Islands of the Otherworld
Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales tales of Ireland
Mystical legends of strange lands, Islands of the Otherworld
Irish legends from time immemorial have a great deal to say about the land of the fairies, the home of the Tuatha De Danann, or the world of the Sidhe. There are those who claim it lies beneath fairy mounds or on the other side of deep caves where Druids once held tryst and shared magical secrets, while other tales tell of heroes and adventurers, even saints sailing far into the turbulent western ocean to find the Land of the Young, Tír na n'Óg.
This was a place of great beauty and eternal youth, none who set foot here would age a day, although they'd feel the full weight of their years if they ever returned to the mortal realm! It was a place where time passed differently, a year might be a day or a day a year, and strange creatures inhabited its rolling hills and forests.
By other names it was known as well - Tír Tairngire or the land of promise, so called by Saint Brendan, Tír faoi Thuinn, the land under the waves by its association with the Merrow fairy folk, Mag Mell, the plain of delight, or Ildathach, the multicoloured place.
Europeans called it Hy-Brasil, taking its name from Breasal, the Celtic High King of the World, and it was marked on many medieval maps such as those of Genoese cartographer Dalorto, often to the southwest of Galway bay, but otherwise off the west or south coast.
It was reputed only to make an appearance once every seven years, and even then only if you happened to be in the right place and at the right time. An expedition from Bristol in 1481 claimed to have landed there, and it was charted to be perfectly circular, with a semicircular channel through the middle of it.
Of great renown was the supposed visit to the island by one Captain John Nisbet of Killybegs, who after getting lost in a dense fog found himself hard upon a reef, so they anchored to get their bearings. Four of the crew rowed to a nearby island for a day and returned with silver and gold given to them by an old man who lived there.
Another old man is spoken of by Roderick O'Flaherty in 1872, who tells us how he claimed to live there for a while. As he recounts:
“There is now living, Morogh O’Ley, who imagines he was himself personally on O’Brasil for two days, and saw out of it the isles of Aran, Golamhead, Irrosbeghill, and other places of the west continent he was acquainted with.”
And in the town of Blackrock, overlooking Dundalk bay, a local version of a ancient song called Déalradh an Lae as penned by James Clarence Mangan, "The Dawning of the Day", is translated as follows:
'Twas a balmy summer morning
Warm and early,
Such as only June bestows;
Everywhere the earth adorning,
Dews lay pearly
In the lily-bell and rose.
Up from each green leafy bosk and hollow
Rose the blackbird's pleasant lay,
And the soft cuckoo was sure to follow.
'Twas the Dawning of the Day!
Through the perfumed air the golden
Bees flew round me:
Bright fish dazzled from the sea,
'Till medreamt some fairy olden
World-spell bound me
In a trance of witcherie.
Steeds pranced round anon with stateliest housings,
Bearing riders prankt in rich array,
Like flushed revellers after wine-carousings—
'Twas the Dawning of the Day!
Then a strain of song was chanted,
And the lightly
Floating sea-nymphs drew anear.
Then again the shore seemed haunted
By hosts brightly
Clad, and wielding shield and spear!
Then came battle-shouts—and onward rushing—
Swords and chariots, and a phantom fray.
Then all vanished; the warm skies were blushing
In the Dawning of the Day!
Cities girt with glorious gardens
Habitants in robes of light
Stood, methought, as angel-wardens
Nigh each portal,
Now arose to daze my sight.
Eden spread around, revived and blooming;
When . . . lo! as I gazed, all passed away—
. . . I saw but black rocks looming
In the dim chill Dawn of Day!
A note attached to the transcription says that "This song is founded on a tradition prevalent among the people in the vicinity, that an ancient city, with fine land adjoining it, are seen every seventh year by the fishermen off Blackrock shore near Dundalk. The bard, remembering the legends of Gerald Iarla in Mullach-Elim, and O'Neill in Aileach, considers the appearance a favourable sign for Ireland's liberation."
"It may have happened, time out of mind, that a city and land in this part of the Island were encroached on by the sea. A great causeway, built with huge mountain stones, has been traced from Dunany to Cooley Point, a distance of more than seven miles across the Bay of Dundalk... The old people used to tell many stories of the inhabitants of the enchanted city, and assert that some of their offspring still live at Blackrock."
And the tale grows stranger yet! For on July the 21st in 1866, a local newspaper, the Coleraine Chronicle had the following peculiar event to report:
“At eleven o'clock this forenoon, the grandest optical illusion that we ever witnessed appeared on the coast of Ennishowen between Greencastle and the Lighthouse at the north-east point of the peninsula.
When our attention was first drawn to it, the place where the Lighthouse stands was, as seen from Portstewart, occupied by a magnificent castle of gigantic proportions with two towers in the wings. In a few moments it was a villa of much humbler dimensions, surrounded by a lawn elegantly laid out and carriageways and footpaths clearly visible.
Then, in a few moments, another castle of still grander proportions with three towers appeared, distinctly visible along the coast of Greencastle, encircled as it seemed by a dense forest. Magilligan Strand seen from this point at ordinary times, is little better than a golden thread hemming in the dark blue waters but on this day, one end of it, next to Donegal, seemed to rise up and stand as a perpendicular cliff - a grand precipice, enclosing the sea on that side like a mighty wall.
In a few minutes all had changed. The precipice at Magilligan had faded away. The grand castle at the mouth of the Foyle had disappeared. Then the whole shore from Greencastle down to the Lighthouse seemed a continuous plantation, showing many openings, villas, stately mansions and, in one instance, a great square church tower, that was distinctly visible for upwards of thirty minutes...
...But through the thin, hazy atmosphere appeared the strange landscape, ever varying in its forms, which we have described. Cliffs and cottages, forests, castles, churches, all successively appeared and vanished and at last the vapor set down on the peninsula for the afternoon, all minor objects became lost to view and nothing appeared by the long dark barrier of the Donegal mountains standing between us and the west.”
At the other end of the country in County Cork, near to the little town of Ballycotton on July the 7th 1878, local people were amazed to see an island in the ocean that had not been there the day before. Sightseers gathered on the strand were able to see the new island quite plainly and were able to make out its coastline, woodlands, fields, and deep valleys.
Several fishermen took to their boats and sailed out to investigate, but it winked out of existence before their very eyes! Notable academics of the time dismissed these events as optical illusions, but you know, it seems odd that there have been no such wondrous apparitions since. A trick of the light or a glimpse into the islands of the Otherworld?
Ballycotton can be found on the map below if you fancy your chances of catching a glimpse of the strange vanishing islands.
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Times were hard in Ireland back years ago, and while some might say they've had it tough today, it was not a patch on the hardships people endured in times gone by. And so it was with Michael McGovern, a poor farmer with hardly an acre of stony soil to rent, who looked upon his three young sons with love for the life of them and fear for their ... [more]
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A woman was out one day looking after her sheep in the valley, and coming by a little stream she sat down to rest, when suddenly she seemed to hear the sound of low music, and turning round, beheld at some distance a crowd of people dancing and making merry. And she grew afraid and turned her head away not to see them. Then close by her stood a you ... [more]
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Connla of the Fiery Hair was one of the sons of Conn of the Hundred Battles, and his favourite son, a swift and agile warrior with a voice that could make the mountains tremble. Himself and his father climbed the heights of Usna on Samhain, when he saw coming towards them a slender maiden of great beauty, clad in strange clothes. “Where do ... [more]
Strange are the ways of the Fairies of Ireland, and strange the look about them, but for all their wild and untamed manner they follow rules written in the ripples of willow-branches on still ponds, and laws murmured by the echo of birdsong in deep wells. Once there was a woman sitting in her cottage, a humble enough abode, and she was making wo ... [more]
There are many types of fairy in Ireland, some more risky than others, and some to be avoided due to their habits rather than out of any particular malevolence. Such a one is the Gan Ceanach, whose name means “Without Love”. Although you might think such a title would indicate a friendless creature of a lonely nature lacking in socia ... [more]
There are a great many raths or fairy forts of old scattered throughout Ireland today, numbering in the tens of thousands, and it is here, the wise say, that the good people or fairy folk gather to hold their revels. Nobody would dare to cross, let alone build on a fairy dwelling in the past, marking as they did the boundary between our civilise ... [more]
Near to the town of Fermoy in Ireland lies the great stack of Cairn Thierna, not as wide about nor as tall as some mountains perhaps but feared and respected by the local people nonetheless. For all around it and along its flanks are tall heaps of stones they say are the work of the fairy folk, or the old people who lived here long ago. And you ... [more]
On the road going down to Cork there's an old set of four walls that used to once be called Ronayne's Court. Although there's little enough to see of it nowadays still the stack of the chimneys stands proud, and on it can be seen the coat of arms of the family that built it and used to live there. They were a fine couple and had one ... [more]
It was known in times past in Ireland that there were men and women who could talk to the fairies, ask favours from them, and even live among them, and some used this acquaintance to work their will on the world, for good or for ill. Most famous, perhaps, among these people were the fairy healers of old. Biddy Early is the best known of their ki ... [more]
James Mac Neill was as strapping a young fellow as you could hope to meet, and likely with it. Never did he walk away from a tussle or a drink, and never far from his hand was his shillelagh. He had no fears save the lacking of a pint, no cares except for who would pay for it, and not a thought in his head but how to have fun after it. One cold ... [more]
Maurice Mulreaney was well known for travelling about the countryside without fear of anything living or otherwise, as quick to cross a graveyard or fairy mound as you or I would be to cross the street, for he didn't believe in that which he couldn't see with his own two eyes or touch with his own two hands, and he didn't bother with ol ... [more]
It wasn't a bad life for Fergus O'Hara in Owenmore, for all that himself and his wife Rose had little, the little they had was enough for them. Some goats, pigs and poultry ranged far and wide about their few acres, and a field of oats and potatoes kept them busy for the harvest and brought in a few pennies. It so happened that there lay ... [more]
In many cultures those that used to be called insane held a special place of reverence, and were treated almost as envoys from another place, or as though they could see something nobody else could, or were dancing to music only they could hear and the rest of us were deaf to. From far-off India and China to more familiar shores people would doff t ... [more]
The children of De Danann once ruled the island of Ireland, before they departed back to their own lands in the farthest west or went below the earth in their fairy mounds to dance and sing forevermore, but if you're lucky – or unlucky! – you might still come across them in the wild places and those deep forests yet untouched. An ... [more]
Some of the Sidhe in times of old would take a fondness for one particular family, protecting it and helping it rise in the world, and so it was with the O'Briens, who were known as the Dál gCais, or the Dalcassians. Their fairy guardian was called Aoibhell, whose name means burning ardour or beauty, depending on who you ask. She had ... [more]
Irish legends from time immemorial have a great deal to say about the land of the fairies, the home of the Tuatha De Danann, or the world of the Sidhe. There are those who claim it lies beneath fairy mounds or on the other side of deep caves where Druids once held tryst and shared magical secrets, while other tales tell of heroes and adventurers, e ... [more]
While most people nowadays believe fairies to be gentle creatures, prone to mischief perhaps and capricious by their natures yet well intended for all that, in Ireland they have a more sinister reputation. Some say, and some still believe, that the fairies will take small children and young people, leaving in their place creatures known as changeli ... [more]
It's well known among those who know of such things that fairies love to dance more than anything else, and they take it ill should anything interfere with their merriment. And if someone wanted to spoil a dance, they could come up with few better ways of doing so than to send a herd of cattle wandering through! The hill atop Knockshegowna w ... [more]
The cheerful Leprechaun is about as well known an emblem of Ireland as you could want, but what truth lies behind the stories? Well the truth is nobody really knows the truth, for leprechauns are are a cagey bunch at the best of times, not prone to gossip or holding forth on the important events of the day or the local hurling results, even after a ... [more]
After the Tuatha De Dannan were defeated in battle by the great race of Milesians, who held sway in Ireland long after, some of the Tuatha decided to leave and go elsewhere while some chose to stay in Ireland. Those that stayed agreed that they must live beneath the earth, and they were led by a great King in the west, Finnbhear son of Dagda, who i ... [more]
The Pooka or Puca is one of the most ancient fairy creatures of Ireland, and is known further abroad as well, called Puck or Pook. In some places he is feared and in others respected. He can take many shapes, most commonly that of a wild horse wrapped in chains with sulfurous or blazing crimson eyes - the night mare - a huge dog, a raging bull, a h ... [more]
Old Jack Doherty was a kindly and good natured sort of fellow, as well he might be for he had chosen to live in a strange and desolate part of the country, by a coast of jagged rocks and sucking tides. And why might that be cause for merriment, you may ask? Well, it was many's the night and many's the storm that blew an unfortunate ship too ... [more]
Some might wonder, who or what are the fairy folk? There are stories upon stories of them and their doings in many places, but most of all in Ireland, where it was said they lived longest and if they still walk the earth, where they can yet be found! The country folk claim they are fallen angels lacking the merit to stay in heaven while being kindl ... [more]