Songs of the Mystic

Knowth, County Meath (photo by Matt Powell)

This is the second installment in a continuing series each St. Patrick’s Day, using modern and traditional Irish music to explore Irish history (the first entry, Songs of Hunger, can be found here). Artists featured in this article include Van Morrison, Alison Krauss, The Chieftains, Enya, and The Pogues. 

Many times man lives and dies

Between his two eternities,

That of race and that of soul,

And ancient Ireland knew it all.

Under Ben Bulben, by W.B. Yeats

Irish music and history has no shortage of subjects. There are songs of immigration, discrimination, civil rights, civil war, resistance, and revolution.

But first, let’s go back. Way, way back. To an Ireland before Patrick. To an ancient land of warriors and wizards, giants and faeries.

Let’s go into the mystic.


What the Sages Spoke

Like the breadth of the Irish existence, the origin of the Irish people is partly truth and partly myth.

Legend tells us that the Spanish King Mileadh sent his three sons to Ireland to conquer the native population, comprising three distinct races: the Formorians, a supernatural race of sea giants, the Firbolgs, with connections to Greece, and the Tuatha de Danann.

The Tuatha were tall, skilled craftsmen. And they were wizards with supernatural powers. Driven underground by King Mileadh’s conquest, they eventually came to be known as the “little people” – faeries who haunt the ancient hills causing mischief. We will see them soon.

Science tells us there were Stone Age settlers, who crossed from Scotland into modern-day Ulster during the Mesolithic period. 2,500 years of human evolution manifested itself in the later Neolithic peoples, who had developed agriculture, pottery, weaving, and an uncanny knowledge of astronomy, evidenced in their haunting megalithic passage tombs, including Knowth, Louth, and Newgrange.

Built 500 years before the Pyramids — and 1,000 years before Stonehenge — Newgrange is essentially an ancient observatory, designed to exact specifications so the solstice sun fills the room.

The Boyne Valley landscape is covered in a series of these surviving circular passage tombs. Some believe they are placed by design — when seen from the heavens, they form the figure of a man as if a constellation in the turf. They were central to ancient Druid life as burial grounds and sacred places of worship, and are the scene of stories from Irish mythology and real life.

The Hill of Tara was sacred to the ancient Druids, and legend has it that Patrick chose Tara deliberately to announce his bringing of Christianity to the pagan island. Like the moons and planets that so influenced their creation and purpose, everything about these places is circular, from the shape of the structures to the spiral artwork carved into the giant stones like widening gyres. Ancient Ireland was a circular, magical ring: ambiguous and infinite.

Christianity brought corners.

The band Clannad, who mix traditional Irish music with new age mysticism, explore its mysteries in their 1982 song, “Newgrange.”

Clannad “Newgrange”



Cúchulainn and the Shapeshifters

Ireland’s greatest mythical figure is Cúchulainn (pronounced “koo-hool-n,” and sometimes spelled Cú Chulainn or Cú Chulaind).

Cúchulainn’s fame comes primarily from the Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), a story from a collection of Irish epics called the Ulster Cycle (also known as the Red Branch Cycle. The other collections of Irish mythology are the Mythological Cycle, the Fenian Cycle, and the Historical cycle).

There is not much subtlety or irony in the Táin. But in its fantastical telling are impressions of life at the time, and it cements for eternity Cúchulainn’s unimpeachable gallantry.

In the 1st century AD, Ireland was a patchwork land of small, individual kingdoms. There was no centralized society, but these kingdoms adhered to a universal system of Celtic laws called brehon law. The brehon laws, while not universally enforced, were shockingly civilized for an ancient society of pagan warriors.

Women, while not entirely equal with men, were treated with more cultural empowerment under ancient Ireland than anywhere else in Europe or possibly the world. For example, men were obligated under penalty of legal fines to care for their pregnant wives. Marriage was renewable annually. Couples, if they so chose, were allowed to simply walk away from their marriage on February 1 of each year. Younger family members were obligated to feed and bathe their elderly. There were even primitive health codes (it was illegal to serve food touched by a dead mouse) and remedies for medical malpractice. Music was an integral part of the Irish being, even in these ancient times. Under brehon law, harpists (but not horns or woodwinds) were granted noble standing.

In reality, many of the local tribal chieftains were little more than strongmen gang leaders and cattle barons operating over a small territory, not unlike banditos of the Old West.

Queen Medb was a determined woman and a forceful ruler, the daughter of Ireland’s High King and wife of King Ailill mac Máta. According to the Táin, one night she and her husband got into a marital spat over who had more riches. This escalated into a full cataloging of their possessions. In the end, Ailill bested his wife by a single bull. Not to be outdone by her husband, Medb invaded Cooley, in Ulster, with several thousand men to steal a bull.

The Ulster troops had fallen under a sorcerer’s spell, which put them to sleep. The bull was Medb’s for the taking save for a single teenager. She hadn’t planned on Cúchulainn.

Cúchulainn single-handedly held off Medb’s forces. When brute force could not break Cúchulainn, she tried trickery. All Medb’s tactics failed against the uncompromising strength and wisdom of Cúchulainn, who shifted shape when in battle into a ríastrad, or “warp-spasm” – a terrifying contortion beyond recognition of his mortal form.

The legend of Cúchulainn’s battlefield transformation is probably rooted in actual Celtic warrior practices. The Celts dominated the battlefield not only with their undeniable might, but with psychological warfare. To discomfort and terrify their enemy, they fought naked, striped completely save for sandals on their feet. They tied the decapitated heads of the vanquished to their wastes and wore them like prizes. It is not hard to imagine a Celtic warrior, naked and crazed with adrenalin, conveying to his opponent a transfigured madness – a “warp-spasm.”

There is also a long tradition in Irish mythology of shapeshifting. Women especially seem to transfigure often, most commonly into swans. The Druids believed that swans could travel between the Otherworld and the mortal realm. The ancient Irish bards and poets wore swanskins and feathers on their ceremonial cloaks.   

“Molly Bán” is a traditional song that tells the story of a hunter who shoots his love, Molly Bán, mistaking her for a swan. The song suggests Molly Bán’s white apron made her appear as a swan, although it is open for more mystical interpretation.

Alison Krauss recorded a moving version of the song with the Chieftains.

Alison Krauss & the Chieftains “Molly Bán”


Similarly, “She Moved Through the Fair,” a popular and very old Irish song, ambiguously hints at mysticism in the form of a dead lover. It is never explained why the singer’s love died before they could be married, but the deceased lover haunts the singer in dreams. This could be explained as an innocuous dream, or it could be a reference to dreamwalkers, which are a common phenomenon in indigenous cultures, including the ancient Irish. In a hauntingly poetic line, the singer describes his or her love departing, “as the swans in the evening move over the lake.” Again, this could be a mere analogy to a swan’s grace, but it conjures the imagery of swan shapeshifting prevalent in Irish lore, as well as the common Irish notion of lakes being portals to the Otherworld.

Sinéad O'Connor “She Moved Through the Fair”


Cúchulainn died as bravely as he lived. When he was eventually pierced by a spear and mortally wounded in a later battle, he pulled himself up against a giant rock, tied his failing body to it to give the impression he was standing on his own strength, and clutched his spear. The effect was to make his enemy think he was standing still strong, even in death. It worked. Long after he expired, his standing corpse held his adversaries at bay. Only when they saw a raven plucking out the eyes of the dead warrior did they know they had successfully slain Ireland’s great hero and that it was safe to approach. Many believe this very rock is one that stands to this day in Knockbridge, County Louth.

The Pogues invoke Cúchulainn in the first song on their 1985 album, Rum Sodomy & the Lash, “The Sickbed of Cúchulainn.” The song title is a reference to a story in the Ulster Cycle called "Serglige Con Culaind & Oenét Emire,” in which Cúchulainn is attacked and briefly incapacitated by spirits in a dream.

The Pogues “The Sickbed of Cúchulainn”




In 2015, Dublin folk singer Damien Dempsey put music to William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Death of Cúchulainn.” The post office mentioned in the poem and lyric is a reference to the GPO in Dublin, where a different kind of Irish hero launched the 1916 Easter Rising. The GPO houses a statue of Cúchulainn depicting his brave death on the rock, complete with raven, incorporating the great Celtic warrior as a symbol of Irish nationalism. Ironically, unionists in Northern Ireland also claim Cúchulainn as political inspiration, bastardizing his legend by interpreting him to be proudly defending Ulster from Irish aggression.











Damien Dempsey — “The Death of Cúchulainn”


Fionn mac Cumaill and the Land of Tír na nÓg

The legends of Fionn mac Cumaill (or, Finn McCool) are told in the Fenian Cycle. (It is from these legends that the Irish nationalist Fenians took their name – but more about Fenians in future entries.) Fionn was a warrior, a wizard, and a prophet. Unlike Cúchulainn, who died a brave and noble death, Fionn mac Cumaill has never died, as we understand death, but rather lays in wait to return and defend Ireland in its hour of need. (One would think enough such hours have since passed.)

While Fionn was still inside his mother’s womb, his father was murdered by warring clans. Upon his birth, his mother sent Fionn away to be raised as a warrior by the druids Finegas and Bodhmal, and her warrior sister, Liath Luacha.

One day Druid Finegas and the young Fionn were fishing in a river near Slieve Bladhma where lived a magic salmon who fed itself on hazel nuts. The hazel tree was sacred to the ancient Irish, purported to contain within its makeup the power of all knowledge. Finegas caught the salmon and as Fionn was roasting it over the flame, he burned his thumb and quickly put it in his mouth, along with a piece of the salmon, thus transferring to Fionn the gift of prophesy.

Yeats’ poem “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” touches on this story, as well as pulling from other Irish mythology to create a poem of human longing. Aengus was a god of love and poetry, a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann, from the Mythological Cycle. In Yeat’s poem, Aengus carves a fishing rod from a hazel branch and catches a trout, who shapeshifts into a beautiful girl and runs away, leaving Aengus to spend his days searching for her.

The great Irish folk singer Christy Moore put Yeats’ poem to music.

Christy Moore “The Song of the Wandering Aengus”


Usually Fionn is portrayed as a valiant warrior. In one humorous legend, he takes the form of a not-so-fierce giant. The Giant’s Causeway is an ancient, hexagonal volcanic rock formation on the tip of Northern Ireland. The legend has it that the giant Fionn mac Cumaill got into a spat with the Scottish giant Benandonner. Fionn built the causeway and crossed to Scotland to confront Benandonner. But when Fionn sees the mighty Scottish giant, he hightails it back to Ulster. Benandonner pursues, so Fionn figures if he cannot beat him with force then he will outwit Benandonner. Fionn gets into a crib, pretending to be a baby. Benandonner sees Fionn disguised as a baby and figures if the babies in Ireland are this big, then he didn’t want to stick around to meet the adults! So he retreats to Scotland, smashing the causeway in his wake.

Giants are prevalent in Irish lore, often used to explain the dramatic formations of the mystical Irish landscape.

Boston Celtic-punk band Dropkick Murphys include “The Legend of Finn MacCumhail,” on their 2001 album, Sing Loud, Sing Proud!

Dropkick Murphys “The Legend of Finn MacCumhail”


The legend of Fionn mac Cumaill can be felt today not only on the wet, black rocks of the Giant’s Causeway, but in its various incarnations – MacCumhail, MacCool, MacCoul, McCool — as the name of Irish pubs the world over.

Fionn’s son, Oisín, was a poet and mighty Fianna warrior. Fionn met Oisín’s mother, Sadbh, in the woods. She had been turned into a deer by a Druid, but turned back into a human when she encountered Fionn. After his birth, the infant Oisín was left on the mystic mountain of Ben Bulben, in County Sligo.

The story of Oisín in Tír na nÓg is told in the Fenian Cycle. Tír na nÓg is a mythical land of everlasting youth, inhabited by our old friends the Tuatha de Danann. It is often described as an underwater land, usually accessed through mystic lake portals. Oisín was brought to Tír na nÓg on the back of a white horse by a beautiful princess named Niamh.

300 years later, Oisín wanted to revisit the mortal realm. He was allowed to do so, providing he stay on his horse and his feet never touch the ground. There, Oisín met and talked with the recently arrived Patrick – an allegorical conversation between ancient and Christian Ireland. Oisín eventually succumbed to earthly temptation and touched the ground, whereby he immediately turned into ancient dust. 

Van Morrison, a protestant from East Belfast, has long embraced his Scots-Irish Celtic ancestry and his Irishness informs, in some way, the entirety of his remarkable work. Morrison is virtually obsessed with mystic lands such as Caledonia – the Roman name for northern Briton and Scotland, lands deemed beyond the edge of civilization, as well as Avalon, the mythic island of Arthurian legend. On his 1986 album No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, Morrison explores the Otherworld of Tír na nÓg.  

Van Morrison “Tir Na Nog”


The Little People

Beginning in the 1930s, Alan Lomax traveled the American South with a tape recorder, capturing the folk music of rural America, preserving for posterity a rich tradition which otherwise may have remained lost or purely localized. Similarly, in 1888, Yeats traveled the rugged west of Ireland, especially around his native Sligo, capturing from the peasantry first hand accounts of the “good people” – the faeries.

Yeats was not merely interested in these stories — he believed them, claiming to have encountered the faeries himself. Yeats saw a relationship between this folk tradition and his growing Irish nationalism. Much of the folklore Yeats studied and preserved informed the Celtic Revival movement he spearheaded, producing a new, rich era of Irish literature, poetry and theater.

The faeries – Sidhe or, Si, sometimes called the “little people,” the “good people,” or the “gentle folk” – have been a part of the Irish identity since Ireland’s origins when the wizard race of the Tuatha de Danann were driven underground. They became a ubiquitous part of Irish life – “as thick as the sands of the sea about us,” as Yeats quotes one Galway man in his collection, The Celtic Twilight.

The Chieftains “The Fairies' Lamentation And Dance”


Faeries can certainly cause one grief when crossed, but they are not necessarily evil beings. The more common negative encounters involve retribution when the faeries feel slighted. The typical story involves a peasant who leaves buttermilk out for the good people each night. Then, for one reason or another, forgets, only to find their cow’s milk has turned sour.

There are many varieties of faeries, but most Americans think of leprechauns. Unlike the unkempt and even psychotic depictions of leprechauns in America, they are quite clever and stylish. Yeats’ description is that the leprechaun is “something of a dandy, and dresses in a red coat with seven rows of buttons.” Leprechauns are shoemakers and prefer a solitary life, although they are not averse to lifting a jar.

Leprechauns are a sucker’s bet. They generally have little use for humans, who they deem unsophisticated and greedy. The fact that humans who capture leprechauns are inevitably fooled by their disappearing gold does little to dispel this presumption.

Leprechauns in America have become a cultural stereotype. Stroll the cereal isle in any mainstream supermarket in America and you will find only one product depicting a cartoonish ethnic mascot. You won’t find cereal boxes with blackface minstrels or sombrero-donned Mexican characters, but you will find the “magically delicious” box of corn syrup-infused garbage some people consider sustenance for their young. It is clear the good people at General Mills have never lived among the gentle folk, for they wouldn’t be so quick to mock such a rich cultural identity in the pursuit of easy riches.

Far more common in Ireland than leprechauns is the dreaded pooka. The pooka takes many forms, usually that of a goblin, but sometimes a horse or goat. The pooka comes out after dark, terrorizing travelers on the road and disturbing livestock. In some areas, farmers leave a small part of their crop yields – the “pooka’s share” – as tribute, and as insurance.

The peasantry of Yeats’ day did not necessarily live in fear of the faeries, but they certainly lived with an awareness. A common phenomenon of concern was the changeling. If the faeries were displeased with their newborn, they would simply switch it with that of a healthy human. Often Irish mothers would wake to discover their infant had been switched, almost certain to wreak havoc upon the household. Sometimes changlings grow up with the gift of music.  

Not all faeries are mischief-makers. Some are mere messengers.

The Dullahan is the origin for the headless horseman. He rides a dark horse, holding his detached head on his saddle, which he uses to see across the darken landscape into the homes of the dying.

The banshee is a female fairy whose unmistakable night wail brings with it an omen of death. It is not usually the imminent death of one who hears the banshee, but that of someone they know. Although unsettling, the banshee does not cause death; she merely announces the inevitable.

The banshee is memorialized in dance songs, including the “Banshee Reel” and the “Lilting Banshee Jig.”

“The Lilting Banshee Jig”


In seaside communities, there are tales of selkies and merrows. Merrows are like mermaids, luring unsuspecting human males to their watery fate. Selkies are a kind of shapeshifter. They wear sealskin coats that give them powers to live in the water world. Often a human will steal their coat and hide it away, forcing the selkie to marry them, until the selkies’ call to return to the water grows too deep.

The blind harpist, Turlough O'Carolan, is considered Ireland’s national composer. Carolan lived in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, but he carried on a tradition of the great bards of ancient times, when the harpist was granted noble standing in society. (The harp is the national symbol of Ireland, making Ireland the only country in the world to use a musical instrument as its symbol.) Carolan was an itinerant musician, a wandering poet, traveling all of Ireland composing pieces for his aristocratic patrons. The bulk of his income was made from these commissioned works, which bear the names of their benefactors. So it is telling that some pieces, such as “The Fairy Queen,” were tributes to the faeries. Some consider "Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór" (“Small Fairy, Big Fairy”) to be his very first composition, a song about a faery battle.

The most fascinating thing about Carolan lies centuries and a world away from the life of the “last of the bards.” In 1986, Brian Keenan was kidnapped in Beirut by Islamic jihadists. He was held captive for four years, much of that time blindfolded in isolation. Keenan, a protestant from East Belfast, began to have visions of the blind harpist. He became obsessed with Carolan. Upon his release he learned that Carolan was himself a dreamwalker. 

Remarkably, Yeats foresaw this very phenomenon in The Celtic Twilight: “…blind eyes can see more than other eyes…the cell and the wilderness shall never be long empty.”

Planxty, Christy Moore’s traditional folk band from the 1970s, recorded a version of "Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór" on their 1973 debut.

Planxty "Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór"



This time each year we celebrate Irishness in the name of the island’s most famous figure – Patrick (there is no record of his ever being canonized as a saint). Patrick was a real man, whose real deeds have a very real effect on the world today in profound ways. But as with all things Irish, the story of Patrick too is a mix of myth and fact.

It can be fairly well presumed, for example, that Patrick did not drive snakes from Ireland. And while he certainly brought Christianity, he probably did not literally confront the High King at the sacred Druid site of Tara, as is dramatically told. But the real story of Patrick is more incredible and inspiring than any tale.

Patrick was a Celtic Briton, and a proud and civilized Roman citizen. The Roman Empire never expanded into Ireland, which remained an illiterate, pagan outpost of Druids and chieftains. Patrick grew up in western Briton on the very edge of civilization.

As discussed above, many of the Celtic chieftains were little more than thugs, and some raided the west coast of Briton regularly, kidnapping Britons as shepherd slaves. Patrick was one such slave, taken to unholy Ireland when he was 16.

After six years of suffering harsh elements and a harsher hunger, isolated in the hills tending the sheep, Patrick had a vision and began to walk. He walked 200 miles to the sea — from Antrim to Wexford — where he finagled himself aboard a merchant ship headed for the continent (his walking this distance unclothed and unfed seems unbelievable, but whatever the actual account of his leaving, it is true that he escaped his captivity aboard a ship).

Upon arriving in Gaul, Patrick found continental Europe in a scorched, dystopian state. The barbarians had crossed the Rhine by now, and most of Europe was covered in darkness. The fall of Rome was imminent and Western civilization, for all intents and purposes, was flickering out.

Patrick found his way back to Briton, but his time away had alienated him from his Roman home. In his years as a slave boy, Patrick had developed an affinity for the Irish people, and he was called to return to Ireland one night in a vision. His vision led him first to Lérins Abbey, an island monastery on the modern-day French Riviera, where he was ordained a priest and eventually a bishop. He was now ready to follow his vision home.

The truly remarkable thing about Patrick’s story is that his is the single time in the whole of history where Christianity was introduced to a native population without violence. Some Irish like to say they were colonized twice – first by Church, and then by Crown – and there is truth in that. But Patrick’s formative years in Ireland gave him an insight into the Irish character most missionaries – whether well intentioned or not – simply could not possess.

Patrick ignored the rigors of the centralized order of Roman Catholicism, and instead of condescending to the native Celts, he adapted his religion to fit the indigenous Druidic and pagan practices of the tribal Irish. This is most famously illustrated in his using the shamrock to explain the concept of the holy trinity.

The Irish were receptive; the concepts were already a part of them. In their rich mythology they had three-figured gods, and half-mortal gods (such as Cúchulainn). Patrick’s Christianity celebrated God found in nature. Ireland has always had its mystical and dramatic landscape, and at the time was also rich with lush forests: pine, oak, and the all-knowing hazel. As Yeats writes in The Celtic Twilight about a peasant woman seeing God in the mountains, “God is all the nearer, because the pagan powers are not far.” Patrick inherently understood what Yeats calls “the little stiches that join this world and the other.”

Patrick brought decency. He emphasized respect for women, something the ancient Irish already practiced. He ended the Irish slave trade, making him most likely the first abolitionist in human history. He put an end to tribal warfare and to human sacrifice. He showed the pagan Irish how these were unnecessary and unnatural things. (This passivity, of course, had unintended consequences, eventually leaving the once fierce Irish warrior race vulnerable to inevitable conquest and exploitation. But, for a while, the Irish lived peaceably.)

Most importantly, Patrick brought with him literacy. He brought the urge and the means for scholarship and intellectual pursuit, which define the Irish character — and in many ways the Irish church — to this day.

In his 1995 book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, Thomas Cahill explains how Irish Christian monks copied the works of antiquity, literally preserving western literacy while the rest of Europe was set ablaze by barbarism. They didn’t copy only Christian — or even only religious — texts, but literally anything they could get their hands on, from any place and era. The very remoteness that kept Ireland from being pulled into the Roman Empire (and with it the advantages of civilized society) now kept it safe from the infernos of ignorance.

On majestic Ben Bulben — a mountain in Sligo known to inhabit faeries, and a spiritual inspiration for Yeats, who is buried at its feet — grows a plant (Arenaria ciliate) dating back to the Ice Age. When Ireland was covered in ice, tucked away in the crevices of rocks high on Ben Bulben, one plant carried on. As the ice melted and the modern Irish landscape formed, new life emerged. But the Arenaria ciliata had kept the pulse of life, dimly, from its perch in Ben Bulben for millennia where it grows, uninterrupted, to this day.

Cahill writes:

“While Rome and its ancient empire faded from memory and a new, illiterate Europe rose on its ruins, a vibrant, literary culture was blooming in secret along its Celtic fringe. It needed only one step more to close the circle, which would reconnect Europe to its own past by way of scribal Ireland.”

Patrick lit the spark of learning in Ireland, but it was monks, like Columcille, who unleashed it beyond its emerald borders. Columcille was born in 521 into a family of notable Irish kings. Inspired by Patrick, he became a priest and established several important monasteries, including Kells, which produced the greatest surviving example of Irish book making. Eventually he was exiled to Scotland, where he continued establishing monasteries, and was the instrumental figure in expanding the knowledge of books, spreading literacy back to barren Europe.

The legends and deeds of Patrick complete the circle of Irish mythology and folklore as a serpent eating its tale. Patrick did not destroy the Druidic world, he brought it into modernity, into literacy. Stories of the faeries and leprechauns are really just morality tales, not unlike church parables — there are no lasting rewards in getting rich quick, and no good can come from forgetting to honor the powers that be, be it the little people in the hills or an omnipresent God. Patrick’s Christianity is tangentially pagan and inherently Irish.

In ancient symbolism, serpents represent fertility and rebirth. In that regard, Patrick did cast out snakes from Ireland — in the form of literacy and scholarship — out into the barren intellectual deserts of Europe to begin civilization’s great reawakening.

Without Patrick, there would be no Yeats to catalog the faery tales of the Irish peasantry. There would be no James Joyce, who carried on the nondiscriminatory tradition of the abbey monks, creating a canon made up of different languages and styles. There would be no record of western civilization — no civilization at all. 

Patrick should indeed be celebrated. Not for silly stories, but for his actual deeds — for lighting the solitary flame that kept at bay a very real and all-encompassing darkness. He did it because he had lived among the ancient Irish, shifting his shape to theirs, and theirs to his.

Patrick went into the mystic.


Enya — "Triad (St.Patrick-Cù Chulainn-Oisin)"