Speak Irish: Tales for Samhain

Speak Irish: Tales for Samhain
By Bob Carney

Ireland has numerous tales of the supernatural involving mythical beasts and creatures. Many come from the oral tradition, so we have to wonder how many more may have been lost. In her book “Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland,” Lady Wilde collected many stories. This is a great book, especially this time of year.

There are many books on Irish mythology and all have something to offer the reader. This is where my interest in the Irish language began, the names, places and beings were strange and I struggled with pronouncing them.

I want to share some of my favorite creatures from the darker side of Irish mythology and a little vocabulary that might help in your own reading of these tales of mystical creatures and draíocht, (dree-ocht) witchcraft or magic. Tá suíl agam go mbainfidh tú taitneamh astu. I hope you enjoy them.

The Fear Dearg
The fear dearg is a lesser known fairy related to leprechauns. Fear dearg (far jer-ug), or red man, were sometimes called rat boys because of their dirty hairy skin. They were small like leprechauns, with short pointy ears and noses, and they dressed in long red coats and red tri-point hats. They sported long wild red or grey hair and long beards.

To amuse themselves, they would kidnap men or children and even babies, stuffing them in great burlap sacks they carried. They only struck at night and had no trouble stuffing a grown man into the sack and carrying him off to their lair.

Once there, the fear dearg would lock his victim in a darkened room so black you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. He would begin to terrorize his captive by making gruesome noises and screams that the source of which could not be determined in the dark.

When he had enough fun for the night, most times he would release his victim. On some occasions, however, he would force his captive to prepare a dinner for him out of a hag skewered on a spit and roasted. After he had eaten he would release his “chef.”

Things went very different when a baby was taken. The fear dearg would keep the child to raise as a fairy, and would leave a changeling in the childs place. The unsuspecting family would watch the creature grow into a crooked, ugly human, incapable of doing any task or work, bringing shame and misfortune to the family.

Defending Against the Fairies
There are two ways to defend yourself from a fear dearg, the first is to yell “Na déan magadh fum!” as loud as you can at the creature. It means don’t mock me and is pronounced, “na dayne mah-gah fuhm.” Usually though, once you see the fear dearg, you’re already his captive.

Christian relics and symbols are also said to deter fairies. The legend of the fear dearg has inspired folklore in other cultures across Europe.

The Oillipéist
The oilliphéist (oll-ih-faysht) is a dragon-like sea serpent that inhabits  Ireland, Britain and Scotland. There are many stories of saints and mythological heroes fighting these powerful beasts.

One of my favorites takes place in the River Shannon, when one of them hears that St. Patrick is coming to rid Ireland of serpents, it changes the course of the river. In that story the Oilliphéist swallows a drunken piper named Ó Ruairc (O’Rourke) who in his inebriated state, continues to play his pipes. The great beast becomes so annoyed, that he coughs Ó Ruairc up and spits him out.

Patrick eventually slays the serpent and brings Christianity to the land. That particular story is believed to have helped inspire the story of “Nessie” in Loch Ness.

In another story, a girl named Sionnan, the grand daughter of Manannán Mac Lir, angers the Salmon of  Knowledge by throwing stones at it. In revenge, the fish summons an Oilliphéist to attack and kill the girl.

There are a few versions of a great oilliphéist named Caoránach. In one of the early legends, Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the Fianna are sent to slay a hag or witch in the Lough Dearg region. From a great distance, Fionn releases an arrow killing the hag, but because of the distance the body of the hag can not be found.

When the Fianna finally come across the body, they are warned not to break the hag’s thigh bone, as it would release a great monster. Of course a warrior named Conan broke the bone, and a small hairy worm escaped and started growing and growing into a massive oilliphéist named Caoránach, who gorged on the cattle in the land and became the mother of many demons.

With the cattle almost wiped out, the people blamed Conan. Conan was angered by this and took his sword and jumped in Caoránach’s mouth, and plunged his sword into her, killing the beast. Caoránach’s blood spilled into the lake, dying the water red and giving Loch Dearg in Donegal, Ulster its name.

In a later version of the story, it is St. Patrick that slays the serpent. In an alternate version, Patrick fails in his mission, and it’s said that Caoránach still makes her home in Loch Dearg.

The most ferocious of Ireland’s mythological creatures was the Abhartach. In life he was an evil creature, a dwarf who possessed a powerful, evil type of draíochta,(dree-och-ta) or magic and ruled his kingdom by terror. Fionn Mac Cumhail was a chieftan in another kingdom in the region and one day battled the evil one killing Abhartach. The people rejoiced and buried the dwarf and celebrated their good fortune.

But when night came, so did Abhartach, now with a thirst for human blood; he had become a vampire and went on a killing and feeding spree before Fionn Mac Cumhail could find him and kill him again.

Again the dwarf was buried, but the next night he left his grave and began killing again. This time Fionn sought the wisdom of a druid, who told him he must kill the demon with a sword made of Yew wood and bury him upside down and cover the grave with a massive stone. So far, we think its been working!


Asarlaí (ass-ur-lee) a wizard or sorcerer                         Bibseach (bib-sha) to kill someone more than once

Cailleach (kayell-acch) witch or hag                                 Cailderu (kall-de-rah) cauldron

Cendail (ken-del) the heads of decapitated enemies    Ciorrbhadh (ker-wah) destruction by witchcraft

Cro (krah) another word for witchcraft                            Cró (krow) is a flock or death

Dearg dililat (jer-ug dil-ih laht) a drinker of blood          Dricc (drik) angry or a dragon

Fuil dhragain (fuhl grahg-ahn) dragon’s blood                Ifne (if-na) are the worms that crawl out of corpse

Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh! (ee-ha how-na hun-uh yeev)

Happy Halloween Y’all!

*Bob Carney is a student of Irish language and history and teaches the Speak Irish Cleveland class held every Tuesday at PJ McIntyre’s. He is also active in the Irish Wolfhound and Irish dogs organizations in and around Cleveland. Wife Mary, hounds Rían and Ashling and terrier Doolin keep the house jumping. He can be reached at [email protected]

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