4. Mythology : Gods, Goblins, and Phantoms.

Gods in general

In the Irish language there are several names for God in general, without reference to any particular god. The most general is dia, which, with some variations in spelling, is common to many of the Aryan languages. It was used in pagan as well as in Christian times, and is the Irish word in universal use at the present day for God. In Irish literature, both lay and ecclesiastical, we sometimes find vague references to the pagan gods, without any hint as to their identity or functions. The 'gods' are often referred to in oaths and asseverations: and such expressions as "I swear by the gods that my people swear by" are constantly put into the mouths of the heroes of the Red Branch.

Individual Gods

But we have a number of individual gods of very distinct personality who figure in the romantic literature, some beneficent and some evil. The names of many of them have been identified with those of ancient Gaulish gods - a thing that might be anticipated, inasmuch as the Gaelic people of Ireland and Scotland are a branch of the Celts or Gauls of the Continent, and brought with them, at their separation from the main stock, the language, the traditions, and the mythology of their original home.

Shee or Fairies and their Dwellings

The pagan Irish worshipped the side [shee], i.e. the earth-gods, or fairies, or elves. These side are closely mixed up with the mythical race called Dedannans, to whom the great majority of the fairy gods belonged. According to our bardic chroniclers the Dedannans were the fourth of the prehistoric colonies that arrived in Ireland many centuries before the Christian era. They were great magicians, and were highly skilled in science and metal-working. After inhabiting Ireland for about two hundred years, they were conquered by the people of the fifth and last colony - the Milesians. They then arranged that the several chiefs, with their followers, were to take up their residence in the pleasant hills all over the country - the side [shee] or elf-mounds - where they could live free from observation or molestation; and Bodb Derg [Bove Derg] was chosen as their king. Deep under ground in these abodes they built themselves glorious palaces, all ablaze with light, and glittering with gems and gold. Sometimes their fairy palaces were situated under wells or lakes, or under the sea.

From what has been said it will be observed that the word side is applied to the fairies themselves as well as to their abodes. And shee, as meaning a fairy, is perfectly understood still. When you see a little whirl of dust moving along the road on a fine calm day, that is called shee-geeha, ' wind-fairies,' travelling from one lis or elf-mound to another.

The ideas prevalent in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries, as to what the people's beliefs were, regarding the fairies before the time of St. Patrick, are well set forth in the concluding paragraph of the tale of "The Sick Bed of Cuculainn" in the Book of the Dun Cow. :- "For the demoniac power was great before the faith: and such was its greatness that the demons used to tempt the people, and they used to show them delights and secrets, and how they might become immortal. And it was to these phantoms the ignorant used to apply the name side."

Numbers of fairy hills and sepulchral cairns are scattered over the country, each with a bright palace deep underneath, ruled by its own chief, the tutelary deity. They are still regarded as fairy haunts, and are held in much superstitious awe by the peasantry.

The fairies possessed great preternatural powers. They could make themselves invisible to some persons standing by, while visible to others: as Pallas showed herself to Achilles, while remaining invisible to the other Greeks (Iliad, r.). But their powers were exercised much oftener for evil than for good. They were consequently dreaded rather than loved; and whatever worship or respect was paid to them was mainly intended to avert mischief. It is in this sense that they are now often called 'Good people.'

They could wither up the crops over a whole district, or strike cattle with disease. To this day the peasantry have a lurking belief that cattle and human beings who interfere with the haunted old lisses or forts, are often fairy-struck, which brings on paralysis or other dangerous illness, or death.

Manannan mac Lir

whose epithet Mac Lir signifies ' Son of the Sea,' was the Irish sea-god. He is usually represented in the old tales as riding on the sea, in a chariot, at the head of his followers. When Bran the son of Febal had been at sea two days and two nights, "he saw a man in a chariot coming towards him over the sea," who turns out to be Manannan mac Lir, and who, as he passed, spoke in verse, and said that the sea to him was a beautiful flowery plain

"What is a clear sea
For the prowed skiff in which Bran is,
That is to me a happy plain with profusion of flowers,
[Looking] from the chariot of two wheels."

Manannan is still vividly remembered in some parts of Ireland. He is in his glory on a stormy night: and on such a night, when you look over the sea, there before your eyes, in the dim gloom, are thousands of Manannan's white-maned steeds, careering along after the great chief's chariot. According to an oral tradition, prevalent in the Isle of Man and in the eastern counties of Leinster (brought from Leinster to Man by the early emigrants: p.36, supra), Manannan had three legs, on which he rolled along on land, wheel-like, always surrounded by a 'magic mist' : and this is the origin of the three-legged figure on the Manx halfpenny.

The Dadga

was a powerful and beneficent god, who ruled as king over Ireland for eighty years.

Bodb Derg [Bove-Derg]

the Dedannan fairy king, son of the Dagda, had his residence-called Side Buidb [Shee Boov]-on the shore of Lough Derg, somewhere near Portumna.

Aengus Mac-in-Og [Oge]

another son of the Dagda, was a mighty magician, whose splendid palace at 'Brugh of the Boyne' was within the great sepulchral mound of Newgrange, near Drogheda.


daughter of the Dagda, was the goddess of Poets, of Poetry, and of Wisdom. She had two sisters, also called Brigit: one was the goddess of medicine and medical doctors; the other the goddess of smiths and smithwork.


also called Dana or Danann, was the mother of three of the Dedannan gods, whom she nursed and suckled so well that her name 'Ana' came to signify plenty; and from her the Dedannans derived their name : - Tuatha De Danann, ' the tuatha [Thooha] or tribes of the godddss Dana.' She was worshipped in Munster as the goddess of plenty: and the name and nutritive function of this goddess are prominently commemorated in the 'Two Paps of Danaun,' a name given to two beautiful adjacent conical mountains near Killarney, which to this day are well known by the name of 'the Paps.'


But there were other fairy chiefs besides those of the Dedannans: and some renowned shees belonged to Milesian princes, who became deified in imitation of their fairy predecessors. For instance, the Shee of Aed-Ruad [Ai-Roo] at Ballyshannon in Donegal. Our ancient books relate that this Aed Ruad, or Red Hugh, a Milesian chief, the father of Macha, founder of Emain, was drowned in the cataract at Ballyshannon, which was thence called after him EasAeda-Ruaid [Ass-ai-roo], 'Aed-Ruad's Waterfall': now shortened to 'Assaroe.' He was buried over the cataract, in the mound which was called from him Sid-Aeda - a name still partly preserved in Mullaghshee, 'the hill of the shee or fairy-palace.'

This hill has recently been found to contain subterranean chambers, which confirms our ancient legendary accounts, and shows that it is a great sepulchral mound like those on the Boyne. How few of the people of Ballyshannon know that the familiar name Mullaghshee is a living memorial of those dim ages when Aed Ruad held sway, and that the great king himself has slept here in his dome-roofed dwelling for two thousand years.


Another Milesian chief, son of Milesius, was drowned in the magic storm raised by the spells of the Dedannans when the eight brothers came to invade Ireland. But for him it was only changing an earthly mode of existence for a much pleasanter one in his airy palace on the top of Knockfierna, as the renowned king of the fairies and here he ruled over all the great Limerick plain around the mountain, where many legends of him still linger among the peasantry.


A male fairy was a fer-side (fer, 'a man'): a female fairy, a ben-side or banshee, i.e. ' a woman from the fairy-hills.' Several fairy-hills were ruled by banshees as fairy queens. The banshee who presided as queen of the palace on the summit of Knockainy hill, in county Limerick, was Aine [2-syll.], daughter of a Dedannan chief, who gave her name to the hill, and to the existing village of Knockainy.

Clidna and Aebinn or Aibell

Two other banshees, still more renowned, were Clidna [Cleena] of Carrigcleena, and Aebinn or Aibell [Eevin, Eevil] of Craglea. Cleena is the potent banshee that rules as queen over the fairies of South Munster. In the Dinnsenchus there is an ancient and pathetic story about her, wherein 'it is related that she was a foreigner from Fairy-land, who, coming to Ireland, was drowned while sleeping on the strand at the harbour of Glandore in South Cork. In this harbour the sea, at certain times, utters a very peculiar, deep, hollow, and melancholy roar, among the caverns of the cliffs, which was formerly believed to foretell the death of a king of the south of Ireland. This surge has been front time immemorial called Tonn-Cleena, 'Cleena's wave.' Cleena lived on, however, as a fairy. She had her palace in the heart of a pile of rocks, five miles from Mallow, which is still well known by the name of Carrig-Cleena: and numerous legends about her are told among the Munster peasantry. Aebinn or Aibell, whose name signifies .' beautiful,' presided over North Munster, and was in an especial manner the guardian spirit of the Dalcassians or O'Briens. She had her palace two miles north of Killaloe, in a rock called Crageevil, but better known by the name of Craglea, 'grey rock.' The rock is situated in a silent glen, under the face of a mountain: and the people affirm that she forsook her retreat when the woods which once covered the place were cut down.

The old fort under which the banshee Grian of the Bright Cheeks had her dwelling still remains on the top of Pallas Grean hill in the county Limerick. One of the most noted of the fairy-palaces is on the top of Slievenamon in Tipperary. But to enumerate all the fairy-hills of Ireland, and relate fully the history of their presiding gods and goddesses, and the superstitious beliefs among the people regarding them, would occupy a good-sized volume.

In modern times the word 'banshee' has become narrowed in its meaning, and signifies a female spirit that attends certain families, and is heard keening or crying at night round the house when some member is about to die. At the present day almost all raths, cashels, and mounds - the dwellings, forts, and sepulchres of the Firbolgs and Milesians, as well as those of the Dedannans - are considered as fairy haunts.

Shees open at Samain

On Samain Eve, the night before the 1st of November, or, as it is now called, All Hallows Night, or Hallowe'en, all the fairy hills were thrown wide open; for the Fe-fiada was taken off. While they remained open that night, any mortals who were bold enough to venture near might get a peep into them. No sooner was the Fe-fiada lifted off than the inmates issued forth, and roamed where they pleased all over the country: so that people usually kept within doors, naturally enough afraid to go forth. From the cave of Cruachan or Croghan in Connaught issued probably the most terrific of all those spectre hosts; for immediately that darkness had closed in on Samain Eve, a crowd of horrible goblins rushed out, and among them a flock of copper-red birds, led by one monstrous three-headed vulture: and their poisonous breath withered up everything it touched: so that this cave came to be called the 'Hell-gate of Ireland.' That same hell-gate cave is there still, but the demons are all gone -scared away, no doubt, by the voices of the Christian bells. The superstition that the fairies are abroad on Samain Night exists at the present day, both in Ireland and in Scotland.

Morrigan and Badb

There were war-goddesses or battle-furies, who were usually called by the names Morrigan [morereean] and Badb [Baub or Bauv] : all malignant beings, delighting in battle and slaughter. The Badb often showed herself in battle in the form of a fennóg, i.e. a scallcrow, or royston crow, or carrion crow, fluttering over the heads of the combatants.

The Badb or Morrigan, sometimes as a bird, and sometimes as a loathsome-looking hag, figures in all the ancient battles, down even to the Battle of Clontarf (A.D. 1014). In the midst of the din and horror she was often seen busily flitting about through the battle-cloud overhead: and sometimes she appeared before battle in anticipation of slaughter. Just before the Battle of Moyrath (A.D. 637), the grey-haired Morrigan, in the form of a lean, nimble hag, was seen hovering and hopping about on the points of the spears and shields of the royal army who were victorious in the great battle that followed. Before the Destruction of Bruden Da Choca, the Badb showed herself as " a big-mouthed, swarthy, swift, sooty woman, lame, and squinting with her left eye."


says Cormac's Glossary, "was the god of battle with the pagans of the Gael: Nemon was his wife." They were malignant beings :-" Both are bad: a venomous couple, truly, were they," says Cormac.


The Badbs were not the only war-goblins. There was a class of phantoms that sometimes appeared before battles, bent on mischief. Before the Battle of Moylena (second century), three repulsive-looking witch-hags with blue beards appeared before the armies, hoarsely shrieking victory for Conn the Hundred Fighter, and defeat and death for the rival King Eoghan. Before the Banquet of Dun-nan-ged, two horrible black spectral beings, a man and a woman, came to the assembly, and having devoured an enormous quantity of food, cursed the banquet, after which they rushed out and vanished. But they left their baleful trail for at that feast there arose a deadly quarrel which led to the Battle of Moyrath (A.D. 637).

Geniti-glinni, Bocanacks and Bananachs ; Demna aeir

In many remote, lonely glens there dwelt certain fierce apparitions - females - called Geniti-glinni, 'genii or sprites of the valley,' and others called Bocanacks (male goblins), and Bananachs (females): often in company with Demna aeir or 'demons of the air.' At any terrible battle-crisis, many or all of these, with the other war-furies described above, were heard shrieking and howling with delight, some in the midst of the carnage, some far off in their lonely haunts.

In the story of the Feast of Bricriu, we are told how the three great Red Branch champions, Laegaire the Victorious, Conall Cernach, and Cuculainn, contended one time for the Curathmir, or 'champion's bit' (chap. xvii., sect. 1, infra), which was always awarded to the bravest and mightiest hero; and in order to determine this matter, they were subjected to various severe tests. On one of these occasions the stern-minded old chief, Samera, who acted as judge for the occasion, decided that the three heroes separately should attack a colony of Geniti-glinni that had their abode in a neighbouring valley. Laegaire went first ; but they instantly fell on him with such demoniac ferocity that he was glad to escape, halfnaked, leaving them his arms and battle-dress. Conall Cernach went next, and he, too, had soon to run for it; but he fared somewhat better, for, though leaving his spear, he bore away his sword. Lastly, Cuculainn: and they filled his ears with their hoarse shrieks, and falling on him tooth and nail, they broke his shield and spear, and tore his clothes to tatters. At last he could bear it no longer, and showed plain signs of running away. His faithful charioteer, Loeg, was looking on. Now, one of Loeg's duties was, whenever lie saw his master about yielding in a fight, to shower reproaches on him, so as to enrage him the more. On this occasion he reviled him so vehemently and bitterly for his weakness, and poured out such contemptuous nicknames on him, that the hero became infuriated; and, turning on the goblins once more, sword in hand, he crushed and hacked them to pieces, so that the valley ran all red with their blood.

Siabra [sheevra]

The class of fairies called siabra [sheevra], who were also Dedannans - a sort of disreputable poor relations of Manannan and the Dagda - were powerful, demoniac, and dangerous elves. They are mentioned in our earliest literature. To this day the name is quite familiar among the people, even those who speak only English: and they often call a crabbed little boy - small for his age-a "little sheevra" exactly as Concobar mac Nessa, nineteen centuries ago, when he was displeased with the boy Cuculainn, calls him a "little imp of a sheevra." The sheevras were often incited by druids and others to do mischief to mortals. In revenge for King Cormac mac Art's leaning towards Christianity, the druids let loose sheevras against him, who choked him with the bone of a salmon, while he was eating his dinner.


The Leprechán, as we now have him, is a little fellow whose occupation is making shoes for the fairies; and on moonlight nights you may sometimes hear the tap-tap of his little hammer from where he sits, working in some lonely nook among bushes. If you can catch him, and keep your gaze fixed on him, he will tell you, after some threatening, where to find a crock of gold: but if you take your eyes off him for an instant, he is gone. The leprechauns are an ancient race in Ireland, for we find them mentioned in some of our oldest tales. They could injure mortals, but were not prone to do so except under provocation. From the beginning they were of diminutive size; for example, as they are presented to us in the ancient tale of the Death of Fergus mac Leide, their stature might be about six inches. In the same tale the king of the leprechauns was taken captive by Fergus, and ransomed himself by giving him a pair of magic shoes, which enabled him to go under the water whenever, and for as long as, he pleased: just as at the present day a leprechaun, when you catch him - which is the difficulty - will give you heaps of money for letting him go. No doubt, the episode of the ransom by the magic shoes in the old story is the original version of the present superstition that the leprechaun is the fairies' shoemaker.


In modern times the Pooka has come to the front as a leading Irish goblin: but I fear he is not native Irish, as I do not find him mentioned in any ancient Irish documents. He appears to have been an immigrant fairy, brought hither by the Danish settlers: and is the same as the English Puck. But, like the Anglo-Norman settlers, he had not long lived in this country till he became "more Irish than the Irish themselves." For an account of his shape, character, and exploits, I must refer the reader to Crofton Croker's "Fairy Legends," and to the first volume of my "Origin and History of Irish Names of Places."

Meisi [misha]

When the Milesians landed in Ireland, they were encountered by mysterious sights and sounds wherever they went, through the subtle spells of the Dedannans. As they climbed over the mountains of Kerry, half-formed spectres flitted dimly before their eyes: for Banba, the queen of one of the three Dedannan princes who ruled the land, sent a swarm of meisi [misha], or 'phantoms,' which froze the blood of the invaders with terror: and the mountain range of Slieve Mish, near Tralee, still retains the name of those apparitions.

According to another account, Ireland, before the arrival of St. Patrick, was plagued with multitudes of reptiles and demons. "These venomous and monstrous creatures - the reptiles -used to rise out of the earth and sea, and they wounded both men and animals with their deadly stings, and not seldom rent and devoured their members." "The demons used to show themselves unto their worshippers in visible forms : they often attacked the people, and they were seen flying in the air and walking on the earth, loathsome and horrible to behold."

What with Dedannan gods, with war-gods and goddesses, apparitions, demons, sprites of the valley, ordinary ghosts, spectres, goblins, and demoniac reptiles, fairies of various kinds-sheevras, leprechauns, banshees, and so forth-there appears to have been, in those old pagan days, quite as numerous a population belonging to the spiritual world as of human beings; so that Ireland was then an eerie place to live in: and it was high time for St. Patrick to come.

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