Emerald Isle

The Great Wyrms of Ireland

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales from Irish Gods and Monsters

Dragons of old, na péisteanna

The dragons of Ireland were not like the dragons of other places, since they did not have wings or often even claws, and only rarely did they breathe fire, if at all! The were called the Ollphéisteanna, which means “great worms” or “mighty reptiles”, the terrible serpents of the world that was.

The greatest among them was called Caoránach, and some stories tell she was defeated by Fionn Mac Cumhaill, while others insist it was Saint Patrick that put an end to her. Not only was she the mother of all of the great worms of Ireland, but she was said to be the mother of all demons too!

Fionn and the Fianna heard of an old witch who was terrorising the lands around what we call Donegal today, so they felled her with an enchanted arrow. One thing only were they warned against – they must not under any circumstances break her thigh bone, whether she was alive or dead.

Naturally enough of course that's exactly what Conán, one of the Fianna, did, and forth from the crack crawled a small and hairy worm, which quickly grew into a mighty monster which ate all the cattle of Ireland. As it was Conán's fault he was blamed and insulted for this creature's existence, so in a fury he leapt into its mouth and slew it from within, staining the rocks around Lough Dearg red  and giving the lake its name.

Other stories yet tell that she was not slain at all, but dwells still in the depths of Lough Dearg.

One of the old great serpents is said to haunt Sligo's Church Island. It was named after a church built there in the sixth century by Lommán of Trim and replaced in the medieval period. That lasted until 1416 when a massive conflagration, apparently accidental, consumed the church and destroyed many manuscripts, a book known as the Leabhar Gearr and multiple other documents including foreign manuscripts. According to the Annals of the Four Masters, a legendary harp and ornamental cup were also destroyed.

Whether it was the possessions of those who lived on the island or other church artifacts is unknown, but Church Island was also reputedly the source of hidden treasure.

And in case anyone wishes to seek it out, beware that legend has it that it is “guarded by a serpent which lies beneath the large stone which covers the crock of gold”. The legend states that a life must be lost before the treasure can be recovered.

A newspaper report gave its view that it “would seem a simple island to search from end to end and as a matter of fact this has been attempted, but an unforeseen ‘something’ invariably occurred and stopped the work. One such event in the early 20th century saw two botanists in search of rare mosses and ferns on the island when a thunderstorm broke and they fled the island, “their lifeless bodies were found the next day”.

On top of a hill in townland of Garrycummer is a tarn called Lough Thuile, with no outlet, and in whose waters strange lights dance when a death is about to occur nearby. An attempt was made to drain it hundreds of years ago, but mysteriously all the houses in the valley below caught fire at the same time! It was said to be the doing of the wyrm of the lake, a huge eel which appears there occasionally. It was said that no man could swim it for fear the monster would suck him down as he crossed the middle. There are many plover, wild duck and wild geese but the lake contains no fish of any kind.

There is similar folklore about the draining of Lough Muskry in the Glen of Aherlow, when they tried to drain it, their houses ended up on fire back at home. Related tales are told of Lough Muskry - there is a story of a lake monster.

Péisteanna would sleep or lie in wait at the bottom of lakes and rivers, or sometimes in the deep underground caverns and crevices which lie beneath many parts of Ireland. They were also known to inhabit marshy or swampy areas, and were mingled with the idea of disease and rot. Péists were particularly associated with the old Fomors and their sorcery, and it was against their wyrm-magic that the Tuatha De Danann strove when freeing Ireland from their gnarled grasp.

The blood of the worm was much feared as toxic and poisonous, as the great healer the Tuatha Dian Cécht demonstrated when disposing of three that had grown in an infant's breast – they were burned to ashes and the ashes were cast into a river, whose waters turned black and still, and every living thing in it died.

The medieval Irish book Acallam na Senórach tells how the ancient hero Caeilte taught the deeds of the Fianna to Saint Patrick. Once upon a time, he said, it was their job to rid the land of these serpents, but there were some they would not touch.

Eochaid Lethderg, King of Leinster, enquired of Caeilte:

“What cause had Fionn and the Fianna that, out of every other monster ye banished out of Ireland, they killed not the reptile we have in the glen of Ros Enaigh?”

Caeilte replied:

“Their reason was that the creature is the fourth part of Mesgedra‘s brain, which the earth swallowed there and converted into a monstrous worm.”

Mesegdra was an earlier Irish king who had been killed in battle by Conall Cernach, and his brain had been scooped from his head, shaped into a sling stone and soaked in lime to preserve it as a trophy, a common practise at the time. The brain-ball was stolen and used to severely injure and eventually kill King Conchobar mac Nessa of the Northlands, and the worm was part of a blood feud the Fianna had no wish to re-ignite.

While the presence of serpentine motifs can be found in much pre-Christian art in Ireland, they truly became part of popular Irish culture with the coming of Christianity, for the Saints, priests and monks were reputed to have had many battles with these fierce creatures!

They became identified with the old pagan ways and were held responsible for the formation of many lakes and rivers in their death throes, or when they tried to make good their escape, as happened when Saint Patrick approached the Shannon. A mighty oilliphéist heard he was coming, and carved out the course of the river Shannon as it slid towards the Atlantic.

Ploughing through countries can be hungry work though, and some say the creature ate a drunken piper on his way. Being too drunk to notice, the piper kept playing until the oilliphéist spat him out in annoyance before it slid into the depths of the ocean.

And there are some who say that the péisteanna still live in Ireland's deepest lakes and oldest bogs! In October of 1871 the story of an encounter was published in the local newspapers in County Clare:

"A party of strangers staying at Kilkee, composed of several ladies and some gentlemen - one of whom is a well-known clergyman in the north of Ireland were out for a walk at a place known as the Diamond Rocks.

All of a sudden, their attention was arrested by the appearance of an extraordinary monster, who rose from the surface of the water about seventy yards from the place where they were standing.

It had an enormous head, shaped somewhat like a horse, while behind the head and on the neck was a huge mane of seaweed-looking water; the eyes were large and glaring, and, by the appearance of the water behind, a vast body seemed to be beneath the waves."

As recently as 2003, sonar scans of the lake of the Torc in Kerry, also known as Muckross lake, found something very odd – a fish the size of a two storey building! It may be no coincidence then that one of the tallest mountains nearby is called Cnoc na Péiste, or the “Peak of the Serpent.”

Lough Dearg is marked on the map below!

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