Symbols and Myths in Northern Ireland

(Stamp: 1991, 75th Easter Rising Anniversary
Bronze statue of Cúchulainn, O’Connell St, Dublin; flickr)

Agatha Leach


Irish patriotism, in its many forms and materializations, rests on the rich, historical imagination of her people. It is that inexorably calls on the vividly symbolic and highly mythic culture found across the whole of the island. The purpose of this research guide is to largely a basic starting-off point for a larger study of the history and role symbols and myths so often found in Irish culture, specifically that of Northern Ireland. The emphasis on symbols and myths of the North comes largely from my own personal interest in the region, but also from what is variously perceived as a Northern conflict taken visual form through the use of fairly ancient images. The symbols and myths utilized in Northern Ireland largely mirror those understood throughout the entire island, across geographical, political, and social boundary. The common set of symbols and shared mythological ancestry of people across the island, and specifically in the North, creates a particularly interesting array of historical and national identities. In an attempt to provide a source for those interested in studying such a topic, I have gathered some of the beginning sources from which to pursue the origins of and cultural manifestations of key symbols and myths in Northern Ireland.

The guide below falls into three main sections. In each I have attempted to supply resources which complement each other in providing additional or, where necessary, opposing points of view. The first section provides some beginning points of historical reference, from general historical overviews of Ireland to histories of interested paramilitary groups, whose rhetoric and displays involve many symbols and myths. The second section goes on to outline the basic Irish mythological canon and its many characters. There is difficulty here in presenting such a topic, due to the largely unconsolidated nature of the mythical stories. Original manuscripts containing the legends remain largely unpublished in an accessible, singular work. Thus it is necessary to often handle literary renderings and pieces written through second hand sources. The third section handles the topic of symbols, a subject equally difficult to explore due to its own complications. Irish symbolism is a topic heavily discussed, though often in the context of larger issues and themes. Specific references are buried in larger essays and works on various subjects. However, the symbolically-rich mural culture of Northern Ireland provides a fantastically visual and accessible lens into the field.

The time frame of such a study can be infinite or limited, depending on the depth of the study undertaken. The pursuit of Irish mythology naturally draws on the ancient, early peoples of the island. In the same way, symbolism has had a tumultuous role in Irish history, and one which remains highly prevalent to the present day.

Historical Context

  • A New History of Ireland out of Oxford University Press

A New History of Ireland, a nine volume collection, represents the largest scholarly project in modern Irish history. These texts provide comprehensive new synthesis of modern scholarship on all aspects of Irish history, from the earliest geological data to modern day. The narratives in these texts provide good general frameworks within which to form more specific thematic trends. The volumes cover the following periods: prehistoric and early Ireland (V. 1), medieval Ireland 1169-1535 (V. 2), early modern Ireland 1534-1691 (V. 3), eighteenth century Ireland, 1691-1800 (V. 4), Ireland under the Union 1801-1870 (V. 5), Ireland under the Union II 1870-1921 (V. 6), Ireland 1921-1984 (V. 7), a chronology of Irish history to 1976 (V. 8), maps, genealogies, lists (V. 9).

Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí, Art Cosgrove, T.W. Moody, F.X. Martin, F.J. Byrne, W.E. Vaughan, J.R. Hill, eds. A New History of Ireland. 9 vols. London: Oxford University Press, 1983-2005.
  • Early Medieval Ireland, 400-1200 by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín

This text represents the first of a series of six volumes of analytical accounts of Ireland from early Christian times to the present. Early Medieval Ireland, 400-1200 constitutes a comprehensive survey of early Irish society from the sending of Palladius by Celestine as the first bishop to Ireland in 431 to the deposing of Cathal Crobderg Ua Conchobair, King of Connaught, in 1200. The chronological limits Ó Cróinín establishes focus on a notable period of Irish history largely untouched by the influence of the Roman Empire. Thus the relatively indigenous and unbroken culture that developed in Ireland becomes a central theme in Ó Cróinín’s study. Early Medieval Ireland explores the spiritual and secular roles of the Church, the foundations and workings of Irish kingdoms and politics, the development of kingdoms and provinces, the workings of early society, and the invasions and influences of outside powers. Early Medieval Ireland avoids a strictly chronological approach, favouring instead of picture of what society was like. Early Medieval Ireland contains a thorough glossary of Irish terms, several maps and genealogical tables, a guide to further reading on various topics, and a chronological framework of events.

Ó Cróinín, Dáibhí. Early Medieval Ireland, 400-1200. Edited by Steven G. Ellis. Longman Group Limited: London, 1995.
  • A History of Northern Ireland, 1920-1996 by Thomas Hennessey

Thomas Hennessey’s narrative aims to reveal a history of Northern Ireland through the perceptions of the involved participants. The central theme that emerges concerns the differing interpretations of particular policy by unionists and nationalists according to disparate world views. Hennessey applies this theme to the economic, social, cultural, and political policies and decisions examined throughout the text. Methodologically, A History of Northern Ireland illustrates various events through the opposition of different interpretations by the concern parties. The argument of Hennessey’s text, in effect, concludes that the ‘Troubles’ began in the creation of the new state in 1920 through an incredibly thorough chronicling of twentieth century crises.

Hennessey, Thomas. A History of Northern Ireland, 1920-1996. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
  • The IRA by Tim Pat Coogan

Tim Pat Coogan’s exhaustive study of the IRA studies the occurrences of the Republican physical-force tradition from the late eighteenth century and the influence of the French Revolution on leading Irish revolutionary figures to post-Peace Accord Ireland. Coogan’s own occupation in journalism lends the work a certain character and style heavily based on interview and firsthand account. Despite a tendency towards the dramatic story, Coogan’s narrative provides much documentation and annotation for further study. A highly detailed study, The IRA attempts to explore the many connections and wide-spread reach of the various Republican organisations throughout Ireland, Europe, and the United States. The work includes many graphs, maps, and statistical charts relating to Coogan’s study.

Coogan, Tim Pat. The IRA. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
  • The Red Hand: Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland by Steven Bruce

The Red Hand holds its place as one of the first comprehensive histories on the Protestant (Loyalist) paramilitaries and the phenomenon of prostate terrorism in Northern Ireland. Steven Bruce’s main purpose in writing The Red Hand, according to the author, was to establish a balance in the study of Irish paramilitaries and create a serious study of Protestant terrorist organisations, a topic neglected in consideration of the extensive literature on the Irish Republican Army (IRA).

Bruce’s study aims to be two things: a work of record and an explanation. The Red Hand is notable for its consciously maintained academic nature and its avoidance of moral judgement. Bruce’s studies revolve largely around numerous accounts, from the ‘hearsay’, first-hand accounts to professionally-conducted interviews. Equally, the accounts published in local and Dublin papers provides a key narrative. Specifically, Bruce derives much framework from the Irish Times, the Independent, and the Hibernia newspapers. The main body of the text creates a record and explanation of the details of the history of Loyalist paramilitarism. The concluding chapters of the text seek to develop an emerging, common thread running through the features of paramilitary groups, specifically the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) and the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Bruce also includes a statistical appendix detailing data relating to his study.

The Red Hand is somewhat hampered by its date of publication, 1992. Written immediately before the 1994 ceasefire and the 1998 Good Friday Accord, The Red Hand remains an unedited historical account of paramilitary groups pre-1992. In such, it is key to seek other sources to provide a more recent analysis of paramilitaries, but nevertheless, Bruce’s work succeeds within the limits of its time.

Bruce, Steven. The Red Hand: Protestant Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.
  • After the Peace: Loyalist Paramilitaries in Post-Accord Northern Ireland by Carolyn Gallaher

After the Peace, a modern attempt to chronicle the history of Northern Irish paramilitaries, provides a complementary and more conclusive narrative to Bruce’s The Red Hand. Gallaher’s work details the aftermath of the Northern conflict, which she sees as a conflict largely ended, due to the significant duration of time since the peace agreement and ceasefire of the 1990s. The questions dealt with in the work are large and carry heavy baggage: why did Loyalist paramilitaries stay on the battlefield after peace, what can convince them to leave it for good? The book is designed to examine the aftermath of the Troubles, rather than the Troubles itself, and to provide an analytic counterweight to the more recent journalistic accounts of Loyalism. Gallaher’s narrative reads as conscious of potential alignment, such as referring to Northern Ireland as ‘the North’ or ‘the province’. In this way, After the Peace presents a wholly academic, analytical work on the historical setting of paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, but even more the shift in situation after the peace accords, and the future layout of Northern Irish society’s grappling with such organisations.

Gallaher, Carolyn. After the Peace: Loyalist Paramilitaries in Post-Accord Northern Ireland. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2007.



The Irish mythological canon appears in two forms. The first branch deals with a genre of the cultural medieval epic, the folklore and mythology of the ancient Celts and Gaels. These narratives largely call on the traditional, culturally preserved memories of Ireland, that is, the heroic past of the indigenous, Gaelic-speaking clans. The second branch of the Irish mythological canon pertains to the portrayal of historical persons as striking images of mythological heritage. These two genres, though distinctly different in their origins, often appear side-by-side in texts, with cross-referencing between both the mythology of the ancient legends and the mythology of heroic persons.

In order to proceed in the exploration of both these mythological tracks, it is important to mind the relatively recent recording of these myths. The oral tradition that characterizes early Irish myth provides for few primary source texts. The records available, on both the legendary and heroic sources, are largely produced in their original Irish. The key English translations of these sources were in many cases products of the Gaelic Revival of the nineteenth-century, a relatively recent movement. The nature of the Gaelic Revival, the resurgence of interest in Irish language and literature inspired by increased Irish nationalism, should dictate the careful consideration of these legends in the light of their emotionally-persuaded editors. (It is, too, helpful to remain aware of the great variety of ways in which an Irish name can be spelled. When referring to specific mythological figures, I have tried to use the name which corresponds to particular name-spelling used in each specific texts.)

The Irish mythological canon comprises of four tracks: the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle, and the Cycle of the Kings. These four tracks are explored further below. Many of the key texts of the Irish Cycle do not exist in full, translated reproduction. In such cases, a catalogue of manuscripts available in the Library of Trinity College, Dublin is accessible here.

Mythological Cycle

The Mythological Cycle deals with the origins of the world and the most ancient history of the gods and of men. It is a large body of semi-historical narrative and verse revolving on the imagined successive invasions of early Ireland. The cycle culminates in the arrival of Lug Lámfhota, of the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the defeat of the Irish by the Milesians. The Mythological Cycle was so termed to deal explicitly with the origins of and the conspicuous remnants of pre-Christian religion in Irish society. The Cycle is marked by themes of magic and wizardry, unlike the succeeding cycles.

Key figures of the Mythological Cycle: Áine, Ana, Angus Óg, Balor, Boand, Bres, Bran mac Febail, Brian, Brigit, the Cailleach Bhéirre, Cairbre mac Ethne, Cesair, Clídna, Cridenbél, the Dagda, Dian Cécht, Donn, Donn mac Míled, Eochaid Airem, Eochaid mac Eirc, Étaín, Étaín Óg, Fintan mac Bóchra, Goibniu, Iuchair, Iucharba, Lir, Lug Lámfhota, Macha, Manannán mac Lir, Midir, Míl Espáine, the Mórrígan, Nemed, Nuadu Airgetlám, Ogma, and Partholón.

Ulster Cycle

The Ulster Cycle, or the Cycle of Conchobar and Cúchulainn, comprises the tales that relate to those characters and to the other heroes with which they associate. Early Irish annalists cite Conchobar and Cúchulainn as contemporaneous with Christ, if not more ancient. The Ulster Cycle, containing the only Irish prose epic, Táin Bó Cúailnge, centres on the traditional heroes of the Ulaid, or modern east Ulster. These Ulster stories develop a world older than those narrated by other European traditions, thus the Cycle often receives the greatest prestige of the four Irish cycles.

Key figures of the Ulster Cycle: Achall, Áed Ruad, Amairgin mac Eit, Baile, Bec mac Dé, Bélchú, Blaí Briugu, Bláithíne, Briccriu, Cairbre Cuanach, Cairbre Nia Fer, Cathbad, Celtchar, Cet mac Mágach, Cethern mac Fintain, Conall Cernach, Conchobar mac Nessa, Condere mac Echach, Cormac mac Airt, Crunniuc, Cú Roí, Cúchulainn, Culann, Cúscraid, Dáire mac Fiachna, Deidre, Dubthach Dóeltenga, Ébliu, Fedelm Noíchrothach, Fedlimid mac Daill, Fergus mac Leti, Fergus mac Róich, Fiachu mac Fir Febhe, Follomain mac Conchobair, Fráech, Friuch, Furbaide Ferbend, Garb mac Stairn, Goll mac Carbada, Lóegaire Búadach, Lugaid mac Con Roí, Lugaid Riab nDerg, Macha,Medb, Mórrígan, Mugain, Nera, Scáthach, Sencha mac Ailella, Uathach.

Fenian Cycle

The Fenian Cycle, or the Ossianic Cycle, is primarily concerned with the personages of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his son Ossin, or Oisín, and appears to be largely based on historic events that occurred in the second or third centuries, CE. It forms a large body of verse and prose romances, as well as one of the most popular and extensive of the four Cycles.

Key figures of the Fenian Cycle: Aicher, Baillgel, Barrán, Bébinn, Cairbre Lifechair, Cethern, Cochrann, Conán mac Lia, Conán mac Morna, Conarán, Cormac mac Airt, Crimthann, Crónánach, Cuilenn, Cúldub, Cumhall mac Trénmóir, Dáire, Dáire Derg, Dáire Donn, Diarmait ua Duibne, Doirend, Eithne, Fianna Éireann, Fionn mac Cumhaill, Iuchra, Liath Luachra, Mongfhind, Muirenn Muncháem, Nuadu Airgetlám, Nuadu Necht, Oisín, Tadg mac Nuadat, and Uirne.

Cycle of the Kings

The Cycle of the Kings, or the Historical Cycles, contain a certain number of pieces which form a semi-chronological order of events regarding the real and imaginary poetic annals of Ireland from the third to the seventh centuries, CE. The Cycle is distinguished by the other three by its solid focus on provincial and lesser kings, whether legendary or historical.

Key figures of the Cycle of the Kings: Ailinn, Baile, Becfola, Cano, Conaire Mór, Conn Cétchathach, Cormac mac Airt, Domnall the son of Áed, Fergus mac Léti, Labraid Loingsech, Lugaid mac Con, Mongán, Muirchertach mac Erca, Niall Noígiallach, and Rónán.

General Mythology Sources

Primary Sources and Manuscripts
  • Lebor na hUidre, Book of the Dun Cow

The oldest manuscript written entirely in Irish, complied sometime before 1106 at Clonmacnoise, the Book of the Dun Cow contains texts of the Mythological Cycle and the Ulster Cycle, including the epic Táin Bó Cúailnge. The manuscript is currently housed at Trinity College, Dublin.

A catalog of this manuscript and slides of its pages are located here. The text of the manuscript is available online in Irish, see Internet Archive.
  • Lebor Laignech, Book of Leinster

Compiled in the 12th century, the Book of Leinster is second most important source of Irish myth and legend after the Book of the Dun Cow. It contains the Dindschenchas, the collection of Old Irish lore and history of places names and associations. The surviving manuscript is split between Trinity College, Dublin and the Franciscan Library, Dublin.

The Book of Leinster is available online in Irish, see CELT. The Metrical Dindschenchas are available online, see CELT.
  • Book of Fermoy

The Book of Fermoy is a mid-15th century manuscript containing the text of Altram Tige dá Medar, ‘The Nurture of the Houses of the Two Milk Vessels.’ The narrative in Middle Irish focuses on the dispersal of the immortal Tuatha Dé Danann into the world of men. The Book of Fermoy also contains the Book of Invasions. The manuscript is housed in the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin.

A catalog of this manuscript and slides of its pages are located here.
  • Lebor Gabála Érenn, Book of Invasions

A 12th-century text, it forms a collection of pseudo-historical texts by various authors of different periods, thematically consolidating myths, legends, and genealogies from early Ireland within a framework of biblical exegesis. It contains Cath Maige Tuired, ‘The Battle of Mag Tuired,’ a key document for the Mythological Cycle. It documents a number of battles fought in the invasions of Ireland. The Book of Invasions also contains Oidheadh Chlainne Tuireann, ‘The Tragic Story of the Children of Tuireann.’

This book is available online, see Internet Archive.
  • Táin Bó Cúailnge, Recension I edited by Cecile O’Rahilly

The epic saga tale, the Táin Bó Cúailnge (‘Cattle Raid of Cooley’), and its related rémscéla (‘pre-tales’) are collectively known as the Ulster Cycle. These tales relate the story of how the ancient Ulster kingdom was besieged by the combined armies of the other provinces, led by Queen Mebd of Connaught, and how the powers of the Ulster hero Cú Chulainn saved Ulster from defeat. The Táin, one of the longest and most important tales of the Ulster Cycle, has been preserved in three recensions. O’Rahilly’s edition of the Táin features Recension I, drawing from four specific manuscripts, Lebor na hUidre (‘The Book of the Dun Cow’), c. 1100, the Yellow Book of Lecan, c. 1300, MS Egerton 1782, c. 1517, and O’Curry MS, c. 1600.

O’Rahilly’s edition of the Táin contains both an Irish text, as well as an English translation, both of which are thoroughly footnoted. O’Rahilly’s edition also contains an extensive chapter of textual notes, index to main notes, index of persons, places, peoples, and rivers.

This text is available online from University College Cork, see English TextIrish Text.
O’Rahilly, Cecile, ed. Táin Bó Cúailnge. Dublin: Dublin University Press Ltd., 1976.


Historical and Primary-Sourced Texts
  • Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race by T.W. Rolleston

Forming an extensive survey of legendary Celtic literature, T.W. Rolleston’s narrative allows for a general conception of the subject for further application elsewhere. The text itself does not attempt to compile the total canon of Celtic lore, but rather study the key concepts and problems which quickly surface when undertaking the subject. Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race initially examine the historical place of the legendary tales through an efficient consideration of the Celts in ancient history and the religion of the Celts. The key mythological tracks pursued, the myths and tales of Invasion, Ulster, Ossian, and the Cymry, serve to demonstrate the initial historical analysis’ application. Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race includes detailed genealogical tables and illustrations to clarify early forays into Celtic myth.

This text is available online, see Internet Archive.
Rolleston, T.W. Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race, 2nd ed. New York: Lemma Publishing Corporation, 1974.
  • The Irish Mythological Cycle and Celtic Mythology by Marie Henri d’Arbois de Jubainville

The Irish Mythological Cycle and Celtic Mythology offers an analysis different to those presented above. First is the notable difference in analysis deriving from the French influence, but equally notable is the driving theme of comparison to Greek Mythology. Particular to d’Arbois’s study of Celtic gods is the assumed understanding of the gods of Greek and Roman antiquity, such as Ares, Apollo, and Jupiter.

As a text, d’Arbois’s work, though vaguely extemporaneous in style, proves worthwhile. Through meticulous consultation and annotation of supplementary texts, he seeks to offer a solution to some of the principle difficulties connected with Celtic mythology—or the necessity of ‘concordance’ between mythical figures. Drawing largely from the Lebor Gabála Érenn, or Book of Invasions (see below), d’Arbois details many mythological tales while further differentiating between Celtic myth and that of other cultures.

This text is available online, see Hathi Trust Digital Library.
D’Arbois de Jubainville, Marie Henri. The Irish Mythological Cycle and Celtic Mythology. Translated by Richard Irvine Best. New York: Lemma Publishing Corporation, 1970.
  • The Cycles of the Kings by Myles Dillon

Dillon’s brief work provides a preliminary study of the Cycles of the Kings. He concisely summarises the concepts and themes pivotal to an understanding of the Cycle and presents the complicated problems associated with Irish manuscripts. Passing efficiently through several mythological texts, Dillon centres on the concepts of ‘incident’, ‘motif’, and ‘folklore.’ The tales studied by Dillon are distinctly Northern in geographical distribution and could provide interest to both historians and philologists. Methodologically, Dillon aims chiefly to present the individual stories as well as the space allows, tending to stick to strict translation. The Cycle of the Kings proves most helpful as a starting point from which to study a preliminary collection of tales relating to the Cycle.

Dillon, Myles. The Cycles of the Kings. London: Oxford University Press, 1946.
  • Gaelic Folk-Tales and Medieval Romances by Alan Brudford

Alan Bruford’s Gaelic Folk-Tales and Medieval Romances is a comprehensive, but preliminary attempt to study the development of certain Irish romances from a literary form in the late Middle Ages to present Irish folk-tales. The work first outlines the conventions according to which the romances were composed and handed down. Secondly, it gives an account of the development of individual stories, specifically of the Ulster, Fenian, and Dalcassian Cycle. Lastly, the work contains some conclusions as to the ways in which long periods of oral transmission, and the memories of non-elite story-tellers, shape the style, form, and content of the tales.

Bruford provides a meticulously scientific approach to the handling of the Gaelic tales. Quotations are presented both in the original and in translation in an attempt to convey the emerging verbal themes and developments as revealed through the tales. Bruford qualifies his own text, citing a natural limitation to its scope, due to the field’s ‘fringe’ status at the time of his effort.

Brudford, Alan. Gaelic Folk-Tales and Medieval Romances: A study of the Early Modern Irish ‘Romantic Tales’ and their oral derivatives. Dublin: The Folklore of Ireland Society, 1969.


Analytical Texts and Literary Renderings
  • The Hero in Irish Folk History by Dáithí Ó hóGáin

This book cleanly presents a series of legends in Irish folklore which present particular historical characters in a ‘heroic’ light. These persons have, for reasons Ó hóGáin explains in crisp detail, gathered celebrated prestige in the traditional culture of the Irish imagination. The Hero in Irish Folk History fills an otherwise gaping void in the Irish historical genre. In dealing specifically with historical persons—from St. Colmcille to Brian Boru—Ó hóGáin avoids such characters of Irish myth as Cúchulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhaill, due to their ‘proper’ situation in the medieval epic and to literature. Thus, legendary history as crystallised around the names of these people provides the centre point of Ó hóGáin’s study.

The Hero in Irish Folk History seeks to answer the questions of how great persons in Irish culture have been preserved through oral tradition and memory, how these figures have ascended to mythological proportions, and how their continued importance and fascination have effected social and cultural change. Using a framework of the mechanisms of tradition, of situation, and of aesthetics, Ó hóGáin pursues the history which emerges from the process of elevating these historical persons to heroic stature. He specifically examines the varying images given to the presented figures, as well as he resulting complicated ranges of resulting cultural developments.  Much time is also given to studying the possibility of these images as deliberately creating political and social connections through which to gain insight into the nature of Irish culture.

Ó hóGáin, Dáithí. The Hero in Irish Folk History. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1985.
  • The Cuchullin Saga in Irish Literature by Eleanor Hull

The Cuchullin Saga in Irish Literature provides a collection of tales surrounding the hero Cuchullin, the chief figure of the Ulster Saga. Largely a consolidation of texts from Middle Irish, Hull’s collection is useful supplement the ‘Táin Bó Cúailnge,’ providing additional narratives for the larger mythological framework. The Cuchullin Saga is unlike O’Rahilly’s linguistically scientific Táin Bó Cúailnge (see above) in that it is less concerned with the specific translations of the text and more with the impact of the text on the historical mind.

While Hull’s editing voice appears somewhat conspicuously throughout the collection, it does not take away from the overall purpose of the work. Hull’s introduction to the collection supplies an interesting and useful preface to the study of the Ulster Saga. She examines the age of Irish literature and the literary qualities of the Saga, while speculating on their impact on the historical imagination and the resulting use of symbolism arising in the Irish mind and culture. The collection further pursues the character of Cuchullin as a ‘solar’ hero, thus adding a specific lean to the text as a whole.

This text is available in many forms online, see Internet Archive.
Hull, Eleanor, ed. The Cuchullin Saga in Irish Literature. New York: AMS Press,1972.
  • The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrígan to Cathleen Ní Houlihan by Rosalind Clark

The Great Queens is a substantial account of two important supernatural female figures, the war goddess and the sovereignty goddess. Divided stylistically into two halves, the book generally seeks to trace the development of the literary portrayal of supernatural women form the early Middle Ages, about the eighth century, to the Irish Literary Renaissance in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The first half of the text deals solely with the first distinct body of Irish literature, the oral and written literature in Irish, which essentially forms an uninterrupted tradition from the Middle Ages to the present day. The second half of the text turns toward the nineteenth and twentieth centuries kindling of an Anglo-Irish literature, written in English. Clark draws an explicit contrast between these two movements, both connected through the use of early Irish tales, but separated by language and culture. In the course of her study, Clark examines in isolation many of the key and recurring female figures in Irish myth: Cathleen ní Houlihan, Deirdre, Étaín, Gráinne, Medb, the Morrígan, and Níall. Much of Clark’s text references Standish O’Grady’s and Lady Gregory’s various works (as cited below).

Clark, Rosalind. The Great Queens: Irish Goddesses from the Morrígan to Cathleen Ní Houlihan. Savage, Maryland: Barnes & Noble Books, 1991.
  • Ossian and the Ossianic Literature by Alfred Nutt

Alfred Nutt’s work revolves around his central concept of Ossian acting as the connecting point for the existing body of Gaelic literature, citing the oldest texts of Irish myth which draw on his name. Nutt goes on to examine the potential thematic questions arising by Ossian’s lineage from the hero Finn mac Cumhail. The ultimate goal of Nutt’s text seeks to reveal legend and myth as concretely revealing a picture of the society in which it took rise than the specifics of its narrative.

This text is available online, see Internet Archive.
Nutt, Alfred. Ossian and the Ossianic Literature, 2nd ed. London: David Nutt, 1910.
  • The Heroic Biography of Cormac Mac Airt by Tomás Ó Cathasaigh

Ó Cathasaigh’s short work is devoted to the tales about Cormac mac Airt, one of the celebrated great kings of Tara. By scrutinising the early Irish texts citing Cormac through international types of heroic biography, Ó Cathasaigh presents the beginnings of a potentially deeper source of comparative analysis on early Irish biographical literature. This central argument allows for Cormac to be placed on the same level as extensively chronicled Cúchulainn and Fionn mac Cumaill.

The Heroic Biography of Cormac Mac Airt is presented in three parts. The first briefly surveys the development and application of the heroic biography as a form with an internationally established pattern The second attempts to assess the status of Cormac in tradition and history. The third provides the Irish text from which Ó Cathasaigh works. The essential aim of the work is to ascertain the nature of the texts handled to understand the role of Cormac in Irish tradition by the expressed themes of ideology of kingship and political themes relating to the territory or status of particular peoples.

Ó Cathasaigh, Tomás. The Heroic Biography of Cormac Mac Airt. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1977.
  • Gods and Fighting Men by Lady Augusta Gregory

Lady Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men is a collection of tales from their original Irish. The book itself is split into two halves, the first pertaining to the Gods of the Mythological Cycle and the second covering the Fianna of the Fenian Cycle. Unlike many of the sources cited variously throughout this page, Lady Gregory’s work proves of interested due to its immensely traditional status in the Irish knowledge of myth and legend. While the work itself deserves merit on its collection of texts, it is truly quality in its highly melodious voice and tone. Lady Gregory’s own literary voice and bilingualism with Irish, lend the texts a unique quality. The texts, of the author’s own frank admission, include some connecting and fusing sentences inserted by Lady Gregory to make the tales clearer in outlining the doings of the heroes. Gods and Fighting Men could prove interesting if studied in connection with the following source by W.B. Yeats, due to the two scholar’s deep connection and referencing in their sources.

This text is available online, see Project Gutenberg.
Gregory, Augusta. Gods and Fighting Men: The Story of the Tuatha De Danaan and of the Fianna of Ireland, Arranged and Put into English by Lady Gregory. Shannon, Ireland: Irish University Press, 1970.
  • Writings on Irish Folklore, Legend, and Myth by W.B. Yeats

A literary source, the volume contains all of poet W.B. Yeat’s discursive writings on Irish folklore, legend, and myth. These include essays, introductions, and sketches that are largely concerned with such topics as their main subject. The majority of the writings presented were written between 1887 and 1904, years in which Yeats heavily familiarised himself with Irish tradition and its folk and legendary aspects. This volume will prove attracting to those interested in analytical, literary renderings of myth and legend. Yeat’s works develop in a pattern of increasing complexity, exploring themes of analysis and youth fascination, world views of considerable psychological and philosophical depth, and intellectual and cultural interests.

Writings on Irish Folklore, Legend, and Myth contain the first printings of Yeat’s works. It contains an interesting glossary of anglicised Irish words, names, and phrases; Yeat’s explanations of terms; transliterations of terms into standard modern Irish; and phonetic pronunciations.

Yeats, William Butler. Writings on Irish Folklore, Legend, and Myth. Edited by Robert Welch. London: Penguin Books, 1993.



  • Symbols in Northern Ireland edited by Anthony D. Buckley

Symbols in Northern Ireland presents a series of nine, accessible essays intended to provide a sense of the range of symbols employed in Northern Ireland, the variety of their contexts, and the diverging means they convey. The interdisciplinary collection of essays each pursues a specific argument and succeeds in creating a range of perspectives from which to pursue a deeper study of the use of symbols and their role in Northern Irish culture. The topics covered include such varying issues as the spacial occupation of political murals, the media representations of Orange marches, the use of Irish language for symbolic potency in Belfast, the symbolism of womanhood, and the continued emergence of Celtic mythological images in graffiti.

Buckley, Anthony D., ed. Symbols in Northern Ireland. Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, 1998.
  • Culture and Belonging in Divided Societies by Mark Howard Ross

Culture and Belonging in Divided Societies forms a detailed and wide ranging collection of essays on the cultural expressions and enactments which produce large emotional outpourings in a wide range of societies. Of interest here are two essays: Flagging Peace: Struggles over Symbolic Landscape in the New Northern Ireland’ andConflict Transformation, Cultural Innovation, and Loyalist Identity in Northern Ireland’.

The first of these essays, ‘Flagging Peace: Struggles over Symbolic Landscape in the New Northern Ireland’ is written by Dominic Bryan and Clifford Stevenson, who have both written extensively on the political rituals, public spaces, and identities in Northern Ireland and give the essay a uniquely Irish perspective. The essay effectively surveys the heightened symbolic landscape of Northern Ireland before and after the 1994 paramilitary ceasefires and the subsequent 1998 peace process, the Good Friday Agreement. Bryan and Stevenson focus on the use and presence of flags to analyse these shifts. The specific argument of the essay deals with Northern Ireland as maintaining a complex symbolic landscape in which the use of symbols and emblems reflects  not only personal identities, but as intimately coupled with localised power structures and the remembered violence and contests within their communities and to the borders of their communities. ‘Flagging Peace’ largely assumes knowledge of the events handled and the names mentioned, but the essay remains a stimulating short work from which to build a larger narrative.

The second essay, ‘Conflict Transformation, Cultural Innovation, and Loyalist Identity in Northern Ireland’ is written by Lee A. Smithey, and thus lends the piece an American perspective. The work focuses on the complex situating of murals in Northern Irish society. Smithey examines the wide range of visual representation mainly deriving from the streets of loyalist working-class East Belfast or the Shankill Road. He focuses on the role of murals and other cultural expressions in producing and shaping communal identities and communication beyond the immediate community. The essay’s specific argument develops around Smithey’s point of murals as mediums through which communities and leaders can catalyse collective identity from defensiveness and exclusivity to empowerment and inclusivity.

Both ‘Flagging Peace’ and ‘Conflict Transformation and Loyalist Identity’ work from highly detailed, rich bibliographies which could be of great interest in pursuing the topics covered above. Despite the explicit arguments presented in the above essays, their bibliographies could provide a source of more general, unbiased material.

Ross, Mark Howard, ed. Culture and Belonging in Divided Societies: Contestation and Symbolic Landscapes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009.


Symbols and Myth in the Community

Symbols are largely realised in five forms: as images, as words, as dates, as colours, and as actions.

Symbols as Images

Flags are used throughout Northern Ireland can be understood on numerous levels, possibly as demarcations of territory, reflections of communal identity, and physical enthopolitical boundaries. (See above, ‘Flagging Peace: Struggles over Symbolic Landscape in the New Northern Ireland’ by Dominic Bryan and Clifford Stevenson.)

The images below are the (1) Irish Tricolour Flag, (2) British Union Flag, (3) Government of Northern Ireland Flag, (4) Four Provinces of Ireland Flag, (5) Province of Ulster Flag, (6) Leinster Flag, (7) Orange Order Flag, (8) Fianna na hÉireann Flag.

1. 2.

3. 4.

5. 6.

7. 8.

Symbolic images which make frequent appearance, especially in murals: Celtic images, cláirseach, crest of O’Neill, crest of the Society of United Irishmen, crossroads, crowns, Easter lily, poppy, Orangeman, Red Hand of Ulster, Star of David, wolfhound.

The appearance of people in murals generally falls into two categories, the mythical and the historical, including Oliver Cromwell, Cúchulainn, Fionn mac Cumhaill, George Best, King William III, Bernadette McAliskey, the Pope (generally nameless and often depicted as the position of pope), and Bobby Sands.

Symbols as non-Images

Words and acronyms make frequent appearances in murals, acting as imagery-based symbols: ‘Brits Out’; writings in Irish; IRA, PIRA, INLA; ‘Lest We Forget’; ‘No Surrender’; ‘Remember 1690’; ‘Remember 1916’; ‘Tiocfáidh ár Lá’; UDA, UFF, UVF, LVF; ‘Ulster Says No’.

Dates and numbers, too, act as symbolic references: 13, 1690, 1916.

Colours play a conspicuous role in symbolic renderings: St. Patrick’s blue; green, white, orange; green; orange; red, white, blue.


The appearance and materialisation of symbols in Northern Irish society are best demonstrated through murals. Murals provide an excellent source of study due to their highly visual, conspicuous nature. Such publicly expressed emotion and identity provide windows into their creators as well as the communities from which they come.  Equally, the near constant presence of murals through the twentieth century, especially in Derry and Belfast, allow for the study of changing attitudes as represented in the shifting subjects of the images.

The Irish Studies Institute at Queen’s University Belfast accumulated existing data on murals, memorials, and flags and made the findings available to the public through GoogleMaps. The map below shows the location and images of maps located in Belfast, a project which is not comprehensive, but continues to update.

View Murals April 2009 in a larger map

Similarly, Virtual Belfast Mural Tour provides a central resource, integrating Google Street View and Google Maps. Accessible here.

(IRA Roll of Honour Mural, Ardoyne Avenue, Ardoyne | PIRA, Republican Activists
Reads: ‘This mural is dedicated to the memory of those local Republican activists who devoted their lives to the cause of Irish freedom’ | ‘Many suffer so that some day future generations may live in justice and peace — Vol. Bobby Sands’ ; CAIN)
Areas of potential symbolism: Beret and gloves; lilies; tricolour and starry plough flags; portraits around border; shields of the four provinces of Ireland.


(The Red Hand of Ulster Mural, Lower Shankill, Shankill; flickr)
Areas of potential symbolism: red hand of Ulster; red hand of O’Neill; flag of government of Northern Ireland; O’Neill.


(Cúchulainn Freedom Mural, Lenadoon Avenue, Ballymurphy | Republican, IRA
Based on Oliver Sheppard statue, GPO, Dublin;
Reads: ‘Leana an Duin—Unbowed—Unkroken. Saoirse; flickr)
Areas of potential symbolism: dying warrior Cúchulainn, upright; shields of four provinces of Ireland; Celtic emblems along bottom border; portraits and names of volunteers.


Remember 1961 Mural(Éirí Amach na Cásca, 1916, Whiterock Road, Ballymurphy | Republican
Reads: ‘Who fears to speak of Easter Week, Éirí Amach na Cásca, 1916-1991; flickr)
Areas of potential symbolism: portraits of the signatories of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic, Countess Markievicz ; Irish tricolour; starry plough flag motif; sunburst; phoenix; GPO.


(UDA Mural, Lower Shankill, Shankill | UDA, UFF, UVF, loyalist ; flickr)
Areas of possible symbolism: red hand, red clenched hand; flag of the government of Northern Ireland; British Union Flag, UDA, UYM crests.

(Tuatha Dé Danann Mural, Springhill | Nationalist
Reads: ‘Is é seo Nuadha, Rí Tuatha Dé Danann’; flickr)
Areas of possible symbolism: mythic king Nuadha; celtic landscapes, cromlechs, megaliths.

(UFF Mural, Newtownards Road, East Belfast | UFF, UVF; flickr)
Areas of possible symbolism: Red Hand of Ulser, clenched fist; 1973.



In an equally conspicuous way, rituals incorporate various forms and interpretations of symbols and myth. The rituals performed also incorporate much cultural and social tradition.

Bonfire Night, on 11 July, sees the annual lighting of large bonfires throughout the urban areas of Northern Ireland to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne, on 12 July, in which King William of Orange defeated the Catholic King James and secured the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. These large-scale public events have become staple features of traditional celebratory life in Northern Ireland. For the purposes of symbols and myth, the bonfires, themselves a ritualised symbol, often incorporate various flags, posters, effigies, and banners on the burning pyres.

  • “The Bonfire in North Irish Tradition” by Alan Gailey and G.B. Adams

The article deals with the lighting of bonfires and the burning of effigies on non-recurring occasions as well as seasonal festivals of many different sorts. Gailey has the dual aim of placing data on recorded Northern Irish bonfires and the completion of a geographical mapping of bonfires. He further moves towards a narrative of Northern Irish bonfires as representative of and demonstrative of the beliefs of their creators.

Gailey, Alan, and G.B. Adams. “The Bonfire in Northern Irish Tradition.” Folklore 88, no.1 (1977): 3-38.


The following video provides a brief commentary and analysis of the Eleventh bonfires by John Duncan. The video complements his larger work, Bonfires, a photo-book chronicling the continuing, urban tradition of bonfires in Duncan’s own Belfast. The book provides a documentary-type presentation of the transitional structures erected on the Eleventh. In addition to providing an aesthetically pleasing, visual commentary, Duncan’s work allows for a careful inspection of the varying and shifting use of symbolic objects in a larger framework of cultural story.

Graham, Colin, Mary Warner Marien, and John Duncan. John Duncan, Bonfires. Berlin: Göttingen Steidl, 2008.

The following video captures a large bonfire lit on 11 July, 2011 in Ards, Northern Ireland. Note the placement of the Irish Tricolour atop the pyre.

The Orange Order’s yearly Orange Marches characterise the months from April to August which mark the marching season in Northern Ireland. The season’s culmination on July 12 follows the night of Bonfires.

The following video captures the Price of Ardoyne Flute Band passing through Ardoyne in north Belfast.

Related Sources

  • A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology by James Mackillop

Mackillop’s Dictionary of Celtic Mythology provides a comprehensive and accessible survey of terms encountered in the study of Celtic myth. It covers the people, places, creatures, themes, and concepts crucial to an understanding of both ancient and modern traditions of Celtic myth. Mackillop provides entries ranging from brief entries to detailed essays on larger, pivotal topics. It also includes a useful pronunciation guide to all the major Celtic languages.

MacKillop, James. A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

The CAIN website serves as a database containing information and source material on the broad range of topics relating to the Troubles and politics in Northern Ireland. CAIN is located in the University of Ulster and is based within INCORE, below. CAIN assists in the preparation of learning materials and improving access to source materials. CAIN provides pages on key events and issues in Northern Ireland, guides to carrying out research on the area, as well as more specific glossaries, indexes, media consolidations, and political initiatives.

An International Centre of Excellence for the Study of Peace and Conflict, INCORE is a joint project of the United Nations University and the University of Ulster. It seeks to combine research, education, and comparative analysis to address the causes of conflict in Northern Ireland.

The Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s University Belfast provides an excellent online resource. The Institute plays a continued role in contemporary Irish research, focusing on many varied topics, including symbolism and myth in the community. The Irish Studies Gateway publishes PhD research materials, current and past research projects, and links to various Irish libraries, universities, and database sources. An example of surveys conducted by the IIS is a 2006-2009 study, ‘Public Displays of Flags and Emblems in Northern Ireland.’

ARK is a joint resource between the two universities of Northern Ireland, Queen’s University and University of Ulster. Its singular goals is making social science information on Northern Ireland available to the public. ARK promotes knowledge-based policy and a lobbying culture. It has four main areas of work: surveys; conflict, politics, and elections; policy research and resources; outreach, dissemination and training. Within these areas, ARK provides various kinds of information: background facts and figures, survey results, research reports, audio-visual material and election results.