If all you know about Ireland is that it inspires people of all nationalities to drink to excess every March 17th, you’ve taken for granted a land full of rich history and fantastic tales. Irish stories are full of some of the most incredible creatures you’ve probably never heard of; and those that are familiar are a far cry from their watered-down pop culture substitutes (looking at you, Lucky the Leprechaun).
Speaking of leprechauns: The earliest appearance of the leprechaun takes place in a medieval tale called Adventure of Fergus, Son of Léti. Fergus is dragged into the ocean by three lúchorpáin who grant him three wishes when he captures them in the act. Generally a loner, the leprechaun’s motivation is never entirely clear; although he is a trickster, he’s not seen as necessarily being bad – but nor is he entirely good. His pot of gold has been attributed to several possibilities, among them getting paid in gold for fixing or making shoes, the ability to find the end of the rainbow and the gold hidden in a crack there, and hiding crocks of treasure left behind by invading Danes or Vikings. The iconic green clothes? Those actually differ based on what part of Ireland he hails from. Many have him wearing red, with accessories (such as wands, swords, hat, and so on) changing depending on region. Definitely not what most of us think of when St. Pat’s rolls around.
Did you know that Dracula author Bram Stoker was Irish? His creation was possibly inspired by a decidedly vampire-like creature in Irish folklore called a Dearg-due. This monster starts out as a lovely lady who is thwarted from marrying the man of her choice and forced into an arranged marriage by her uncaring father. In a somewhat strange act of defiance, the poor girl commits suicide and then comes back from the dead to take care of her father and husband by sucking out all of their blood. Fortunately, the Dearg-due only comes around once a year to use her feminine wiles to lure unsuspecting men to their doom. Another Irish fairy-muse-vampire is Leanan Sidhe. This beautiful woman inspires the artistically inclined, who then die from depression when she tires of them and takes off. She comes back for their carcasses and instead of sucking their blood, she collects it in a nice big pot, using it as the source of her inspiration. Reduce, reuse, recycle!
Another fearsome female is the banshee. Like the leprechaun, the appearance of the banshee is different depending on what part of Ireland is involved. The common thread is that she calls out when someone is about to die. If you actually see her? Bad news, because this means you’re probably going to die in a violent manner. The banshee is sometimes paired with another harbinger of death – the dullahan. Now, the dullahan is a special favorite of mine, because it’s very obviously the inspiration for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The dullahan is a headless rider, usually on a horse, whose presence signifies trouble. He uses his head as a lantern to thunder through the darkness and he’s particularly active during Irish festivals or feast days. One of my favorite takes on the dullahan is a character called Celty from the Japanese novels/anime Durarara!! Here she’s more of a lost soul searching for her missing head; her steed is a big, black motorcycle, and she parcels out justice as well as fear. I just love her (and the Irish are probably horrified).
There are so many entities in Irish culture worth exploring; the above list barely scratches the surface. This year when St. Patrick’s Day rolls around and you’re getting ready to tuck into some corned beef and cabbage and wash it down with a Guinness, remember the legends that have made Irish heritage so worthy of celebration. And then go explore some more!