurichaun is simply a Leprechaun on a drinking spree!

While the Leprechaun is usually 2 or 3 feet tall, the Clurichaunin, at its earliest appearance in myth, was only a couple of inches tall. So, it is hard to know for certain if they are one and the same.

In one tale, the Clurichaun tricks a human into drinking a drink he offers him, and as a result, the human is forced to serve the little fellow for seven years. The human escapes the ‘contract’ by blessing the Clurichaun, which breaks the spell.

Another story sees a man leave his house after being unable to tolerate the Clurichaun. Much to his dismay, however, the little fellow follows him into his new home and settles himself in the new wine cellar!

The modern Leprechaun definitely draws inspiration from the 3 fairies we have discussed above, which makes for an interesting character, to say the least.

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The Clurichaun is more malignant than the Leprechaun.

The Banshee in Irish Folklore

A banshee is a female spirit that originated in Irish mythology. It is said that her wails or shrieks foretold the death of a family member. Descriptions of what a banshee looks like have varied over time. She is either depicted as a beautiful woman or an old hag.

The banshee is sometimes depicted as a crow on a windowsill or a woman washing the armour or clothes of someone about to die. For these reasons, she is likened to the Morrigan, the Celtic triple deity and Goddess of War and Death.

The Banshee is also associated with Irish Wakes due to her keening, which is a type of mourning.

The Banshee isn’t a monster, but for completeness, we have included her in this list. In Irish folklore, she didn’t cause death. She could only predict it moments before it happened and mourned with the family.

She only ‘haunted’ specific families. Each ancient Irish family had their own banshee who resided near their home and watched over the family lineage, helping to guide the souls of the dead into the afterlife.

The Banshee is said to have long, flowing fair hair and red eyes from weeping. She usually wears a grey cloak over a green dress. In another description by Lady Fanshawe, an English memoirist who lived in the 17th century, a banshee is dressed in white with red hair and a ghastly complexion.

How would she know? Well, it is said that she saw one for herself.

Irish myth: An excellent description of the Banshee that reflects the original depiction and true nature of the otherworldly woman.

The Story of the Banshee

In 1649, Sir Richard Fanshawe and his wife, Ann, Lady Fanshawe, lived in Cork, Ireland. However, when the city rose against the English King in October of the same year, they were forced to flee and stay with several of their friends at different estates on their way to Spain.

For three nights during that time, they stayed at the castle of Lady Honara O’Brien.

On their first night there, around 1 a.m., Lady Fanshawe was awakened by a voice at the window of her room. She got up and drew the curtain open, only to discover a woman leaning into the casement of the window from outside.

The figure was wearing white. She had red hair and a “ghastly complexion.” The woman called out loudly in a strange tone, “Ahone, Ahone, Ahone“, followed by a sigh “more like wind than breath,” and then she vanished “more like a thick cloud than substance.”

Terrified by what she had just seen, Lady Fanshawe woke her husband, who was surprised by what his wife told him. In the morning, Lady Honara O’Brien told them she had stayed up all night because her cousin, whose ancestors once owned the home they were in, was severely ill in his chamber and had eventually died at two o’clock that morning.

She went even further as to tell them that she had forgotten the myth that the spectre of a woman who had become pregnant and murdered by a former owner of the home now appeared in the window of the room when anyone in the family was dying. Needless to say, the Fanshawes left as soon as possible.

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Banshees are believed to follow one family until their bloodline no longer exists.

Lady Fanshawe was not the only person to report seeing a Banshee with her own eyes. Lady Jane Wilde (the mother of famous Irish author Oscar Wilde) was an Irish poet who had a particular interest in Irish folktales and helped gather them. She gave another account in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland, with Sketches of the Irish Past (1887):

Sometimes the Banshee assumes the form of some sweet singing virgin of the family who died young and has been given the mission by the invisible powers to become the harbinger of coming doom to her mortal kindred.

Or she may be seen at night as a shrouded woman, crouched beneath the trees, lamenting with a veiled face; or flying past in the moonlight, crying bitterly: and the cry of this spirit is mournful beyond all other sounds on earth, and betokens certain death to some member of the family whenever it is heard in the silence of the night.”

Lady Jane Wilde also goes on to tell some of the tales she had gathered of the effect Banshees had on locals, even those who lived in faraway lands:

“A branch of the ancient race of the O’Gradys had settled in Canada, far removed, apparently, from all the associations, traditions, and mysterious influences of the old land of their forefathers. But one night, a strange and mournful lamentation was heard outside the house.

No word was uttered, only a bitter cry, as of one in deepest agony and sorrow, floated through the air.

The inquiry was made, but no one had been seen near the house at the time, though several persons distinctly heard the weird, unearthly cry, and a terror fell upon the household as if some supernatural influence had overshadowed them.

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Banshees can be seen washing the clothes or armour of people who will soon die.

The next day, the gentleman and his eldest son went out boating. However, they did not return at the usual time for dinner, so an alarm was raised, and messengers were sent down to the shore to look for them.

But no tidings came until, precisely at the exact hour of the night when the spirit-cry had been heard the previous evening, a crowd of men were seen approaching the house, bearing with them the dead bodies of the father and the son, who had both been drowned by the accidental upsetting of the boat, within sight of land, but not near enough for any help to reach them in time.

Thus, the Ban-Sidhe had fulfilled her mission of doom, after which she disappeared, and the cry of the spirit of death was heard no more.”

Origins of the Banshee

Accounts of Banshees go as far back as 1380 when they were mentioned in the Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh (Triumphs of Turlough) by Sean Mac Craith.

While sometimes banshees are thought of as fairies or descendants of the aos sídhe, they can also be speculated to be the ghosts of murdered women. They are especially considered to be the spirits of mothers who died in childbirth or any woman who died unjustly before their time.

The origin of the legend of the Banshee may have come from the female profession of keening, a specific type of wailing lament performed when someone dies. This used to be a traditional part of mourning in Ireland and parts of Scotland as well.

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Although Banshees are often mistaken as evil creatures, they have never been known to harm humans.

Barn owls are the source of many myths due to the fact that they are nocturnal, often inhabit derelict buildings, and have an eerie yet distinctive cry. It is more than possible the Banshee cry people heard was, in fact, the barn owl. This, combined with the superstition around keening, could have created the Banshee legend.

Thus came the idea of the Banshee, who laments someone’s death or impending death. It is often stated that the Banshee laments only the descendants of the pure Milesian stock of Ireland, and according to some accounts, each family has its own individual Banshee. It is also said that when several Banshees appear at once, it indicates the death of someone great or holy.

The poor reputation of the Banshee is undeserved in Irish myth. In most stories, she has no control over death and is actually sad a member of the family has passed away. She is simply the messenger of death and mourns with the family as she breaks the tragic news.

The fact that she usually stays loyal to one family is a sign of her sincere sorrow and grief. It is also unfortunate that many see the Banshee as an evil creature, as she sometimes finds out about a person’s death before it happens, but can’t do anything to stop it.

Dullahan – The Headless Horsemen of Irish folklore

Irish folklore: The Headless horseman

The Dullahan, which translates to “without a head” in Irish, is another type of fairy in Celtic mythology. He is depicted as a headless rider on a black horse, carrying his own head under one arm. Although the Dullahan is usually depicted as a male, there are some female versions of the tale as well.

The terrifying fairy’s mouth is usually in a gruesome grin that touches both sides of the head as it is held under the rider’s arm. The horseman’s eyes are said to be quite sharp and can see across the countryside, even during the darkest of nights.

If that description isn’t terrifying enough, the Dullahan is said to have a human spine as a whip and uses skulls fashioned as lanterns lit with candles to light his way. The wagon the Dullahan drags behind it is adorned with funeral objects, the wheels’ spokes are made from thigh bones, and the wagon’s covering is made from a worm-chewed pall or dried human skin.

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The Dullahan can foreshadow deaths, similar to the Banshee.

Like Banshees, the Dullahan can foreshadow deaths. However, unlike the Banshee, the Dullahan seems to have more control over who lives and dies. The ancient Irish believed that when the Dullahan stopped moving, a person was due to die. The Dullahan would call out the person’s name, drawing away the soul of his victim, at which point the person immediately dropped dead.

In ancient times, it was said that golden objects could force the Dullahan to disappear. At the time, gold was very valuable, so it was considered to be a great sacrifice to use golden objects to prevent the death of a loved one. The Dullahaun was believed to embody Crom Dubh, a Tuatha de Danann and the God of Storms, Death, Sacrifice and Eternity.

The Dullahan in American Folklore

The Irish legend of the Dullahan has inspired many similar stories in different cultures, including American folklore. The Americans call the creature the Headless Horseman. The fictional character most famously appears in the short story The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by American author Washington Irving.

The story has been countlessly adapted into film and TV, including the 1999 Tim Burton film Sleepy Hollow, starring Johnny Depp.

The story is set in Sleepy Hollow, New York, during the American Revolutionary War. According to the tale, the Horseman was a Hessian trooper who was decapitated by an American cannonball during the Battle of White Plains in 1776.

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The Dullahan is thought to have inspired the legend of the Headless Horseman in the USA.

Eventually, his comrades buried his body, albeit without the head, in the cemetery of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow. That evening, the trooper rises from his grave as a ghost, furiously seeking his lost head.

The Headless Horseman is also a novel by Mayne Reid, first published in 1865 and 1866. The book is set in Texas and based on a South Texas folk tale. In this version, the Headless Horseman is often depicted wearing a pumpkin as a head.

Because of this, the mythical creature has become associated with Halloween traditions around the world.

The Changeling in Irish Folklore

The Changeling is one of the most frightening mythical monsters on our list. A Changeling was believed to be a fairy left in the place of a human that was stolen by other fairies, usually a small child or baby.

Looking at a baby, child, or adult with envy was believed to make them vulnerable to the fairies’ power. The only way to protect them was by saying a blessing for them. Irish curses were complicated, to say the least!

In ancient Ireland, it was believed that during liminal times of the year or transitional periods such as Summer to Winter, fairies and evil spirits were able to come from the otherworld to our world. This occurred during ancient Irish festivals such as Samhain and other Celtic festivals.

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Changelings were fairies left in place of a human child or infant.

Fairies were also believed to visit our world during a person’s transitional periods of life, such as marriage, birth and death. During these times, people were especially vulnerable to evil spirits.

There were various ways for a person to tell a Changeling apart from their loved one, even if they looked identical. It was usually a tailor who was the first to recognise that the changeling had replaced a human, oddly enough.

This is because the Changeling would begin to show unusual behaviours such as playing an instrument the actual person never learned how to play or moving in a strange way when they thought they were alone.

In most tales, the family had the ability to recover their child by returning the Changeling, catching the fairy in the act of stealing their child, or even tricking the fairy by blessing them. Síofra (Sheef-ra) is a modern Irish name meaning Changeling. It derives from Síobhra, which means fairy people.

Across many cultures, the Changeling lore is fascinating. In some myths, the Changeling is a dying fairy brought to the human world to see out the rest of its life. The Hole in the Ground (2019) is a horror film that explores the myth of Changelings in modern Ireland.

Irish Horror Film: The Hole in the Ground explores the Irish myth of Changelings

The story of the Changeling is quite sad. If a child developed differently than expected or behaved outside of what was considered ‘normal‘ in the past, they could face grave consequences under the guise of being seen as Changelings.

The Púca / Pooka in Irish folklore

Púca is the Irish word for ghost, which is used to describe many spirits in Celtic and Germanic folklore. According to the legends, the pooka can be good or evil depending on their mood and is usually a trickster that can transform its appearance.

Irish folklore: The Pooka

Failnis – Wolves in Irish folklore

Failnis is the mythical dog in Irish mythology belonging to the champion of the Tuatha de Danann, Lugh lamhfhada. Failnis was gifted to Lugh as a reparation by the Children of Tuireann after they killed his father, Cian.

The dog was invincible in battle. It caught and held dominion over every beast it encountered and could even turn water into wine. It was multi-coloured and much larger than regular dogs.

There are many more interesting stories of dogs, wolves and even werewolves in Celtic mythology and Irish folklore. The men of Ossory were able to leave their human bodies and become wolves, which was helpful during battle.

You can find out more by watching the video below!

Irish folklore: werewolves in Irish mythology

Fear Gorta

The Fear Gorta, which literally translates to ‘Hungry Man‘ in English, is a phantom that takes the form of an emaciated man and is believed to have arisen from times of famine in Ireland. Donating alms such as money or food to the Fear Gorta was considered good luck.

There is not much more information about the Fear Gorta. Still, there is something inherently sad about this spirit, considering its connection to the famine and the Irish diaspora which resulted from it. The reality behind the myth was even more scary as over a million real people died during the Great Famine in Ireland.

The Abhartach – An alternative version of Dracula’s origin in Irish folklore

Ever since Bram Stoker popularised vampires with his famous novel Dracula in 1897, the mythical creatures have mesmerised and enthralled the world. By now, almost everyone knows that Dracula was based on Vlad the Impaler, who allegedly did many gruesome things and lived in Transylvania.

However, some scholars claim that the Abhartach inspired Dracula. The Abhartach was a type of dwarf in Irish folklore who could not be killed. He was a chieftain who was buried upright the first time he died.

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The Abhartach is a dwarf who is believed to be invincible.

The Abhartach would rise from his grave the next night, and in some versions of the legend, he even drank the blood of his enemies. He was killed many times but would rise again the following night, haunting the locals. How could you defeat someone who was already killed?

A brave warrior eventually found out that the Abhartach could only be slain with a particular weapon after consulting with a druid or Christian priest/saint, depending on the version of the story. The druid/saint explained that the only way to kill the Abhartach was with a sword made of yew. Yew is not much different to a stake, which was the weapon of choice against Dracula.

The druid/saint also told the warrior that the Abhartach must be buried upside down to ensure he was dead. The warrior was told that he needed to use thorns to surround the grave and place a large stone on top of it.

The Abhartach’s grave is now known as Slaghtaverty Dolmen or “The Giant’s Grave“. It is located in the townland of Slaghtaverty in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

What do you think inspired Dracula? Personally, I’d like to think Stoker was inspired by a mix of both stories!

Want to watch a movie adaptation of Legend of the Abhartach? The 2021 Irish Comedy/Horror film Boys from County Hell (2020) depicts the Abhartach as a tall vampire who can absorb the blood of others just by standing close to them. It’s definitely not for the faint-hearted!

Irish folklore: Another story of the Abhartach

Female Vampire (Dearg Due) – A Tragic Tale in Irish Folklore

Dracula is not the only blood-sucking creature out there. In Irish mythology and folklore, there is also a tragic tale of a female vampire that we had to add to this list.

The legend of the Dearg Due started two thousand years ago. There lived a young girl who was a legendary beauty with blood-red lips and pale blonde hair. Men travelled from far-off lands to ask for her hand.

The girl fell in love with a handsome and kind-hearted local peasant, but her father refused the match because the peasant lacked money. Instead, her father married her off to a much older and cruel, but of course rich, clan Chieftain.

The poor girl suffered abuse at the hands of her new husband. Among his heinous forms of torture included drawing blood from her and locking her away in a tower cell. The girl waited in vain to be rescued by her former love.

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The Dearg Due was created when a woman died after being locked in a tower by her abusive husband.

But when it became apparent that he wasn’t coming to save her, she became depressed and lonely. She lost hope and began wasting away, not eating or drinking, until her body gave in. Some say that before she released her final breath, she vowed a terrible vengeance on the men who had wronged her. The girl was buried in a small churchyard near Strongbow’s Tree in Waterford County, Southeast Ireland.

Waterford is Ireland’s oldest city, founded by the Vikings over 1100 years ago!

Her husband took another wife before she was even cold in her grave, and her family was too engrossed in their newfound wealth to give her a second thought. Only her lost love visited her modest grave. He would visit every single day, telling her of his undying love and praying for her return to his arms.

Sadly, it was revenge, not love, that pulled her from her grave on the first anniversary of her death. It is said that she was driven by her anger and lust for revenge, so much so that she climbed out of her coffin and returned to her childhood home. She found her sleeping father and killed him.

After killing her father, she still had not had enough to satisfy her anger. So, she visited her callous husband next, only to find him surrounded by women. In a furious rage, she launched herself at him and drew every breath and every ounce of blood from his body.

After all of this, she realised that she had developed a hunger for blood that could not be sated. She used her ethereal beauty to seduce and prey on young men, luring them to their deaths by sinking her teeth into their necks and drinking their blood to quench her thirst and desire. But it was never enough.

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The Dearg Due awakens from her grave each year on her death anniversary.

Since she wakes up to fulfil her lustful desires on the anniversary of the day she died, locals gather every year on the eve of her anniversary and position rocks upon her grave so that she will not rise and take the blood of the innocent.

Long before myth came to be, Irish folklore dictated that you should pile stones on the graves of the newly dead to prevent them from rising again. It was a mistake that they did not place rocks on her grave that first night. It was probably due to how little they thought of her.

This is just a theory on our part, but what if the peasant man removed the stones, as his role in the story seems like it should have been bigger? Who knows, such is the joy of folklore!

Sometimes, though, the rocks are not placed on her grave, or they have been moved for some reason, or her desire is more potent than any stone. On these occasions, the Dearg Due manages to escape her dark grave and walk into the night, preying on young men who fall victim to her beauty.

She calls them to her with a haunting siren song that invades their sleep, luring them out into the night with her to her grave. Those who go missing, fall ill all of a sudden or die inexplicably are all attributed to the cursed, wandering, and insatiable Dearg Due.

Sadly, nothing of the young woman’s beauty or kindness is remembered as the legends only focus on and warn against the blood-sucking female vampire that roams the night in Waterford, seeking vengeance because she was so wronged in her own life.

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Finn McCool, a giant from Irish mythology, created the Giants Causeway.

Irish Giants in Irish folklore

Giants are usually menacing by nature due to their sheer size. However, in Irish myth, Finn McCool (or MacCool) was a hero giant who created the Giants Causeway, among other locations across Ireland.

Conversely, Balor of the Evil Eye was a threatening giant in Celtic mythology.

Balor (The Evil Eye)

The Tuatha de Danann were enemies with the Fomorians, but that didn’t stop members of each race from falling in love or marrying. Brigid, the Celtic Goddess of Fire and Light, married Bres, who was the king of the Tuatha de Danann and half-Fomorian.

Bres favoured the Fomorians and made the Tuatha de Danann their slaves for a time, according to the legend. Brigid was the first to keen (that thing we spoke about in relation to banshees) when her son died fighting on the side of the Fomorians.

In Celtic mythology, Balor was the chief of a demon race called the Fomoirans, which threatened the Irish people until they were subdued in the second great battle of Mag Tuired (Moytura). One interesting thing about the Fomorians in mythology is that their race was extremely varied.

Some Fomorians were identical to humans, and others took the form of hideous monsters and everything in between.

When he was a young boy, Balor accidentally glanced into a potion brewed by his father’s Druids. The fumes emanating from the potion caused Balor to grow a huge, poisonous “evil” eye. The eye was covered with seven very heavy eyelids. It took four strong men to open it, only to discover that its gaze killed anything within its sight.

County Mayo
A prophecy foretold that Balor would be killed by his grandson.

Balor ruled tyrannically in Ireland before the arrival of other settlers. He was afraid of no man. There was only one thing that truly scared him: a prophecy about his eventual fate. The Druid’s prophecy said that Balor would be killed one day by his own grandson.

In an attempt to escape his fate, Balor imprisoned his only daughter, Ethniu, in a tower on Tory Island, away from all contact with men.

Balor’s greed led to his downfall. He stole a magical cow of fertility, the Glas Ghaibhleann, which had the ability to produce copious amounts of milk. The magical cow belonged to Cian, a member of the Tuatha de Danann (Kian the Mighty).

Cian went to the tower to steal the cow back, and that was when he first laid eyes on Balor’s daughter, Etain. They fell in love instantly, and their union resulted in three children, one of whom was Lugh. When Balor discovered what had happened, he mercilessly ordered the children to be drowned.

Only Lugh survived the drowning by pure chance. He was secretly raised in times of continuous conflict between the Tuatha de Danann and the Fomorians. The Fomorians continued to prey upon the settlers until the Danaans finally defeated them in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired.

During this battle, Balor was killed by his grandson, just as the prophecy foretold. Lugh became the champion of the Tribe of Gods.

Balor has also made an appearance in pop culture through movies like Hellboy: The Golden Army.

Irish folklore: Balor of the Evil Eye

Other Creatures in Irish Folklore

The Sluagh

Like demons, the Sluaghs are scary creatures from Irish and Scottish folklore that hunt down souls. They are said to be dead sinners who came back as malicious spirits. The Sluaghs work in groups and try to enter a house where someone is almost dying to take away their soul.

Since it is said that they come from the West, Irish families used to keep their west-facing windows completely shut to keep them out. It is even bad luck to build a house facing west, according to some Irish superstitions.

The Sluaghs were said to be souls unwelcome in heaven or hell who roamed the earth and took their anger out on the souls of the near or recently dead.

The Kelpie

In Celtic mythology, the kelpie is a shapeshifting monster that usually appears in the form of a horse. It galloped around Ireland, looking like a lost pony, which tricked women and children into riding on it. The unique thing about this horse was that its mane would constantly be dripping with water.

If anyone hopped on the back of the Kelpie or tried to ride it, the Kelpie would run into the water, drowning the rider and then taking them to its lair to eat them.

Celtic mythology / Irish folklore: An animation depicting the true nature of the Kelpie

The Selkie

The Selkie is another creature on our list. It is not a monster, but it is worth a mention nonetheless. The Selkie is Ireland and Scotland’s take on the fabled marine creature. It is similar to mermaids, sirens, and swan maidens from other cultures.

The Selkie is a creature that takes the form of a seal in the water but is able to take off their seal skin on land and emerge as an irresistible human to land dwellers.

The Selkie legend usually highlights the evil of mankind as human men steal a female Selkie’s seal skin so she cannot return home to her family. The Selkie woman is forced to live as a human with her captor until she finds her unique Selkie skin hidden somewhere in the area.

Conversely, male Selkies seek out women dissatisfied with their lives, typically the wives of fishermen who spend long periods of time out at sea. With irresistible beauty and powers of seduction, Selkie men intentionally lure humans to the sea.

Unlike their male counterparts, female Selkies are often captured by humans and stolen from their families. The Selkie woman usually escapes back into the sea. Still, it is not a happy story as she usually has to leave behind human children that she loves in order to escape her husband and return to her Selkie family.

You can read the full story about Selkies by checking out our Legend of the Selkies blog!

Irish Folklore
Celtic folklore Legend of the Selkies

Caorthannach

The Caorthannach is a creature so evil that it is thought to be the devil’s own mother. This demon was fought by St. Patrick when he banished the snakes out of Ireland. It is said that St. Patrick stood on the mountain now known as Croagh Patrick and banished all the serpents and demons out of the Emerald Isle into the sea to drown.

However, one monster escaped: Caorthannach, a fire-spitter. When St. Patrick spotted her, he chased her down, riding upon the fastest horse in Ireland. Knowing that St. Patrick would need water to quench his thirst along the way, Caorthannach spitfired and poisoned every well on his path.

Though he was desperately thirsty, Saint Patrick refused to drink from the poisoned wells and prayed for guidance. He eventually reached the Hawk’s Rock, where he hid in waiting for Caorthannach. As the demon approached, he jumped out and banished her from Ireland with a single word.

The evil demon drowned in the ocean, leaving a swell behind that transformed into the now-famous Hawk’s Well.

Irish Folklore 6 min
The Caorthannach was drowned in the ocean by St. Patrick.

Gancanagh

The Gancanagh, or Lover Talker, is a fairy known for seducing women. The Gancanagh is similar to the Leprechaun, but unlike them, he personified love and idleness and always appeared with a dudeen or pipe in his jaw in lonesome valleys.

It was his custom to seduce shepherdesses and milkmaids. The dudeen, or ancient Irish tobacco pipe often found in raths or burial mounds, is still popularly called a “Gean-cánach’s pipe.”

It is said that the Gancanagh have an addictive toxin in their skin that seduces humans. When they came into contact with the toxin, humans became literally addicted to the fairy. The seduced women end up dying from withdrawal as they pine away for the Ganacanagh’s love. In some stories, they even fight each other to the death to win his affection.

Irish Folklore 9 min
Irish Folklore features many fascinating creatures and spirits.

Final Thoughts about Irish Folklore

These are only some of the most famous legends and myths from Irish culture and folklore. Wherever you go in Ireland, you’ll come across a fascinating story that has been told for hundreds of years. Some of the legends of Irish folklore are scary or even terrifying, while others are heroic and exciting.

One thing is for certain: ancient Irish legends are always a bit bizarre but leave you wanting to find out more!

Whether the stories revolve around demons, shapeshifters or magical creatures, we can guarantee that the fascinating tales will entertain you. Here are some Irish myths you may like:

The Children of Lír | Scáthach: the famous female warrior | Curious Irish Curses & the Cursing Stone | Irish Wake Superstitions

One comment on “Irish Folklore: Mythical Monsters and Terrifying Creatures

  1. Banshees are definitely real! I’m not even fully Irish, and I’ve seen one! The family I live with currently has heavy, heavy Irish blood. They have traces in major events and people, and were a royal family back in the day. They are even related to Bonnie Parker (bold claim I know, but I’m convinced it’s true because I saw a picture they had of their kindred next to Bonnie inside a barn). While I was living in their main house, many times I would see a lady dressed in white wandering through the kitchen. I would always think it was my chosen brother’s grandma, but when I’d go see or take a second glance, the apparition was gone. When I finally mentioned this to him, he told me about the old woman, that he believed was a Banshee, that would wander the house and sometimes cry or scream, before someone in the near or distant family died. One night when he was younger he had been sleeping on his bed when he woke up and sat up. When he turned on the light, a women’s face was in his, and she screamed at the top of her lungs before vanishing. He was a child so he was absolutely terrified and ran in to sleep with another family member. But the next morning they received news that a distant cousin had died of a heart attack. Another similar thing happened to his sperm donor (father, whom the family has recently rejected due to his being a really bad dude). One night when he was sleeping in his truck, what he described as a “demon lady”, was standing in front of the front house window, turned and looked at him, morphed her face into a terrifying form, and screamed with her jaws unhinged and her eyes blackened. She never appeared this terrifying to anyone else. She would scream or cry, sometimes very abruptly and fear inducing, but it never seemed deliberately malicious. So I suspect she could sense his evil and didn’t like him very much, and decided to give him the full experience lol. The next day though he received news his uncle had died that night.
    The other case I heard of, was my chosen brother’s uncle (not the guy that died, but the sperm donor’s brother). He too had been screamed at by her before, and heard wailing down the hall. Occurred when he was a child apparently.
    She never screamed at me, likely because I’m not blood related to the family, and I have far less Irish blood than them (mostly German, and then Irish, and then Native American). They have heavy, and I mean h e a v y Irish blood. I feel so out of place among them, but I love being at least on the outer edges of a family that has so much interesting history, as I know next to nothing about mine. But the Banshee is definitely real, I’ve seen her, described the same as they have described her. Can be frightening, but it’s nice to know they have someone trying to look out for their family.

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