Cultural Experience | Ireland

Giants Running Scared: The Truth Behind Ireland’s Legends

Do You Know the Truth Behind the Legends of Ireland & St Patrick’s Day?

Just for fun, here are four of Ireland’s well known legends.  Some are just stories while others have a grain of truth at their core.  Do you know the real decedents of leprechauns?  Why do tourists kiss the Blarney stone?  Read on…

Why are there no Snakes in Ireland?

Myth  In the fifth century St Patrick stood on a hill and used his staff to drive all snakes into the sea, banishing them for eternity.  The origins of this story lie with St. Patrick introducing Christianity to Ireland.  Thus the symbol of the snake, depicting for paganism (and the creature who lead Eve to tempt Adam into eating the apple in the Garden of Eden) was banished.

Probable Reality  Ireland, Britain and the whole of Northern Europe were covered in ice for hundreds of years. Creatures retreated to warmer climates in the south. When the thaw eventually came after the last ice age, snakes were slow moving and didn’t make it across the rising Irish Sea before the sea rose completely, cutting off their passage to Ireland.

The Blarney Stone

Myth  The Blarney Stone is a block of bluestone built into the battlements of Blarney Castle, not far from Cork. According to legend, kissing the stone endows the kisser with the ‘gift of the gab’ (clever, flattering or coaxing talk).  In an early story, Cormac Laidir MacCarthy, who built of Blarney Castle, was involved in a lawsuit.  He appealed to the goddess Clíodhna who told MacCarthy to kiss the first stone he found in the morning on his way to court.  He complied, with the result that he pleaded his case with great eloquence and won.  MacCarthy then incorporated that stone into the parapet of the castle.  The Blarney Stone is said to impart “the ability to deceive without offending.”

blarney stone

Probable Reality  The stone was set into a tower of the Blarney castle in 1446. It is a popular tourist site in Ireland, attracting visitors from all over the world to kiss the stone.  The word ‘blarney’ as defined by John O’Connor Power is succinct: “Blarney is something more than mere flattery. It is flattery sweetened by humor and flavored by wit. Those who mix with Irish folk have many examples of it in their everyday experience.”


Myth  The Leprechauns spend all their time busily making shoes, and store away all their coins in a hidden pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. When captured by a human, the Leprechaun has the power to grant three wishes in exchange for their release. Leprechauns  are beings no taller than a toddler, with a beard and hat and like other Irish fairy creatures, leprechauns have been linked to the Tuatha Dé Danann of Irish mythology.  The Tuatha Dé Danann are represented as mortal kings, queens and heroes of the distant past; however there are many stories linking them to their former divine status.



Probable Reality  The Tuatha Dé Danann were descended from Nemed, leader of a previous wave of inhabitants of Ireland. They came from four cities to the north of Ireland–Falias, Gorias, Murias and Finias–where they acquired their occult skills and attributes. According to legend, they came to Ireland “in dark clouds” and “landed on the mountains in Connachta; and they brought a darkness over the sun for three days and three nights”. According to a later version of the story, they arrived in ships on the coast of what is now the modern Connemara.  They immediately burnt the ships “so that they should not think of retreating to them”; and the smoke and the mist that came from the vessels filled the neighboring land and air. Therefore it was conceived that they had arrived in clouds of mist”.

Giant’s Causeway

Myth  Legend tells of an Irish warrior Finn Mac Cool, who built a causeway to Scotland. In one version of the legend, Finn was challenged by a Scottish giant, Benandonner.  Benandonner was much larger than Finn, so he tried to think of a way out of the fight. Finn’s wife, came up with an ingenious plan. When Benandonner crossed the bridge looking for him, she disguised Finn as a baby and tucked him into a cradle. When Benandonner came, she told him that Finn was out woodcutting, but he should be back soon. She showed him ‘Finn’s son’. When Benandonner saw the size of the baby, he had no desire to see the father! Benandonner fled home in terror, ripping up the Causeway behind him, so the ‘enormous Finn MacCool’, would not follow him.

Another variation is that Finn’s wife painted a rock shaped like a steak and gave it to Benandonner, whilst giving the baby (Finn) a normal steak. When Benandonner saw that the baby was able to eat it so easily, he ran away in terror, tearing up the causeway.


Probable Reality  The Giant’s Causeway, located in County Antrim, is an area of about 40,000 interlocking basalt columns, the result of an ancient volcanic eruption.  It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1986, and a National Nature Reserve in 1987 by the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland.  The tops of the columns form stepping stones that lead from the foot of the cliff and disappear into the sea. Most of the columns are hexagonal, although there are also some with four, five, seven or eight sides.

College Tourist Contributor

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