The gift of the gabby potato and other Irish legends
Did St Patrick really drive the snakes out of Ireland? Have you ever met a nice pooka? Have you seen the second Celtic Tiger? Here are 10 of Ireland’s (so-called) myths
Illustration by Gerard Crowley, from the True(ish) History of Ireland by Garvan Grant
Every year when St Patrick’s Day rolls around, someone always takes great pleasure in rolling out that old schoolboy joke: What did St Patrick say as he was driving the snakes out of Ireland?
“Are yis all right in the back there, lads?”
The image of our national saint driving a truck full of chattering snakes to the airport for immediate deportation is a hard one to shake.
However, one must not forget that St Patrick didn’t just get rid of all the snakes. He also converted the fun-loving Irish to Christianity, invented the potato and wrote the lyrics to our national anthem, You’ll Never Beat the Irish.
And while people all over the world will be celebrating Paddy’s Day tomorrow by having one drink too many and kissing anyone wearing a “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” T-shirt, you can be sure it will be a quieter affair for the world’s snakes, many of whom still refer to March 17th as the St Patrick’s Day Massacre.
Snakes are also believed to be quite unhappy with how they are portrayed in a new Hollywood film called The Snakequaliser, which will probably star Russell Crowe as St Patrick. It follows on from the success of Bible-based action thrillers such as Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Of course, snakes are still quite sore about the whole Genesis thing anyway, but you may also remember from your school days that they were just one of many groups terrorising the people of Ireland in the fifth century. There were also dinosaurs, tarantulas, midges, Vikings, penguins and a rare and rather aggressive strain of asparagus.
But once Patrick arrived in Ireland there was a new sheriff in town, and snakes were top of his hit list. A document we discovered while doing research for The True(ish) History of Ireland reveals St Patrick’s to-do list for his mission to Ireland:
1. Explain the Holy Trinity using local plant life.
2. Convert the unclean Irish into godly Christians.
3. Remind them about the evils of booze.
4. Organise a parade in every town and village.
5. Drive the snakes to the airport (or into the sea).
6. Head back to Rome where it’s nice and warm.
Of course, so-called scientists will tell you that this “driving the snakes out” thing never happened. They will say there were none here to begin with, as it was an island and snakes are notoriously poor swimmers.
But then those kinds of people probably have issues with lots of the myths and legends we Irish hold dear. So, in honour of St Patrick and his snake-ridding talents, here are 10 other myths that may yet be proved to be true. Ish.
Someone famous, such as Oscar Wilde or Madonna, once said: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” This could be equally applied to those slippery little chaps we call leprechauns.
As everyone knows, they are notorious liars and invisible, which makes it hard to prove they exist. Even if you meet one in your local German discount supermarket and ask him if he’s really there, you simply will not be able to believe his answer.
All we know for sure is that they drink too much, talk too much and wear way too much green, particularly around this time of year.
The Blackish Creature of Lough Corrib
Believed to be a second cousin once removed of the Loch Ness Monster, the Blackish Creature of Lough Corrib has been terrifying people in the west of Ireland for years.
However, unlike the Loch Ness Monster, “Blackie” – as she is known to her friends – is perhaps even more scary, as she has never actually been seen. This has led some people to believe she may be invisible, good at camouflage or, at a stretch, made up.
However, some dinosaurologists also believe she may actually be descended from a group of dinosaurs that visited Ireland on a two-week package holiday a few million years ago.
When we think of fairies, many of us imagine cute, little Tinkerbell types singing and dancing around the bottom of the garden, sprinkling fairy dust everywhere. However, a lot of Irish fairies aren’t like that at all. Apparently, many are vicious and mean and don’t like dancing, singing or being called Tinkerbell.
In fact, they are said to be more like the elves in The Lord of the Rings (left), but with bad hangovers and nicer ears.
Banshees are a good example of fairies who have let themselves go. They generally take the form of old hags, although sometimes they can look like beautiful, young women, which can lead to all sorts of sticky situations.
It is also said that if you hear a banshee wailing, there’s a good chance you might be dying – or, worse, already dead.
Interestingly, banshee wailing was outlawed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2006. However, as banshees think of themselves as above the law, they have completely ignored this.
The pooka has the cutest name of any fairy or ethereal Irish creature, apart from Blackie (see above) and Enya, but do not let that fool you.
The pooka is one of the moodiest of all mythological characters and flits between being quite nice to being more evil than necrotising fasciitis.
The other tricky thing about pookas is that they are excellent shape-changers, which means they can take the appearance of horses, cats, motorbike couriers or cans of Lilt, a tropical soft drink from the 1980s.
Fionn mac Cumhaill
Fionn is probably the most legendary of all Irish legends, except perhaps for Cúchulainn, Charlie Haughey and the batter burger. Fionn was a warrior and leader of Fianna Fáil, although before they decided to enter politics.
The most famous story from Fionn’s life concerns a fish, as these things so often do. This was a really smart fish that who talk and do long division, although his attempts at walking were pretty futile. The druid and poet Gandalf, who was teaching Fionn about fighting and how to meet girls, gave him this “smart fish” to cook. The latter tasted some, became really intelligent and invented the smartfishphone. And the rest is history. Ish.
The Talking Potato of Lisganagh
The Talking Potato of Lisganagh (right) is still probably Ireland’s most famous talking vegetable apart perhaps from the Chatty Turnip of Tullystown.
The Lisganagh tuber became famous for predicting all sorts of things, such as rain, the winner of the 2022 Grand National and the start date of the first World War, although he didn’t do that until 1917.
Discredited in recent years after an affair with the Rather Attractive Carrot of Coolabeeny, the Talking Potato is now rarely seen in public.
He is currently believed to be working on his autobiography, which has the rather cheesy title of When the Chips Are Down.
Another legendary figure who definitely might have existed was Oisín, son of Fionn. He was a warrior and a poet, which unfortunately is such a rare combination these days.
Originally married to a deer (don’t ask), he later fell for a foreign girl called Niamh (again, don’t ask).
She took him to a cool-sounding place called Land Where Only Young People Live – or New York as it’s called today.
Oisín loved it there, although he did remember to send back money to his mum nearly every week.
Eventually he returned to Ireland, but as soon as he stepped off the plane he felt really old.
He then applied for a junior civil servant position in the Department of Finance, retiring from there at the age of 335 in 1822.
The Everlasting Pint of Ardnablona
While many say it’s a myth, it can now be confirmed that the Everlasting Pint of Ardnablona (above) exists and is living in a cave in east Galway. No matter how many times you drain the glass, it fills back up again with the sweetest stout you have ever tasted.
It is now a major tourist attraction, although locals also try to make it out there whenever they have a spare moment.
Be warned, though, that the queue hasn’t been shorter than four kilometres since the War of Independence, and on St Patrick’s Day it has been known to stretch from Ardnablona to South Africa.
The Celtic Tiger
In the world-famous and highly inaccurate Prophecies of Sweeney, written in the second century, Sweeney predicts: “A giant striped beast shall stalk the green land / And it shall be a beast of much abundance / And its abundance shall be never-ending.”
And so, rather predictably, along came the Celtic Tiger.
It brought success and wealth to the Irish as never before, and, most importantly it wasn’t a myth but a long-term, sustainable, never-ending economic miracle.
Which, on a particularly dark, wet and rainy day in 2008, ended.
However in early 2015, another similar tiger-like beast appeared on the horizon, but the Irish weren’t to be fooled twice.
They immediately named the new one Tiger Two, so no one would ever mix it up with Tiger One.
The True(ish) History of Ireland by Garvan Grant, published by Mercier Press, is in shops now, €7.99