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From knit sweater-clad folk crooners such as the Clancy Brothers and the Dubliners, to socially conscious songwriters such as Dominic Behan and Christy Moore, to raucous rockers such as the Pogues and Fountaines D.C, to the prodigiously talented Glen Hansard, who somehow manages to fit into all three aforementioned categories, Ireland has a well-earned reputation for producing some of the world’s greatest musical talents.
And while the extent to which Ireland’s original inhabitants (circa 7,000 – 6,500 BCE) practiced music is unclear, we do know—thanks to ancient Greek historians—that the invading Celts brought with them a rich history of song and dance. To quote (modern) historian Peter Berresford Ellis:
“Both Poseidonius and Diodorus Siculus noted the popularity of music among the Celts and mentioned the variety of instruments which they used. Musical instruments and people dancing can be observed as decorations on Celtic pottery as early as the seventh century BC.”source: The Celtic Empire: The First Millennium of Celtic History, 1000 BC – AD 51
Not surprisingly, Irish mythology, the most well-preserved form of Celtic mythology, is filled with tales of bewitching bards and their enchanted instruments. But before we learn more about these mesmerizing musicians, I feel it’s only natural we ask the question:
Who is the god of music in Irish mythology?
The short answer is… there isn’t one. While the Greeks and Romans have the lyre-plucking Apollo, and the Norse have the harp-strumming Bragi, and the Egyptians have the sistrum-shaking Ihy, there is no dedicated god or goddess of music in Irish mythology.
But that doesn’t mean music isn’t important—essential, even—to Irish mythology. The reason why the ancient Irish never gave a single deity the designation “god of music” is likely because all of the gods of the Irish pantheon are musical. To quote musicologist Heather Beltz:
“Though…there are no gods in the Irish pantheon whose principal attribute is music, music is used by most and is prominent throughout the mythology. There is a strong connection between music and musicians both within the mythology and in the cultural values that mythology reflects.”source: “The Power of Sound: Music and Magic in Pre-Christian Irish Folklore” (PDF)
What’s more, in Irish mythology, music doesn’t just show up solely for entertainment’s sake. In many stories (which I’ll share below), music is wielded like a weapon—a tool for enchanting and disarming and deceiving enemies. As Beltz explains:
“[I]n pre-Christian Irish culture, music is depicted as especially central and powerful. Multiple gods and goddesses perform music not only for entertainment, but also as magic.”
Alright, that’s the end of the opening act. It’s time for these divine virtuosos to take the stage…
Irish Mythology’s 7 Most Talented Musicians
1. The Dagda
Also known as Eochaidh Ollathair (All-Father), Aedh (Fire), and Ruad Rofessa (Lord of Great Knowledge), The Dagda—whose name means “the good god”—is the father of the old Irish gods (the Tuath Dé Danann) and is the patron god of druids. Perhaps best known for wielding a gigantic club, Lorg Mór (which could kill enemies with a single swing and bring those same enemies back to life with a single touch of its handle), the Dagda had another magical “weapon” in his arsenal: a sentient, flying harp called Uaithne (sometimes Uathe).
In the most famous account of Dagda’s harp, the harp is stolen by the Fomorri (a.k.a. Fomorians), a race of ugly, violent gods ruled by Balor of the Evil Eye. The Fomorri are likely disappointed with their haul, however, once they discover that the harp doesn’t work—at least not for them. Uaithne only sounds when summoned by its master, the Dagda.
Unbeknownst to the thieving Fomorri, the uncooperative harp would end up being the least of their problems. For the Dagda was on his way. And he was pissed.
The Dagda leads a posse to retrieve the harp, which includes Lugh (a sun god, as well as the god of arts and crafts) and Ogma (the god of eloquence and literature). Upon reaching the Hall of the Fomorri on Tory Island, the Dagda calls for Uaithne. The harp—in a move that’s reminiscent of how Thor’s hammer Mjölnir behaves in Norse mythology—responds by flying through the air toward the Dagda, killing nine Fomorri in the process. The story concludes with the magical, murderous harp singing a paean (a song of triumph) in praise of its master, the Dagda.
Not to be confused with St. Brigid of the fifth and sixth centuries (although to be fair, their traditions are often confused), Brigid of Irish mythology is the goddess of poetry and fertility, the daughter of the Dagda, and the chief goddess of the Celtic feast day Imbolc. While Brigid (also Brigit or Brígh) does not play a magical instrument like her father, she is credited with inventing a whistle that those wandering about at night could use to signal other night-time travelers. But the primary reason Brigid’s on this list isn’t her whistling, it’s her singing.
During the Second Battle of Moytura (Cath Tánaiste Maige Tuired), in which the Tuath Dé Danann battled those pesky, loathsome Fomorri, Brigid discovers the dead body of her son Ruadán on the battlefield. Heartbroken, she sings a poetic lament commemorating her son. The music she produces is similar to a chant, only her voice is nasally and strained, and the song is punctuated by moments of silence and upwellings of weeping. This, according to myth, is the first time the keen is heard in Ireland—or anywhere, for that matter.
Derived from the Irish word caoineadh, which means to cry or weep, keening was a mourning practice that persisted into early modern Ireland, which is why we know how it sounds. Irish folklore eventually transmuted the wailing cries of female keeners into the foreboding shrieks of supernatural women from the Otherworld, banshees, who cry out to warn of a person’s impending death.
Like most Irish gods, Lugh, the sun god, is a fierce warrior. Also known as Lugh Lamhfada (“of the long arm” or “of the long throw”), he famously used his magical spear, the Gae Assail, one of the Four Treasures of the Tuatha Dé Danann, to slay Balor of the Evil Eye during the Second Battle of Moytura.
But Lugh is more than just a warrior: He is also the god of all arts and crafts, and his prowess with the harp rivals that of even the Dagda.
Lugh’s musical skills are put on full display in the story “Lugh Comes to Tara,” in which the artsy-craftsy god seeks an audience with Nuada of the Silver Hand, the High King of the Tuatha Dé Danann, who’s currently plotting to retake Ireland from the conquering Fomorri. Nuada’s gatekeeper refuses to let Lugh pass until he can prove he’d be a worthy addition to Nuada’s cause. After listing his accolades—master craftsman, builder, and smith; champion swordsman and spear-thrower; accomplished poet and historian—Lugh busts out the big guns: his harp.
On his harp, Lugh plays all three genres of ancient Irish music, known as the “three noble strains.” These are 1. suantraí (lullaby), which makes all of the members of Nuada’s court fall asleep; 2. goltraí (sorrow music), which makes the court members weep; and 3. geantraí (joy music), which makes them laugh and smile. Sufficiently impressed, the gatekeeper allows Lugh to pass.
Here we see an example of just how important and powerful music is in Irish mythology. While gods and heroes of other mythological traditions often prove themselves through feats of physical strength or intellectual acuity, in this case, Lugh proves his worth not just by playing the harp competently, but by playing music that can elicit particular emotional responses from his audience.
While most of the musically inclined beings in Irish mythology perform using instruments and/or their vocal cords, Étaín Echraide is a special case. The daughter of Ailill, a king of Ulster, she is the central figure of the story “The Wooing of Étaín” (“Tochmarc Étaíne“), in which the Irish god of love, Aengus Óg, vies for Étaín’s hand on behalf of the god Midir the Proud, who’d fallen in love with her.
The only hitch in this plan: Midir already has a wife, Fuamnach, so when Aengus Óg succeeds in his quest and brings Étaín back to Midir at his home in Bri Leith and the two are wed, Midir’s first wife is none-too-happy about it. A fuming Fuamnach, with the help of a druid, turns Étaín into a pool of water, then a worm, and finally a bejeweled fly. (Note: Shapeshifting is a common theme in Irish and Celtic mythology, as I explained in an earlier post).
So, how the heck does music play into this story, you might be wondering?
It’s all in the wings.
When she is reacquainted with Midir, Étaín, now in fly form, thrums her wings and performs beautiful music—specifically geantraí (joy music)—to cheer up her husband who’s been bummed out by her absence. The music Étaín plays with her wings was said to be “sweeter than the sound of the harp or horn or pipe.” (source: Over Nine Waves: A Book of Irish Legends by Marie Heaney)
And this comparison to pipes, horns, and harps isn’t just empty praise. In pre-Christian Ireland, musical instruments (and their players) existed within a social hierarchy: Pipes and horns were considered low-status instruments, while the harp was considered to be of the highest status. Thus, describing Étaín’s wing music as being superior not only to that of the pipe and horn but also to that of the harp signals that her music was something truly special—a supernaturally exquisite sound.
Unfortunately, not all supernatural beings from Irish mythology use their powers of music for good. Case in point: Every Samhain, Aillén mac Midgna, a malevolent monster from the Otherworld, uses music to lull the defenders of Tara to sleep so he can burn down the royal residence of the High King with his fire-breath.
While Aillén carries with him a flute and a timpán—the latter being a lyre-like stringed instrument—he only relies on the timpán to incapacitate his victims. In the ancient Irish hierarchy of instruments (mentioned earlier), the timpán has a high status, on par with that of the harp. The flute, like other woodwinds, has a lower status. It’s also important to note that Aillén doesn’t merely play suantraí (lullaby) on his timpán, he weaponizes it, demonstrating how the genre can be used to induce not just peaceful rest, but also disorientation and a deep, death-like sleep.
Aillén is ultimately defeated by Fionn mac Cumhail, hero and primary protagonist of the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. Fionn uses the enchanted Spear of Fiacha, also known as Birgha (Spit-Spear), to inoculate himself against the drowsying effects of Aillén’s music. He accomplishes this by placing the spear against his forward and inhaling its magical fumes. Alert and on the offensive, Fionn kills Aillén and gives the spoils of his victory—Aillén’s flute and timpán—to the High King of Ireland at Tara.
In some versions of the story recounted in the previous section, it is not Fionn mac Cumhail who slays the musical monster Aillén, but the bard and druid Amergin Glúingel (a.k.a. Amhairghin Glúngheal). Amergin is a famous musician in his own right, best known for his role in the Milesian invasion of Ireland, and the Milesians’ subsequent conquest of the old gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann.
Specifically, Amergin helps negotiate the rules of engagement with the Tuatha Dé Danann, in which it is established that the Milesians will temporarily retreat back to the ocean, beyond the magical boundary known as the ninth wave. But when, after hearing the agreed-upon signal, the Milesians seek to return to shore, the Tuatha Dé Danann use magic to raise a fierce storm, preventing the invaders from landing.
Cue the music.
Rather than letting the Tuatha Dé Danann get away with their deceit, Amergin sings an invocation calling on the spirit of Ireland to aid the Milesians. His song is powerful enough to part the magical storm, and the Milesians’ ship makes it safely to shore. Ultimately, the Tuatha Dé Danann are defeated and sent underground, and each god receives a hill, or sídhe. Over time, the gods become known as the aes sídhe, the people of the hills, and enter the popular imagination of Ireland as leprechauns and fairies.
But what kind of song has the power to part a storm brewed by the gods themselves? Read the lyrics for yourself. Here is Lady Gregory’s translation of “The Song of Amergin.”
Dara (or Daire) of the Poems is a bard and member of the Fianna, a band of warriors led by Fionn mac Cumhail. The musical stylings of Dara are valued so much that the bard is always made to accompany Fionn on his hunting expeditions. Such is the case during the story “The Chase of Slieve Fuad,” which sees the Fianna chasing down a deer in the forest of the Slieve Fuad Mountains.
Little do the warriors know that the deer is actually Ailna (sometimes Áille) in disguise, who is seeking revenge on the Fianna after her husband was slain by a Fenian warrior in battle. Ailna leads them to the home of her brother, a giant and sorcerer named Dryantore. Although in some versions, she leads the Fianna not to her giant brother, but to her druid, Fer Gruadh (The Grey One). Regardless, the result is the same. A mist falls upon the forest, and Dara and Fionn are separated from the rest of the Fianna.
Then, they hear it… enchanting music of the suantraí strain, conjured by Dryantore, and Dara and Fionn fall asleep. They awake, disoriented—and still under the giant’s spell—in a dungeon deep inside the mountain. Upon learning that Dara is a musician, the giant demands that he play a tune. Dara negotiates. First, Dryantore must lift the spell, then Dara will play. The giant acquiesces, and Dara plays his timpán.
Dryantore is impressed with Dara’s playing… until he hears the shouts of the Fianna. The music has led them to the exact location of their captured bard, Dara, and leader, Fionn. The spell is reinstated, and Dara’s hand goes limp.
Resigned to his fate (re: dying in a giant’s lair beneath a mountain), Fionn now requests a song of his bard. Dara summons his strength and manages to play one (presumably) last tune on his timpán, a goltraí (sorrow music). The giant is so moved by the music, he comes closer to Dara. Seeing that the giant is distracted, the Fianna sneak in and are able to steal the anecdote to the spell, a magical drinking horn, thus ensuring the rescue of Dara and Fionn.
What sets Dara apart from the other musicians on this list is that he benefits from no supernatural abilities or influence. Dara is a mere mortal who manages to overpower a giant sorcerer, achieving a god-like victory with his human skill. But that’s Irish mythology for ya, now isn’t it? To quote Peter Berresford Ellis:
“Certainly Irish mythology is essentially an heroic one and the Irish do appear to have made their heroes into gods and their gods into heroes. In the lives of these gods and heroes, the lives of the people and the essence of their religious traditions are mirrored.”source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology
If you love stories that combine Irish mythology and Irish music, check out “Druids of Montreal,” a late-night tale about a busboy at an Irish pub who uncovers the truth about his cryptic coworkers (featured in the short story collection Neon Druid):
Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy by multiple authors
For the Irish music-lovers among you, I also highly recommend the book Last Night’s Fun:
Last Night’s Fun: In and Out of Time with Irish Music by Ciaran Carson
Finally, if you want to gain a deeper understanding of the science of music, and how different songs affect our brains in different ways, check out This Is Your Brain on Music — easily one of my favorite books of all time:
This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin
Want to learn about the darker side of Irish mythology? Check out…
Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)
Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…
Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy
“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…
More the listenin’ type?
I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.