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Fairies, leprechauns, banshees, giants—you’d be forgiven for thinking that these supernatural beings were central to Irish mythology.
While the above creatures loom large (and small) in popular culture, the reality is that the mythical gods and heroes of the ancient Irish, as they were originally imagined, looked a lot like regular people. Maybe just a bit taller. And stronger. According to historian Peter Berresford Ellis, “They are somewhat reminiscent of the description of the ancient Celts which survive in the writing of Greeks and Romans.” (source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology)
So, where did these fickle fairies and lurking leprechauns and shrieking banshees and lumbering giants come from? One word: folklorization.
As the myths and legends of the ancient Irish were passed down and retold and discombobulated and reconfigured, much of the original symbology was stripped away, and we were left with folktales and fairytales. To quote famed Irish poet W. B. Yeats:
“When the pagan gods of Ireland–the Tuath-De-Danān–robbed of worship and offerings, grew smaller and smaller in the popular imagination, until they turned into the fairies, the pagan heroes grew bigger and bigger, until they turned into the giants.”source: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry
While there’s no doubt that many Irish folktales and fairytales are directly descended from Irish myths, these more recent stories form a distinct storytelling tradition, one that is of equal cultural value. And that’s why I felt it was important to put together this list of the best books of Irish folklore and fairytales.
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The Top 12 Irish Folklore and Fairytale Books
by multiple authors
Per the publisher: “These lrish tales all are reprinted from nineteenth-century sources, but they date back to a centuries-old oral tradition of storytelling that had yet to be committed to the printed page. They were passed down through the ages virtually unaltered and feature a wide variety of fantastic beings. This edition has an exquisitely designed bonded-leather binding, with distinctive gilt edging and a silk-ribbon bookmark.” Learn more…
by W. B. Yeats
Per the publisher: “Combines two books of Irish folklore collected and edited by William Butler Yeats — Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, first published in 1888, and Irish Fairy Tales, published in 1892. In this delightful gathering of legend and song, the familiar characters of Irish myth come to life: the mercurial trooping fairies; the solitary and industrious Lepracaun and his dissipated cousin, the Cluricaun; the fearsome Pooka, who has ‘grown monstrous with much solitude’; and the Banshee, whose eerie wailing warns of death.” Learn more…
3. A Treasury of Irish Folklore: The Stories, Traditions, Legends, Humor, Wisdom, Ballads and Songs of the Irish People
by Padraic Colum
This six-hundred-page grand behemoth of a book serves as both an introductory guide and constant companion to those readers seeking to immerse themselves in authentic Irish folk tales, ballads, poems, and other literary works from the days of old. Originally published in 1944, this tome is the passion project of famed Irish author, poet, and folklorist Padraic Colum, who was a leading figure of the the Irish Literary Revival. Colum generously includes footnotes alongside each entry, citing where it was sourced from. Learn more…
by Henry Glassie
Per the publisher: “125 magnificent folktales collected from anthologies and journals published from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day. Beginning with tales of the ancient times and continuing through the arrival of the saints in Ireland in the fifth century, the periods of war and family, the Literary Revival championed by William Butler Yeats, and the contemporary era, these robust and funny, sorrowful and heroic stories of kings, ghosts, fairies, treasures, enchanted nature, and witchcraft are set in cities, villages, fields, and forests from the wild western coast to the modern streets of Dublin and Belfast.” Learn more…
by Una Leavy, illustrated by Susan Field
Per the publisher: “Irish fairy tales and legends are full of enchantment, brave deeds and lost loves. Told from generation to generation, they are as fascinating now as they were to their original listeners. This wonderfully rich and varied collection are ten of the best-loved traditional Irish stories, retold by author and poet Una Leavy. The Post of Gold captures the trickery and mischief of leprechauns; the story of Oisin in Tír na n-Óg marks the end of the great Fianna. From 2000 years ago comes The Children of Lir … all stories to be treasured for years to come.” Learn more…
by Kate Forrester
Per the publisher: “Perilous quests, true love, and animals that talk: The traditional stories of Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, and Wales transport us to the fantastical world of Celtic folklore. Features 16 stores that were translated and transcribed by folklorists in the late 19th and 20th centuries that focus on themes such as Tricksters, The Sea, Quests, and Romance. These timeless tales brim with wit and magic, and each one is brought to life with elegant silhouette art in this special illustrated edition.” Learn more…
by Jeremiah Curtin
Per the publisher: “A century ago, a Smithsonian Institution ethnographer traversed the byways of rural Ireland to listen to villagers recount stories of fairies, ghosts, and other supernatural creatures. Thus did Jeremiah Curtin become one of the foremost authorities on Irish folklore, as he documented and recorded these authentic, traditional tales from the Emerald Isle. Many of Curtin’s storytellers not only maintained a sincere belief in fairies but also claimed firsthand experience of the sprites, wraiths, and specters that enliven their narratives.” Learn more…
by James Stevens, illustrated by Arthur Rackham
Per the publisher: “‘Irish Fairy Tales’ is a collection of stories originally edited by James Stephens, and accompanied by the illustrations of Arthur Rackham. It contains ‘The Story of Tuan Mac Cairill’, ‘The Boyhood of Fionn’, ‘The Birth of Bran’, ‘The Wooing of Becfola’, ‘Oisin’s Mother’, ‘The Little Brawl at Allen’, ‘The Carl of the Drab Coat’, and more. James Stephens (1880 – 1950), was an Irish novelist and poet, who produced many retellings of Irish myths and fairy tales. His retellings are marked by a rare combination of humour and lyricism, stemming from his own successful literary career.” Learn more…
by Steve Lally and Paula Flynn Lally
Per the publisher: “In Ireland there are four provinces and, within these, are thirty-two counties. Each county and its people are unique, but the one thing they all have in common is their respect and regard for the ‘The Good Folk’, the Fairies of all Ireland. Steve Lally and Paula Flynn have compiled this magnificent collection of fairy tales from each county in Ireland. This book is a contemporary take on some classic stories and will be enjoyed for generations to come.” Learn more…
by Lora O’Brien
Per the publisher: “In Ireland, we have a wealth of old myths, legends, fairy tales and folk stories, which are presented here in an easy to read, authentic Irish storyteller’s voice – retold for modern times. Our Tales of Old Ireland reach from the heroic warriors Fionn and the Fianna, to the curse of a Goddess, to an on-going battle of wits between the Connacht Queen Medb (Maeve) and her rival the King of Ulster. You’ll see shape shifting sisters, fairy folk you’ll want to watch out for, fights with monsters, and wise old women helping young maids.” Learn more…
by Philip Smith
Per the publisher: “The age-old charm of Irish folklore gives special sparkle to this collection of eight tongue-in-cheek tales. Wicked old hags, clever leprechauns, courageous tailors, evil giants, and other characters come to life in such fanciful yarns as ‘Hudden and Dudden and Donald O’Neary,’ ‘Conal and Donal and Taig,’ ‘The Old Hag’s Long Leather Bag,’ ‘The Field of Boliauns,’ ‘The Sprightly Tailor,’ ‘The Giant’s Stairs,’ ‘The Bee, the Harp, the Mouse, and the Bum-Clock,’ and ‘The Black Horse.’ Reset in large, easy-to-read type, with six illustrations.” Learn more…
by Steve Brennan
Per the publisher: “For a comparatively small country, Ireland’s contributions to the world of literature have been enormous. From the older tradition, Irish writers have inherited a sense of wonder in the face of nature, a narrative style that tends toward the deliberately exaggerated or absurd, and a keen sense of the power of satire. These themes carry through the entire canon of Irish literature, up until modern times. Stephen Brennan brings us this collection of classic stories, essays, and fairytales that inform the past and therefore, the present, of our most beloved fiction.” Learn more…
Thanks for reading!
Let me know if there are any other books of Irish folktales and fairytales that you think should be on this list. I’ve included a few other posts below that I think you’ll enjoy.
P.S. If you want to help support IrishMyths.com, be sure to drop by our Made in Ireland Store. Sláinte!
A collection of authoritative, academic resources (dictionaries and encyclopedias) on Irish and Celtic mythology
Eloquent retellings of Celtic myths, based on the manuscripts of the Medieval Irish monks who first recorded them
Looking for a fantasy novel (or short story collection) based on Celtic mythology? Look no further.