The Scéalai or storyteller (Figure 1) was an important facet of Irish rural life. This man visited isolated farm houses, and provided all present recent news and a bit of entertainment with his tales of the mythical creatures of the country. Some, like the leprechaun are well known, and generally benevolent although mischievous (Figure 2), but one must not offend the “wee folk”. They are said to guard the treasures hidden in the prehistoric ruins that are prevalent in rural areas. Surprisingly, leprechauns do not appear on any Irish stamps; possibly so they won’t be offended and mess up operations. With sixteen plus centuries of Christianity, we cannot accuse the Irish of being superstitious, but, let’s face it, there are things we don’t know about, or understand completely, so why should we tempt fate!
One famous tale is that of the Children of Lir.(Figure 3). This is thought to have been from the first century of the Christian era, although not written down until about 700 AD. Lir, Lord of the Sea, had four children. His wife died, and he remarried. His new wife had magical powers, and was jealous of the close relationship between the father and children. She changed the children into swans. The spell lasted 900 years until the bell of a new God rang. The children were changed back into human form, but rapidly aged and died.
Have you ever heard the tale why the Giant’s Causeway exists? (Figure 4 ) It was built by the giant, Finn MacCool (Fionn mac Cumheill), so he could visit his girlfriend in Scotland without getting his feet wet. This dates story back to the Third Century AD; a noble cause, but disputed by geologists.
Finn was a very wise fellow. He got his wisdom in an unusual manner. In the river Boyne, there was a fish known as the “Wisdom Salmon”; the knowledge was given to the first person to eat the fish. An old man caught the fish, and asked young Finn to cook it for him. In the process of turning the fillet, he burnt his thumb. He popped the thumb in his mouth to cool it and reduce the pain. In doing so, he became the first one to taste the fish, and thus inherited the wisdom of the world.(Figure 5). This story dates back to around the first century of the Christian era.
In the tale “Oisin and Niamh”, (Figure 6) Finn’s son, Oisin, fell in love with Princess Niamh and accompanied her to the land of eternal youth. On a return trip to his homeland, Oisin forgot Niamh’s warning not to dismount from his horse. Oisin fell from his mount while helping some workers. He was immediately transformed into an old man, never to return to Niamh.
How about Count Dracula? (Fig. 7) We know this was a fictional story written by Bram Stoker of Dublin in 1897. No such creature exists. This is just fiction playing on our minds. Sure. Still, the movie has been a perennial favorite, and the book is still being published.
Moving away from Ireland, there are folktales in many countries about beings and creatures that stretch one’s imagination. Why? It’s probably superstition or an ingrown fear of the unknown. By the way, have you seen my clove of garlic? It was just here on the table with the silver crucifix?
Wikipedia, “The Mythology of Ireland” and “Irish Folklore”, reviewed July 2019.
Irish Philatelic Service, “The Collector”, 3/97, 3/98, and 3/12.
Haining, P. The Irish Leprechaun’s Kingdom, Grenada, London, 1981