Irish folklore has lasted hundreds of years, if not more. Its popularity stems from the 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, the story that captivated readers worldwide and was successfully adapted into dozens of on-screen adaptations.
The stories and tales that have stood the test of time often focus on the scary monsters that, according to legends, locals encountered more than once. Here are some of the most well-known sea and land monsters that are said to roam Ireland to this day.
Perhaps the most notable “fairy” 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 (Adventure of Fergus son of Léti), where 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 release.
Stories differ about whether leprechauns are harmless or evil creatures. David Russell McAnally says that the leprechaun is the son of an “evil spirit” and a “degenerate fairy” that is “not wholly good nor wholly evil”.
A banshee is a female spirit that originated in Irish mythology. It is said that her wails or shrieks herald the death of a family member. Descriptions of what a banshee looks like have varied over time. She is sometimes said to have long streaming hair and red eyes from weeping and she wears a grey cloak over a green dress. In another description by Ann, 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.
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 on 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 am, 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, and 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 she told him had happened. In the morning, Lady Honara O’Brien told them she had stayed up all night because a cousin of hers, whose ancestors had owned the home they were in, had asked her to stay with him in his chamber because he was severely ill and he eventually died at two o’clock that morning. She went even further as to tell them that she had given them the best room in the house… but she had forgotten that the spectre of woman who had become pregnant by a former owner of the home and then been murdered by said owner, now appeared in the window of the room when any in the family were dying. Needless to say, the Fanshawes left as soon as possible.
More Stories of Banshee Sightings
Lady Fanshawe was not the only person to report seeing a banshee with her own eyes. Lady Jane Wilde (mother of famous Irish author Oscar Wilde), an Irish poet who had a special interest in Irish folktales and helped gather them, 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 veiled face; or flying past in the moonlight, crying bitterly: and the cry of thus 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.
The Banshee even follows the old race across the ocean and to distant. lands; for space and the offer no hindrance to the mystic power which is selected and appointed to bear the prophecy of death to a family. Of this a well authenticated instance happened a few years ago, and many now living can attest the truth of the narrative.”
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 fore-fathers. 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.
Next day it so happened that the gentleman and his eldest son went out boating. As they did not return, however, at the usual time for dinner, some alarm was excited, 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.”
Another tale of doom and gloom goes as follows:
“There was a gentleman also in the same country who had a beautiful daughter, strong and healthy, and a splendid horsewoman. She always followed the hounds, and her appearance at the hunt attracted unbounded admiration, as no one rode so well or looked so beautiful.
One evening there was a ball after the hunt, and the young girl moved through the dance with the grace of a fairy queen.
But that same night a voice came close to the father’s window, as if the face were laid close to the glass, and he heard a mournful lamentation and a cry; and the words rang out on the air–“In three weeks death; in three weeks the grave–dead–dead–dead!”
Three times the voice came, and three times he heard the words; but though it. was bright moonlight, and he looked from the window over all the park, no form was to be seen.
Next day, his daughter showed symptoms of fever, and exactly in three weeks, as the Ban-Sidhe had prophesied, the beautiful girl lay dead.
The night before her death soft music was heard outside the house, though no word was spoken by the spirit-voice, and the family said the form of a woman crouched beneath a tree, with a mantle covering her head, was~ distinctly visible. But on approaching, the phantom disappeared, though the soft, low music of the lamentation continued till dawn.
Then the angel of death entered the house with soundless feet, and he breathed upon the beautiful face of the young girl, and she rested in the sleep of the dead, beneath the dark shadows of his wings.
Thus the prophecy of the Banshee came true, according to the time foretold by the spirit-voice.”
Accounts of banshees go as far back as 1380 when they were mentioned in the Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh (Triumphs of Torlough) by Sean mac Craith.
The origin of the legend of the banshee may have come from the profession of the keening woman who wails a lament when someone dies, which is a traditional part of mourning in Ireland and parts of Scotland as well.
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 banshee. It is also said that when several banshees appear at once, it indicates the death of someone great or holy.
While sometimes banshees are thought of as fairies, they may also be ghosts of a murdered woman or a mother who died in childbirth.
The Dullahan, which translates to “without a head” in Irish, is a type of fairy in Irish mythology. It is depicted as a headless rider on a black horse, carrying his own head under one arm. Although it 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. The horseman’s eyes are said to be quite sharp and can see across the countryside, even during the darkest nights.
If that description isn’t terrifying enough, the Dullahan is said to use a human spine of a human corpse for a whip, and the wagon it’s dragging behind it is adorned with funeral objects. Not only that, but it also has candles in skulls fashioned as lanterns to light the way, and the spokes of the wheels are made from thigh bones, and the wagon’s covering is made from a worm-chewed pall or dried human skin.
Like banshees, the Dullahan can foreshadow deaths as the ancient Irish believed that where the Dullahan stops riding, a person is due to die. The Dullahan calls out the person’s name, drawing away from the soul of his victim, at which point the person immediately drops dead.
In ancient times, it was said that golden objects can force the Dullahan to disappear. At the time, gold was very valuable, so it was considered to be a sacrifice.
The Dullahan in American Folklore
The Irish legend of the Dullahan has spawned many similar stories in different cultures, including American folklore. The Americans call the creature the Headless Horsman. The fictional character actually 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.
According to the story, which takes place in Sleepy Hollow, New York, during the American Revolutionary War, the Horseman was a Hessian trooper who was decapitated by an American cannonball during the Battle of White Plains in 1776. Eventually, his comrades buried his body, without the head, in the cemetery of the Old Dutch Church of Sleepy Hollow, from which he rises as a ghost, furiously seeking his lost head.
The Headless Horseman is also a novel by Mayne Reid, first published in 1865 and 1866, set in Texas and based on a south Texas folk tale.
A far darrig or fear dearg is a faerie from Irish mythology. The name far darrig means Red Man, and it was named as such because it is said to wear a red coat and cap. These types of faeries are also sometimes known as Rat Boys as they are said to be rather fat, have dark, hairy skin, long snouts and skinny tails.
According to Irish folk tales, the far darrig is a solitary fairy, like the leprechaun and the clurichaun, that are described as the “most sluttish, slouching, jeering, mischievous phantoms”. The far darrig is also described as 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 it in good humour, or those who offer them hospitality.
Female Vampire (Dearg Due)
Ever since Bram Stoker popularized vampires with his famous novel Dracula in 1897, the world has been held captive by the mythical creatures. However, Dracula is not the only blood-sucking creature out there. In Irish mythology and folklore, there is a tragic tale of a female vampire that we had to add to this list.
The legend of the Dearg Due starts two thousand years ago when 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 he lacked money. Instead, her father married her off to a much older and cruel, and of course rich, clan Chieftain.
The poor girl suffered a heap of mental and physical abuse at the hands of her new “husband.” Among his heinous forms of torture was to draw blood from her and lock her away in a tower cell. She waited in vain to be rescued by her former love. She became so depressed and extremely lonely, locked far away from anyone she had ever known and loved, that she completely 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.
She was buried in a small churchyard, near Strongbow’s Tree in Waterford County, Southeast Ireland.
Her husband took another wife before she was even cold in her grave and her family was too engrossed in their wealth to give her a second thought. Only her lost love visited her grave every single day telling her of his undying love and praying for her return to his arms.
Sadly revenge was the force 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 that she climbed out of her coffin and went back to her childhood home. She found her sleeping father, touched her lips to his and sucked the life out of him.
She still had not had enough, 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 realized that she 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 death by sinking her teeth into their necks and drinking their blood to quench her thirst and desire, but it was never enough.
Since she wakes up to sate her lustful desires on 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, folklore in Ireland 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 pile rocks on her grave that first night, though.
Sometimes, though, of the rocks are not placed on her grave or they have been moved for some reason, or if her desire is stronger than any stone, she 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, so she lures them out into the night with her to her grave. Those who go missing, who fall ill all of a sudden or children who 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, Ireland, seeking vengeance because she was so wronged in her own life.
Balor (The Evil Eye)
In Celtic mythology, Balor is the chief of a demon race called the race of Fomoire that threatened the Irish people until they were subdued in the second great battle of Mag Tuired (Moytura).
When he was a young boy, Balor happened to glance into a potion being brewed by his father’s Druids, and the fumes emanating from it caused him to grow a huge, poisonous “evil” eye. The eye was covered with seven, very heavy eyelids so it took four strong men to open it and its gaze killed anything within its sight.
Balor ruled tyrannically in Ireland before the arrival of settlers. He was afraid of no man, but one thing truly scared him, which was the prophecy about his eventual fate. The Druid’s prophecy said Balor would be killed one day by his own grandson. In an attempt to escape his fate, Balor imprisoned his own daughter, Ethniu, in a tower on Tory Island away from all contact with men.
Balor’s greed leads to his downfall, as he stole a magical cow of fertility, the Glas Ghaibhleann, which has the ability to produce copious amounts of milk. The magical cow belonged to Cian (Kian the Mighty). Cian had to come up with a plot of revenge.
Since Cian knew the Druids’ prophecy and so he was also aware of why Balor had locked his daughter in a tower, he disguised himself as a Druidess, entered the tower and seduced Balor’s daughter. Their union resulted in three children, one of whom was Lugh. When Balor discovered the plot, he ordered the children to be drowned. Only Lugh survived and was secretly raised in times of continuous conflict between the Danaans and the Fomorians, both demonic clans that were ruled by the tyrannical king Balor. The Fomorians continued to prey upon the settlers until they were finally defeated by the Danaans in the Second Battle of Mag Tuired and Balor was eventually killed by his grandson.
Balor has also made an appearance in pop culture through movies like Hellboy: The Golden Army.
Like demons, the Sluagh are scary creatures from Irish and Scottish folklore that hunt down souls. They are said to be dead sinners that come back as malicious spirits. They 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.
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 it. The unique thing about this horse was that its mane would always be dripping with water. If anyone hopped on it or tried to ride it, the kelpie would run into the water, drowning the rider, then taking them to its lair to eat them.
It is also said that the kelpie can shapeshift into a handsome man to lure women into his trap, but you can spot them when you find kelp in their hair.
The Caorthannach is a creature so evil that it is thought to be the devil’s own mother. This demon was even 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 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 spitfire and poisoned every well along the way. 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.
The Glancanagh (or lover talker) is a fairy known for seducing women. The gancanagh is described as “another diminutive being of the same tribe as the Leprechaun, but, unlike him, he personated love and idleness, and always appeared with a dudeen in his jaw in lonesome valleys, and it was his custom to make love to shepherdesses and milkmaids. It was considered very unlucky to meet him, and whoever was known to have ruined his fortune by devotion to the fair sex was said to have met a gean-cánach. The dudeen, or ancient Irish tobacco pipe, found in our raths, etc., 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 who become literally addicted to them. The seduced women end up dying from withdrawal as they pine away for the Ganacanagh’s love or they fight to the death for his love.
These are only some of the most popular 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 which are scary or even terrifying, and some others are really enjoyable.
Whether the stories revolve around demons, shapeshifters or magical creatures, we can guarantee that you will be entertained by the fascinating tales.