Irish Mythology for beginners

Since my book was announced, I’ve had quite a few people message me to say they they are intrigued by Irish mythology, but don’t know anything about it – and don’t know where to begin.

Who is Cú Chulainn? You ask. Who is Finn McCool? Aren’t there giants? And what about leprechauns?

The first thing you need to know is this – Irish mythology is messy. There isn’t one book that explains it all. There are also regional variances, so you can read the same myth, but depending on the source it can end quite differently. This is why, I believe, people can find Irish mythology a little intimidating and feel uncertain about where to start.

Worry not.

This is where I hope to help.

Over the next few months, I plan to release a series of blog posts which help direct you on your quest and answer some of your questions.

Today, I start with a brief overview.

The four cycles of Irish mythology

That’s right – there are four cycles in Irish mythology. These are:

  • Mythological cycle
  • Ulster cycle
  • Fenian cycle
  • Historical cycle/King’s cycle

I would also add that much of what you might ‘know’ about Irish mythology – banshee’s, fairies, and leprechaun’s do NOT exist within any of these cycles.

The fairy people and the like are, however, derived from Irish mythology, but come much later in the story of Ireland and I group these stories into a section called Irish folklore.

Mythological cycle

This is my favourite cycle. This has stories of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Fomorian giants and the Sons of Miled. It’s full of magic, witches, druids and warriors.

Lugh, The Dagda, The Mórrígu, Balor of the Evil Eye, and Manannán mac Lir are the most famous characters from this cycle and there are several epic battles.

Sculpture of Manannán Mac Lir

The most famous stories from this cycle are, The Battle of Moytura, The Second Battle of Moytura, The Coming of Lugh, and The Children of Lir.

A very famous Irish document called The Book of the Taking of Ireland, (in Irish known as the ‘Lebor Gabála Érenn’), gives us much of our information on these characters and events. This text has come down in several medieval manuscripts, the most famous and complete of which is The Book of Leinster, which was written in the 14th century. These documents detail all the historic invasions of Ireland – of which the Fomorians, the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Milesians are the most famous.

The Ulster Cycle

This is all about one man – the mighty Cú Chulainn.

Cú Chulainn slays the hound by Stephen Reid
Art work of Cú Chulainn at the Ulster museum

The most famous story to come out of this cycle is called The Táin – which tells the story of the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

Cú Chulainn is a famous warrior – though some stories say that he is actually a son of Lugh of the Tuatha Dé Danann. Aside from being a famous warrior, he doesn’t have magical powers. However, other characters in his life do – and some characters from the mythological cycle appear in this cycle too.

The Mórrígu comes to Cú Chulainn three times in The Táin, a witch warrior called Scathach trains him, and he falls in love with Fand, the wife of Manannán mac Lir, who leaves the otherworld to be with him.

Cú Chulainn still looms large in the Irish imagination. He is a hero, but his life is full of tragedy. Other famous stories about him are The Only Jealousy of Emer, The Naming of Cú Chulainn and The Death of Aoife’s Only Son.

The Fenian Cycle

This is all about the life of Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill) and his famous band of warriors known as the Fianna.

These stories are very famous in Ireland and you will find many children’s books about Finn McCool – more so that any other cycle of mythology. His adventures with his band of loyal followers makes for great bedtime stories, but actually some of the stories about Finn McCool are much darker than you’d expect, and in some cases he is even portrayed as the villain.

While Finn McCool isn’t magical, he does interact with magical characters. His lover Sadbh (and mother of Oisín) is said to be the daughter of Bodb Derg of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who was cursed to live her life as a deer.

The most famous stories about Finn are The Boyhood dead’s of Fionn (featuring the salmon of knowledge), The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Grainne, and The Battle of Ventry.

It’s also important to note that the legend of Tir Na nÓg comes from this cycle of mythology – as Finn’s son, Oisin, travels there to be with Niamh of the golden hair.

But remember I said Irish Mythology is messy?

Well, if you go to the north of Ireland, you will see many tales about Finn McCool where he is a giant – and the giant’s causeway was built because of a fight he had with another giant who was standing in Scotland. These tales don’t exist within the Fenian cycle texts – and are considered to be from the folklore tradition.

Giant’s causeway – Antrim
The giant’s causeway – Antrim

The historical cycle

Sometimes called ‘The Kings cycle’ this doesn’t have one hero. It’s a collection of stories about the most famous kings in Ireland. Some of these kings are historical, some are mythological or at least historians cannot confirm if or when they were king.

The kings range from Connor mac Art to King Brian Boru (who appears in The Children of Gods and Fighting Men!). Brian Boru is still famous in Ireland for driving out the Vikings – even though this isn’t really true.

The most famous story in this cycle, is Buile Shuibhne – thought to have been composed in the 13th century, but most recently translated by Seamus Heaney. It tells the tale of ‘Mad Sweeny’ who falls out with Saint Ronan – who then consequently turns Sweeny (Shuibhne) mad and tells him how he will die.

As an interesting aside – the character of Sweeny from Neil Gaiman’s American Gods is thought to be based on this character.

There are lots of other stories too. However, this is the least well known cycle of Irish mythology, and I think this is because it is where myth and history merge and it’s harder to dissect fact from fiction. The sources for these stories also come from a much wider range of documents.

The stories I know the best are the more historically accurate – and are about The Battle of Moira and The Kin-Slaying of Ronan – and stories about the famous kings, Conn of the Hundred Battles and Niall of the Nine Hostages.

So that’s the overview!

I hope it wasn’t too much. In my next blog, I will be looking at the Mythological cycle in more detail.

Author Bio

Shauna Lawless is an author and her upcoming series is a historical fantasy set in 10th century, Ireland. The first book, The Children of Gods and Fighting Men, is now available to pre-order.




For other retailers and other countries, please go to the ‘books’ tab on my website.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

2 thoughts on “Irish Mythology for beginners

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: