Norse mythology has Mjölnir, the magical, skull-smashing hammer of Thor. English mythology boasts Excalibur, the sword that granted King Arthur “supreme executive power” after some “watery tart” threw it at him (source: Monty Python).
But what about Irish mythology?
Rarely do the mythical weapons of Ireland appear in popular culture. But as you’ll soon discover, that’s not because its arsenal is lacking.
Irish mythology, the most well-preserved form of Celtic mythology, is brimming with swords, spears, shields, and other weapons that have served Irish gods and heroes both well (and not so well) on the battlefield.
Some of these weapons are instilled with magical properties, some are sentient and seem to have lives of their own, and still others earned their legendary status based solely on the power and prowess of their wielders. All have earned their place in one of Western Europe’s most vibrant mythologies.
The following is a comprehensive list of the most famous weapons of Irish mythology, organized by type.
Swords From Irish Mythology
1. Caladcholg (Hard Dinter)
Also given as Caladbolg (Hard Blade), this was the sword of Fergus mac Roth (a.k.a. mac Róich), former king of Ulster who gave up his throne to Conchobhar mac Nessa. During the Táin bó Cuailnge (Cattle Raid of Cooley), the longest story in Irish mythology’s Ulster Cycle, Fergus mac Roth famously uses Caladcholg to level the three bald-topped hills of Meath with three strokes of his blade. While not all mythologists agree, it’s possible that Excalibur (Welsh: Caledfwlch), legendary sword of Britain’s King Arthur, was inspired by stories of Fergus mac Roth’s sword, as Excalibur is a latin corruption of Caladcholg.
2. Cliamh Solais (The Sword of Light)
Cliamh Solais (also: Cliamh Soluis) was the sword of Nuada of the Silver Hand, the first ruler of the Tuatha Dé Danann who lost his hand in the first Battle of Magh Tuireadh. One of the Four Treasures (or Jewels) of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Cliamh Solais was sometimes described as Nuadu’s Cainnel (a glowing bright torch). Once unsheathed, no enemy could resist it—or escape from it. Cliamh Solais is the first in a long folkloric tradition of glowing swords, which includes Cruaidín Catutchenn (see below).
3. Cruaidín Catutchenn (The Hard-Headed Steeling)
While it’s also known as Socht’s sword, Cruaidín Catutchenn most famously belonged to the Ulster hero Cúchulainn, the Hound of Culann. At night, the sword was said to shine like a candle. Imbued with magical properties, Cruaidín Catutchenn could cut a hair off a man’s head without touching his flesh and more impressively (and disturbingly) could cut a man in half without either half knowing what had befallen the other. The sword is occasionally confused with Caladcholg (see above) because its name has the same root, crúaid (hard). Cruaidín is the diminutive form.
4. Fragarach (The Answerer)
Also given as Freagarthach, “The Answerer” was the sword of the sea-god Manannán mac Lir. Brought by the sun god Lugh from Tír na mBeo (the Land of Living), the sword could pierce any armor and every wound it made was mortal. Later, Fragarach became one of the magical items found within the Treasure Bag of the Fianna, also known as the Crane Bag. The items inside could only be removed at high tide, otherwise the bag remained empty. (FYI: This sword is featured prominently in the modern Celtic fantasy short story “Fragarach” by R. J. Howell, part of the Neon Druid collection.)
5a. Fraoch Mór (Great Fury)
5b. Fraoch Beag (Little Fury)
In addition to Fragarach (see above), Manannán mac Lir carried two swords that were both called Fraoch (Fury): Fraoch Mór (Great Fury) and Fraoch Beag (Little Fury)—although it’s likely that Little Fury was actually a dirk, or short dagger. These weapons reappeared in later legends, passed down from Manannán mac Lir to the love god Aengus Óg (a.k.a. Aonghus) and from Aengus Óg to Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, warrior of the Fianna, best-known for his role in the Fenian Cycle tale The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne. In these later legends the swords have slightly different names but their meanings remain the same: Moralltach (Great Fury) and Beagalltach (Little Fury).
6. Gorm Glas (Blue Green)
Gorm Glas was the sword of the Ulster king Conchobhar mac Nessa, which he used in combination with his enchanted shield Ochain (see below). He loaned the sword to his son, Fiachra (a.k.a. Fiacra), so that he might go “do bravery and great deeds.” The results were mixed. While Fiachra, Gorm Glas in hand, bravely led the attack on the Red Branch Hostel, he was bested in combat by Iollan, son of Fergus mac Roth (owner of Caladcholg, see above) and was ultimately killed by the Red Branch warrior Conall Cearnach, who famously made the “brain-ball” that would kill Fiachra’s father Conchobhar (see below).
7. Mac An Lúin (Son of the Spear)
Mac An Lúin was the sword of famed Fenian Cycle hero Fionn mac Cumhaill (anglicized as Finn McCool / MacCool). It was said that the sword never had to cut twice, for it killed with every stroke, and Fionn only used it in times of greatest danger. While the sword’s name perhaps suggests a relation to the enchanted spear Lúin Celtchair (see below), Scottish poet James Macpherson presented an alternative origin and name for the sword: “Son of Luno.” Luno was a smith of Lochlin, whom Fionn (Fingal in Scottish mythology) chased across the waves for ten days before catching him at the Isle of Skye and forcing him to make the sword. For this reason, Mac An Lúin is also sometimes called “Son of Waves.”
8. Orna (Little Pale Green)
The sword of the Fomorri king Tethra, Orna could speak and recount its deeds when unsheathed. After Tethra’s defeat at the second Battle of Magh Tuireadh, Orna was picked up by Ogma, god of eloquence, and the sword proceeded to recount everything it had done while in the hands of its previous owner. Tethra, for his part, went on to rule the Otherworld realm Magh Mell (Plain of Happiness).
9. Díoltach (Retaliator)
Along with Fragarach and Fraoch Mór (see both above), Díoltach was one of the three main swords of the sea-god Manannán mac Lir. It was said that Díoltach (Retaliator) never failed to slay. Manannán mac Lir gave the sword to Naoise, a champion of the Red Branch, and in one version of events a rival champion (Eoghain mac Durthacht) took the sword from Naoise and killed him with it at the behest of Conchobhar mac Nessa. In another version of events, Naoise and his two brothers were captured and were to be executed. Since none of the brothers wanted to see the others slain, Naoise offered Díoltach to their executioner, a Norse prince named Maine, who slew all three brothers with one stroke.
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Spears From Irish Mythology
10. Birgha (Spit-Spear)
Also known as the Spear of Fiacha (or Fiacail), Birgha was an enchanted, venomous spear. The warrior Fiacha, a follower of Cumal (a leader of the Fianna), gave the spear to Cumal’s son Fionn mac Cumhail so that he might defeat Aillén, an evil creature from the Otherworld who wreaked havoc on the royal residence of Tara each year (at the feast of Samhain) after lulling its defenders to sleep with enchanted music. In one version of events, Fiacha teaches Fionn how to unlock the power of spear. In another, he gives the spear to Fionn precisely because he does not know how to use it himself. Either way, the story ends with Fionn holding Birgha to his forehead and inhaling its fumes, making him immune to Aillén’s music and allowing him to kill the creature with the spear.
11. Cletiné (Little Spear)
Cletiné was one of Cúchulainn’s many spears, which he used to slay many warriors. Medbh (anglicized as Maeve), queen of Connacht, coveted the spear and sent a bard to request the spear from Cúchulainn on the grounds that one must never refuse a gift requested by a poet. The request angered Cúchulainn so much that instead of handing Cletiné over to the bard, he flung it, piercing the bard’s head (whoopsie). The force of the impact broke the spear’s bronze (umal), which fell into a nearby stream, giving the stream its name: Uman-sruth, or the Bronze Stream.
12. Del Chliss (Charioteer’s Goad)
Originally del chliss referred to a split piece of wood and later became the name for a charioteer’s goad or spur, i.e. a pointed piece of wood used for driving horses. The capitalized Del Chliss refers to a spear used by Cúchulainn, who often fought from his chariot. In his very first battle, Cúchulainn famously used the spear to slew the three supernatural sons of Nechtan Scéne, who had boasted of killing more men of Ulster than any other living beings. Cúchulainn rode away from their fortress with their three severed heads hanging from his chariot.
13. Gae Assail (Spear of Assal)
Also known as the Lightning Spear, or simply Lugh’s Spear, the Gae Assail was one of the Four Treasures or Jewels of the Tuatha Dé Danann (the sword Cliamh Solais was another, see above). No battle was ever one against a warrior or army who wielded the spear. The sun-god Lugh, also known as Lugh Lamhfada (“of the long arm” or “of the long throw”) famously used the spear in the second Battle of Magh Tuireadh. An enchanted weapon, the Gae Assail never missed its mark, and always returned to its thrower (similar to how Mjölnir returns to Thor in Norse mythology).
14. Gae-Bolg (Belly-Spear)
The most famous of Cúchulainn’s spears, Gáe-Bolg (also, Gáe Bulg) originally belonged to the female warrior Scáthach, champion of Alba (Scotland), who ran a military academy on Scáthach’s Island (thought to be the Isle of Skye). During Cúchulainn’s training on the island, Scáthach taught him how to throw the spear with one foot and later gifted it to him. Also known as the Terrible Spear, the Gae-Bolg made one wound when entering the body of an enemy, but once inside, thirty barbs popped open, inflicting gruesome damage. Cúchulainn used the spear to kill (amongst others) Loc Mac Mofebis, a champion of Medb; Ferdia, who trained with Cúchulainn under Scáthach; and even his own son, Conlaí.
15. Gae-Ruadh (Red Javelin)
Gae-Ruadh was a spear that originally belonged to Manannán mac Lir. It was notable for having two prongs, or two points. As was the case with Fraoch Mór, one of Manannán mac Lir’s swords (see above), Gae-Ruadh—the Red Javelin or Red Spear—showed up in later legends in the hands of Diarmuid Ua Duibhne, who inherited it from the love-god Aengus Óg. Once again, there is a slight name change, but the meaning remains the same: Gáe Dearg (Red Spear). In some tellings, Diarmuid also possessed a yellow spear (Gáe Buide), which originally belonged to Manannán mac Lir.
16. Lúin Celtchair (Spear of Celtchair)
Often given simply as Lúin, this enchanted, venomous spear was discovered on the battlefield after the second Battle of Magh Tuireadh and had once belonged to the Tuatha Dé Danann. Celtchair, a Red Branch warrior, claimed the spear and used it to rid Ireland of three scourges. Upon tasting the blood of an enemy, Lúin writhed in the hands of its owner, and if no blood was tasted, the spear had to be quenched in a cauldron of venom, lest it turn on its owner and burst into flame. Celtchair ultimately died from Lúin’s venom after accidentally letting a drop of blood from a slain enemy drip from the spear onto his flesh.
Shields From Irish Mythology
17. Derg-Druimnech (Red-Backed)
Derg-Druimnech was the shield of Domhnall Breac, king of the Dál Riada (a.k.a. Riata) of Alba. During the battle of Moira, which was said to have occurred in 637 CE, the Ulster hero Conall Cearnach cast a spear at Domhnall. Three warriors placed their shields in front of their king to protect him, but Conall’s spear went through all three shields, through all three warriors, and managed to pierce Derg-Druimnech and wound Domhnall. Despite this, however, Domhnall won the battle.
18. Ochain (Moaner)
Also given as Acéin and sometimes referred to as the “Ear of Beauty,” this enchanted shield belonging to Conchobhar mac Nessa moaned a warning whenever its bearer was in danger. The three chief waves of Ireland—Tuaithe, Cliodhna, and Rudraidhe—would roar in response to its wails. Along with his sword Gorm Glas (see above), Conchobhar lent the shield to his son Fiachra, who led the attack on the Red Branch Hostel. After Fiachra was bested in combat by Iollan, Ochain moaned a warning, bringing Conall Cearnach to Fiachra’s (temporary) rescue.
Staffs and Slingshots From Irish Mythology
19. Crann-Tabuáll (Staff Sling) & Caer-Clis (Feat Ball)
A favorite weapon of Irish heroes, the staff sling consisted of a long staff with a short sling at one end for hurling projectiles. While the staff slings themselves did not usually have any special significance, the projectiles or “sling shots” often did. A slingshot ball made for a specific purpose was called caer-clis (“feat ball”) or uball-clis (“feat apple”). Lugh used such a ball, called the Tathlum, to kill Balor of the Evil Eye, a Fomorri god of death. The Tathlum was made by mixing the blood of toads, bears, and vipers with sea-sand and letting it harden. Another type of caer-clis was a liathróid inchinne, or brain-ball, which was made from the brains of an enemy and hardened with lime. The most famous brain-ball was made by Conall Cernach from the brain of the Leinster king Mesgegra. This brain-ball was stolen by the Connacht warrior Cet mac Mágach and used to kill Conchobar mac Nessa.
20. Lorg Mór (The Great Staff)
Lorg Mór, also known as Lorg Anfaid (The Staff of Wrath), was the weapon of choice of The Dagda, the father of the gods. It has been described as a gigantic magic club, so large that The Dagda dragged it around on wheels. The head of the staff had the power to slay nine enemies in a single blow, while the handle of the staff could revive those slain with a single touch.
Thanks for reading! Let me know if there are any other legendary weapons from Irish and Celtic mythology that I might have missed.
Further Reading (and Wielding)
From the Armory
From the Bookshelf
- The Music of His Sword: Martial Arts of the Pagan Celts by Christopher Scott Thompson
- Irish Swordsmanship: Fencing and Dueling in Eighteenth Century Ireland by Ben Miller
- Fighting Irish: The Art of Irish Stick-Fighting (Shillelagh Book 3) by John W. Hurley
- Armies of Celtic Europe, 700 BC–AD 106: History, Organization & Equipment (Armies of the Past) by Gabriele Esposito
- Scottish Fencing: Five 18th Century Texts on the Use of the Small-sword, Broadsword, Spadroon, Cavalry Sword, and Highland Battlefield Tactics by Ben Miller