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The Book of the Irish: 7 Must-Read Celtic Myths and Legends

Irish myths and legends are often so romanticised that, by the time many of us read them, the original stories are unrecognisably altered. In some cases, the reinterpretations are excellent, offering a fresh take on old tales. In other cases, the original myths have been sprinkled so liberally with good-natured stage-Irishness that they're more confusing than anything else. Sadly, many rewrites end up glossing over some of the most interesting and engaging elements of those Celtic stories altogether.

For those of us who grew up in Ireland, Saint Patrick’s Day is an excellent way to see quite what the rest of the world makes of Irish culture, and particularly in places with large Irish populations, like Canada and the US. The result can often can be a disappointingly one-dimensional take on Celtic myth and legend. With that in mind, we’ve put together a collection of some of the stories that we've read over the years that we felt should be considered essential reading for anyone trying to get a handle on the history of Irish mythology.

Irish Folk and Fairy Tales

Michael Scott is best known for his young adult fantasy series beginning with The Alchemyst, but his work in Irish myth and legend is similarly excellent. In Irish Folk and Fairy Tales, Scott gathers together a series of stories from across a broad swathe of Irish history and presents them as part of a single compelling chronology. Where he particularly excels is in his ability to communicate the dark (and often downright bleak) aspect of these stories, many of which deal with difficult issues that continue affect us today… like fratricide and the day to day realities of living with the Tuatha de Danann.

The other big reason to recommend Scott is that his prose is lively and modern, which means that these stories move along at a swift pace. There is a simple pleasure in the whole collection and it’s hard not to be swept up by it. Given that so many collections of myths and legends can get bogged down in rigid translation, it’s easy to recommend something that flows so well.

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The Children of Lir

This one is ideal for children who haven’t yet encountered Irish myths and legends. For those who aren’t familiar with it, The Children of Lir tells the story of a man, Lir, whose wife, Aoibh, dies while their children are quite young. Lir goes on to marry Aoibh’s sister, Aoife. Aoife soon grows jealous of her husband’s love for her sister’s children, and eventually curses them to live as swans for 300 years on each of three different lakes. If this is beginning to sound strange and more than a little sad, then it’s a good way to prepare for much of Irish myth and legend.

There are those who argue that Sheila MacGill-Callahan’s lighter take on the story moves too far from the original, but it remains an excellent introduction for younger readers. The illustrations are a particular highlight.

If you’re in the market for a more traditional version of the myth, you’d do well to track down a copy of Michael Scott’s The Children of Lir, which uses some really beautiful modern language without compromising the original story. 

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Tain, The: From the Irish Epic "Tain Bo Cuailnge"

The Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (also known as An Táin, or as in this case The Táin) has been translated a number of different times, but seldom with the sense of pace and immediacy that Kinsella brings to the prose. Where epic poetry in translation often runs the risk of feeling stuffy and academic, Kinsella’s The Táin feels alive and exciting throughout.

The story follows Cú Chulainn, the Hound of Ulster, a legendary warrior prone to a battle fever known as his “warp spasm,” which twists his body beyond human proportions and turns him into a killing machine. Armed with the Gáe Bolga (a spear enchanted so that, on piercing a foe, its barbs immediately attach themselves to all of their entrails), Cú Chulainn faces down near-superhuman opponents. It’s a series of adventures with a heartfelt ending that has a lot of resonances with Virgil’s The Aeneid, though we feel it sticks the ending a little better.

The book is accompanied by some really beautiful artwork by Louis le Brocquy, whose stark black-on-white style somehow fits perfectly with the content.

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Celtic Myths and Legends

There is an unfortunate tendency to conflate “Celtic” and “Irish” when we talk about mythology and legends, but Peter Beresford Ellis’ Celtic Myths and Legends specifically introduces readers to stories from the Irish, Scots, Manx, Welsh, Cornish, and Breton traditions. Where Ellis goes above and beyond many others is in his provision of a lengthy introduction that helps to situate the book’s stories both historically and culturally, with notes on Celtic language.

For those who were intrigued earlier on, this collection also includes another, more grown-up take on The Children of Lir that communicates something a little less optimistic than the offering from Sheila MacGill-Callahan earlier on. The style is straightforward and readable (at least after you’ve waded through the lengthy introduction), and the stories move along at a decent clip. There are those who rail at inaccuracies in Ellis’ translations and histories, but for those of us who are just here for a good story, you can’t go far wrong.

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Early Irish Myths and Sagas

For those who’d like to stick with something more specifically Irish, Jeffrey Gantz’ Early Irish Myths and Sagas is less of a modern retelling than it is a translation of a selection of eighth century Irish stories, sitting somewhere between myth, legend, and history. If The Táin left you hungry for more stories about Cú Chulainn (here Cu Chulaind), then there are few better places to find them. This is a book full of adventure, romance, and sorrow. There’s a fair bit of bloodshed thrown in to keep things moving, if that floats your boat.

For the sake of fair warning, this collection is presented in a style that recalls the stories’ roots in oral traditions from Celtic culture. As a result, there are portions of it that can feel repetitive or redundant to modern audiences. If you can persevere, you’ll find the book a rich source of old stories that are as often heartbreaking as they are hilarious. Moreover, you’ll recognise similarities with many symbols that appear in other oral traditions.

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Gods and Fighting Men

By now, you’re probably sick to the teeth of the Cú Chulainn and the Ulster myths. Fortunately, Lady Gregory’s 1904 classic, Gods and Fighting Men, shores up the gap and makes a strong effort to establish a cohesive narrative using the various stories of the Fianna. As well you might expect, they don’t hold together particularly well as a single coherent narrative, but this means that Gods and Fighting Men makes an excellent book to just thumb open at random and grab any story from.

We did it today, and found that, “Three hearts he had, and it is the way they were, they had the shapes of three serpents through them. And if Mechi had not met with his death, those serpents in him would have grown, and what they left alive in Ireland would have wasted away.”

If you leave Gods and Fighting Men wanting more, you’d do well to check out her book on the Ruaraíocht, Cuchulain of Muirthemne.

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Aislinge Meic Conglinne

Aislinge Meic Conglinne, or The Vision of Mac Conglinne, probably doesn’t officially qualify as “Celtic myth” by many standards, but we've come too far to let that stop us now. Aislinge Meic Conglinne is a satirical epic poem from the 11th century. While that probably doesn’t sound as wholesomely traditional as some of the other books on the list, the translation into English also feels as if it manages to preserve some of the turn-of-phrase in a way that’s altogether very endearing.

If the fact that it's an 11th-century-satirical-poem wasn’t enough warning, this one is a little less accessible than the rest of this list, but still well worth investigation. The poem tells the story of a scribe, Mac Conglinne, who receives an incredible vision of a country made entirely of food while staying in an abbey. When he relates his story to the abbey’s monks, they inform him that his vision is the only thing that can free their king from the “demon of gluttony” that has consumed him.

You can probably already guess at how seriously it takes itself…

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Obviously, there are a great many things that could have been included beyond this list. We’re keenly aware that everyone has their own favourite takes on particular myths and legends legends. This isn’t a definitive list, but a selection of the books that we think offer a good insight into the myth and legends we grew up with.

We’re sorry if this feels couched, but of course there’s no single reading list that can tell you everything you need to know about Celtic mythology, but at the very least this will see you off to a good start. If you feel there are any glaring omissions, please leave a comment and tell us about them. We’ll do our best to keep the list updated with relevant suggestions.

American actress, author, fashion designer, dancer, producer, and singer. Became interested in pursuing a career in the entertainment industry.

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