Last Updated on December 23, 2022
Ireland is a truly wonderful country…and one filled with plenty of Irish legends…
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
by Donna Manz
Frequently I find that it takes me many trips to a destination before I can peel back its layers enough to know what it truly is. Ireland is like that; to me she’s mysterious. And full of Irish legends.
Very recently, I toured south Ireland with a very merry, congenial group. There were 50 of us, all customers of a suburban Washington, DC, Irish pub, McMahon’s.
Niall Leogue, an Irishman who runs tours of Ireland through his company Caddie Tours, arranged our fanciful and diverse vacation. Emmet and Kelsey McMahon, pub owners, also hosted our Ireland-lovers group along with him.
I had figured that if I was going to see Ireland, I’ll see it through the eyes of a native son. I truly got my money’s worth.
From Pub Crawls to Irish Legend and Lore
In the evenings we pub-crawled in Galway, Dingle, Kinsale and Dublin. During the daylight hours, we rode by coach, with a driver who is also a certified tour guide, along narrow roads and highways embraced by village life or coastlines.
Of course, we did enjoy iconic attractions that had nothing to do with legends, such as the Cliffs of Moher. We also took one side-trip to a statue and cave dedicated to St. Brigid (one of Ireland’s three patron saints) and another to Cong for “The Quiet Man” reenactment.
On the Dingle Peninsula, on the route to “Ryan’s Daughter” beach, we stopped at Mary O’Sullivan’s property. There we walked among the 6th century monastic stone hive huts. Mary collected two Euros from each of us as we walked her land and even let us use the bathroom in her home.
Passing pastures, meadows and castle remains, our driver talked of the Irish legends that influenced local culture. What held me spellbound for the week, though, was exploring the Irish legends and lore of Ireland’s fairy underworld.
Ask an Irish man or woman if they believe in fairies and they likely tell you “no…but we don’t mess with them, either.”
The Fairy Trees of Irish Legends
“Fairy trees,” which you’ll see all about Ireland, are single hawthorn trees. Some believe they are a portal to the fairy world. In fact, you cannot drive an Irish road without passing one.
Irishmen say it’s better to curve a highway around a fairy tree than to cut it down. Don’t laugh, it has been done in Ireland. And a fairy tree is the reason John de Lorean’s auto company went bankrupt, I was assured. The company cut down a fairy tree on the new plant’s property.
On the way to the Kilbeggan Distillery, a living museum nowadays and our first stop from Dublin’s airport, our driver Mick Nolan – who knew everything, but everything, about Irish legends, history, and lore and wove chit-chat, yarns and jokes into his narrative – began pointing out lone hawthorn trees.
Many stood dramatically in meadows and as we passed pastures of multi-colored sheep encircled by stonewalls, lone hawthorns appeared one after another.
Occasionally, we saw circular clusters of them and although I didn’t yet understand their significance, I knew that Mick Nolan, our driver-guide, was going to pull it all together for us.
A Famous Irish Legend – Ireland’s Fairy Culture
While I was drawn to the storied landscapes and vistas, the convivial people, the quaint and quirky pubs (funeral homes that double as pubs?), what I relished most was learning about Irish fairy culture legends.
It permeates landscapes and beliefs and is a cultural mainstay. As we passed hawthorns, images of a fairy king, adorned in velvet robes, soon began dancing in my head. When we came upon circular clusters of fairy trees – a “fairy fort,” said Mick – I wanted to peek behind it into the fairy kingdom.
Irish legends and fairies do not come from the same yarn as Disney’s. In fact, they look somewhat like us … except for the leprechauns. Leprechauns are shoemakers by heritage and are the least nice of the fairy kingdom. Known to be mischievous, quite possibly even evil-spirited, in past centuries they were believed to kidnap young boys.
Protecting Boys from the Leprechauns
The first time I saw a photo of an Irish family, which was taken in the late 1800s or early 1900s, I saw four daughters. Surprisingly, all the “daughters” all had boys’ names. Additionally, in a photo of a schoolhouse there were all girls. Many of these “girls,” though, were boys in dresses, and, that goes back to Irish legends leprechaun lore.
Because leprechauns are all male, they cannot replicate. So, according to lore, leprechauns steal little boys to ensure the survival of their species. To fool the leprechauns, mothers dressed their boys as girls, although, as I noticed in the photos, they kept boys’ haircuts.
Traditional Musicians and a Professional Irish Legends Storyteller
One evening in Dublin, we had dinner and more at Ireland’s oldest pub. It was the 800-year-old Brazen Head, a short walk from the Temple Bar district. As I did at every pub we visit, I had an Irish coffee.
In an upstairs room reserved for us, musicians played traditional Irish music and a professional storyteller from Irish Folk Tours, Johnny Daly, shared Irish legends and history with us. That meant more on fairies and leprechauns, as well as events in Ireland’s tumultuous history, from British domination to famine.
Like the rest of us in the room, I was also enthralled by Johnny’s stories. Listening to him reinforced for us how Ireland’s history, lore and culture are so intertwined they are inseparable.
When I returned home from my “Irish legends trip,” there was an email from Johnny. He had remembered my interest in the fairy underworld and sent me a list of Irish fairy reference books and articles. As I looked down the list I realized there was more than enough to keep the magic going until my next visit to Ireland.
If You Go:
Irish Tourist Board
345 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10154
Tel. (800) 223-6470
The Brazen Head Pub
20 Bridge Street Lower
Tel: +353 1 677 9549
“An Evening of Food, Folklore and Fairies” is presented by Irish Folk Tours at The Brazen Head.
Email Johnny Daly at [email protected] or call 353 1 218 8555 for booking. For details, go to www.IrishFolkTours.com. Cost is €46 pp adults (€42 age 60+), children (under 6 years) €29.
1105 Ware Street SW
Vienna, VA 22180
Tel: (866) 387-6759