They Might Be Giants: 10 Colossal Celts of Irish Myth & Legend

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No, the title of this post is not merely a pithy reference to one of the all-time great alt-rock/children’s music groups. There is a deeper meaning. A real significance. And here it is:

The giants of Irish mythology, as well as those found in Irish legend and folklore, don’t always turn out to be actual giants.

Take the story of “Fled Bricrenn” (“Bricriu’s Feast“) as a prime example. Throughout the story, we are presented with a giant. A gargantuan, scoop-up-a-human-with-a-single-hand-sized monster.

By the end, however, it’s revealed to have all been a trick. The “giant” at Bricriu’s feast was merely a human-sized wizard-king in a costume (essentially).

And then there are the Irish giants of later legend and folklore with familiar-sounding names, like Finn McCool. These are characters who did not start out as giants, but who are instead reimaginings—or should I say aggrandizements—of mythological heroes and demigods who belonged to earlier storytelling traditions. As famed Irish poet W. B. Yeats once proclaimed:

“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, 1888

So to return to my point: When an Irish story presents you with giants, it’s best to proceed under the assumption that they might be giants (see?). Because there’s a good chance they could be something else entirely. 

And while there are perhaps no giants as famous as the Greek Cyclops, or the biblical Goliath, or Jack’s Giant (of beanstalk fame, sometimes identified as the giant Gogmagog from Welsh mythology or, more frequently, as the giant Blunderbore of Cornish folklore), Irish folklore and mythology still abound with tales of monstrously tall men and women—or aithech, as giants were called in Old Irish.

“The giant Blunderbore from ‘Jack the Giant Killer’, circa 1820” (source: Wikimedia Commons)

To quote physician and author C.J.S. Thompson: “Ireland was rich in giant lore,” (source: Giants, Dwarfs and Other Oddities, 1968). Or as historian Peter Berresford Ellis puts it, somehow even more plainly: “Giants occur in the [Irish] myths and sagas several times,” (source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, 1987).

Let’s meet some of these Irish giants, shall we?

10 Irish Giants from Folklore and Mythology

1. Cú Roí mac Dáire

When is a giant not a giant?

How about when it’s actually a human king with supernatural powers using said powers to increase his height and, more generally, beef himself up to giant-size?

That’s the twist-ending to the aforementioned story “Fled Bricrenn” (“Bricriu’s Feast”), which I summarized in an earlier article about the Dullahan, the Irish Headless Horsemen. So here is the concisest of refreshers:

Three Red Branch warriors—Cú Chulainn, Conall Cernach, and Lóegaire Búadach—compete for the champion’s portion of the eponymous feast. A giant enters the hall and challenges the warriors to take a swing at him with his axe…on the condition that he will then get to return the favor.

This myth comes from the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology, and if the plot sounds familiar, that’s because the 14th-century Arthurian legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight likely drew inspiration from it.

painting of a headless green knight, gawain holding axe
Illustration of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, from the late-fourteenth-century Pearl Manuscript (Cotton Nero A.x) in the British Library

But I digress.

In “Fled Bricrenn”, the Munster king (that’s Munster, not monster) Cú Roí, whose name likely translates to “hound of the battlefield,” disguises himself not just as a giant, but as a giant bachlach, or churl, meaning either a “common-born”/“ill-bred” person or a rude/unpleasant person. Although I have a hunch “high-born” people, like kings of Munster, would have used the word to mean both when wielding it as an insult.

There is likely some moral message here, some nugget of sociological wisdom to be uncovered. A king transforming into a commoner while at the same time giganticizing himself into a monster that perhaps represents all of the kingdom’s commoners because that’s how he sees them: as a single, churlish mass. And then there are the three knights competing for glory who are encouraged to behead this giant, which they do eagerly. But, it is only Cú Chulainn, arguably Ireland’s greatest champion, who submits to this massive manifestation of the “unwashed masses”, literally putting his neck on the line to prove his honor and bravery.

There’s something there…right?

*crickets*

Moving on. 

In some later retellings Cú Roí is referred to as a druid, but to the best of my knowledge there are no primary sources (re: medieval Irish manuscripts) that describe him as such. Instead, Cú Roí is described as a king and as the leader of Munster’s most famous band of warriors, the Dedad (also: Degad). The Dedad was Munster’s equivalent of Ulster’s Red Branch, and was named after its founding member, Cú Roí’s grandfather. 

That being said, it seems obvious that Cú Roí is imbued with supernatural powers. At a minimum, “Fled Bricrenn” proves that Cú Roí can shapeshift or shape-change. But to be fair, we only ever see him change into a giant.

In the story “Aislinge n-Aimirgin,” or “The Trance of Amairgin, Cú Roí doesn’t transform, but he does take on the strength of a giant, hurling humongous boulders at his enemy: the warrior-poet (and maybe also a giant?) Amergin mac Eccit—not to be confused with the druid Amergin Glúingel, who appears in the earlier, Mythological Cycle of Irish mythology.

To quote Joseph Dunn’s 1914 translation of the ancient Irish epic the Táin Bó Cúailnge, or Cattle Raid of Cooley (the larger narrative to which the Amergin story belongs): 

“Curoi set forth for to seek the men of Erin and, when he was near at hand, he espied Amargin there and his left elbow under him to the west of Taltiu. Curoi reached the men of Erin from the north. His people equipped him with rocks and boulders and great clumps, and he began to hurl them right over against Amargin, so that Badb’s battle-stones collided in the clouds and in the air high above them, and every rock of them was shivered into an hundred stones.”

And yet, according to Ellis, these episodes featuring a super-powered Cú Roí are the exception, not the rule.

“In most stories,” Ellis writes, “there is nothing supernatural about Cú Roí.”

"Gogmagog the Giant in Guildhall, 1859 - One of two wooden figures displayed in the Guildhall in London, carved by Captain Richard Saunders in 1709, replacing earlier wicker and pasteboard effigies which were traditionally carried in the Lord Mayor's Show. They represent the legendary characters of Gogmagog and Corineus, but were later known as Gog and Magog."
“Gogmagog the Giant in Guildhall, 1859 – One of two wooden figures displayed in the Guildhall in London, carved by Captain Richard Saunders in 1709, replacing earlier wicker and pasteboard effigies which were traditionally carried in the Lord Mayor’s Show. They represent the legendary characters of Gogmagog and Corineus, but were later known as Gog and Magog.” (source: Wikimedia Commons)

2. Amergin mac Eccit

This Amergin guy gets around.

The warrior-poet is there alongside Cú Roí at Bricriu’s feast, cheering on his son Conall Cernach (of the victories),  while also boasting of his own “valour…his wisdom, his fortune, age and eloquence,” and how, “as a poet, he was the bane of every chariot-warrior,” (source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, 1987).

Amergin (a.k.a. Amairgin a.k.a. Amargin) of the Ulaid over-kingdom was also Cú Roí’s opponent, as the latter might-be-giant once confronted the former might-be-giant over some downright rude rock throwing. 

Here’s how the Táin Bó Cúailnge describes Amergin’s attack:

“This Amargin was the son of Cass who was son of Bacc who was son of Ross Ruad (‘the Red’) who was son of Rudraige, father of Conall Cernach (‘the Triumphant’). He came upon the warriors going over Taltiu westward, and he made them turn before him over Taltiu northwards. And he put his left elbow under him in Taltiu. And his people furnished him with rocks and boulders and great clumps of earth, and he began to pelt the men of Erin till the end of three days and three nights, and he did great slaughter among them so that no man could show his face to him in Taltiu.”

No, the word “giant” doesn’t come up, but Amergin does throw rocks, boulders, and “great clumps of earth” for three days (and nights), which certainly would require some supernatural strength. It should also be noted that in Cecile O’Rahilly’s 1967 translation of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, the “great clumps of earth” are replaced with “great flagstones,” which perhaps sound a bit heavier.

What’s more, Amergin is described as blocking the movement of enemy troops over Tailtiu (a site named in honor of the sun-god Lugh’s step-mother, according to myth) by laying on his elbow. The implications here are that A) Amergin is so massive he can form a barrier in the landscape simply by laying down, and B) since he’s laying on his elbow, he must have thrown all of those aforementioned rocks, boulders, and earth-clumps/flagstones with one hand.

"Emblem from a book of emblems (Alciato's Emblema)- Emblème d'Alciat Livre d'emblèmes, Date: early 16th century (source: Wikimedia Commons)
“Emblem from a book of emblems (Alciato’s Emblema)- Emblème d’Alciat Livre d’emblèmes, Date: early 16th century (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Or at least that’s one interpretation. 

As is the case with the mythologically contemporaneous Cú Roí, the safer bet here is that Amergin mac Eccit—or as Dunn styles him, Amargin Iarngiunnach—was intended to be a human character. But like any human character from Irish mythology, he is prone to the occasional outburst of supernatural embellishment.

Speaking of, let’s not forget that it was Amergin mac Eccit who slayed Ellén Trechend.

As we learned in my article about Irish dragons, Ellén Trechend was either a gargantuan three-headed monster or a swarm of smaller three-headed monsters that was sometimes accompanied by a flock of fire-breathing birds. Either way, Amergin killed it.

Was Amergin once again aided in this battle by his super-strength and, perhaps, super-size?

That’s up to you to decide.

3. Iliach

What if I told you the warrior-poet (and maybe-giant) Amergin mac Eccit had a brother Iliach who also threw a bunch of boulders at people? Because that’s what I’m telling you. To quote Dunn’s’ translation of the Táin:

“Then came to them Iliach son of Cass son of Bacc son of Ross Ruad son of Rudraige…His folk furnished his chariot around him with cobbles and boulders and huge clumps, so that it was full … He assailed the men of Erin with his weapons till he had made an end of them. And when weapons failed he assailed the men of Erin with cobbles and boulders and huge clumps of earth till he had used them up.”

Iliach, also known as Mellgleó Illiach, has clearly taken over Amergin’s role in this story. Indeed, what we’re dealing with here is a folklore motif, a narrative blueprint. Let’s call it the gathering-up-big-rocks-and-throwing-them-at-your-enemies motif. In yet another variation of the motif, it is the warrior Munremar Mac Gerrcind who begins the aerial assault. 

But you see, the thing that sets Iliach apart from those other Irish heroes that share his story is that …well…there’s really no other way to put it:

Iliach squishes people to death with his bare hands.

Illustration from Jack and the Giants, 1851 (source: The Story of Jack and the Giants / Wikimedia Commons)

Remember earlier in the story when Iliach ran out of traditional weapons so he started throwing “cobbles and boulders and huge clumps”? Yeah, well, after he ran out of those, his assault didn’t end.

Here’s what happened next:

“And when these weapons failed him he spent his rage on the man that was nearest him of the men of Erin, and bruised him grievously between his fore-arms and his sides and the palms of his hands, till he made a marrow-mass of him, of flesh and bones and sinews and skin. Hence in memory thereof, these two masses of marrow still live on side by side, the marrow-mass that Cuchulain made of the bones of the Ulstermen’s cattle for the healing of Cethern son of Fintan and the marrow-mass that Iliach made of the bones of the men of Erin. Wherefore this was one of the three innumerable things of the Táin, the number of them that fell at the hands of Iliach.”

Worth noting: In O’Rahilly’s translation, Illiach does not squish his enemies into “marrow-masses” but instead into “marrow-mashes,” which is certainly a much more satisfying word-choice.

So here’s the question: Could a non-giant (or an otherwise non-supernaturally enhanced person) put adult humans—or adult cattle—in a vice grip between his forearms and palms and turn them into mashed potatoes? 

I think not.

And following that same logic, I’m forced to add yet another Irish hero to my list of might-be-giants. The greatest Irish hero, some might say.

Cú Chulainn.

4. Cú Chulainn

Scholars sometimes refer to Cú Chulainn as the “Irish Achilles,” the star demi-god of the epic Táin Bó Cúailnge (which itself is sometimes called “the Irish Iliad”). But as I argued before in my earlier book, Irish Myths in Your Pocket, Cú Chulainn really has much more in common with the Incredible Hulk of Marvel Comics fame.

When in his normal, human form, i.e., when he’s not rumbling around the battlefield in his chariot collecting the heads of his enemies, Cú Chulainn cuts a less-than-intimidating figure. Far from being the “physical specimen” some might expect of a champion, he’s a pipsqueak. To quote professor and folklorist Juilene Osborne-McKnight:

“The men of Ulster were tall in general, but Cu Chulainn is short with a bulbous nose and wild, frizzy red hair that forms a halo around his head.”

(source: The Story We Carry in Our Bones: Irish History for Americans, 2015)

When Cú Chulainn goes into battle, however, he transforms into a giant rage monster. And I don’t  just mean metaphorically. Cú Chulainn literally, physically, trasnforms into a monster.

To quote Osborne-McKnight:

“He grows to nine feet tall, blood spurts from his forehead, one of his eyes bulges from its socket, his head can turn 360 degrees like the head of an owl…Once he enters the war spasm or riastradh, he cannot be defeated.”

And herein lies a potential explanation for all of the aforementioned Ulster Cycle giants on this list: the riastradh, or “battle spasm.” It is a frenzied, berserker, and, arguably, divinely inspired state wherein a warrior grows into a hideous (but invincible) hulk.

It’s not a perfect fit for all of the aforementioned characters, but the very concept of riastradh presents us with a new way of thinking about the giants of the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology.

The bottom line: these aren’t the lumbering oafs so familiar to other folkloric traditions. Instead, these giants are vicious, well-trained warriors who remain, most of the time, in human form, only unleashing their inner beasts when the moment calls for it.

5. Dryantore

Finally, an Irish giant from a different cycle of Irish mythology. And this might be one that fits a more traditional definition of “giant” to boot.

Meet Dryantore, the primary antagonist of the Fenian Cycle story “The Chase of Slieve Fuad”.

Described as “a giant and an enchanter” in P.W. Joyce’s translation of the story (source: Old Celtic Romances, 1920), Dryantore’s character motivations are straightforward enough: 

Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his band of warriors, the Fianna, killed Dryantore’s three sons and his sister’s husband. Dryantore wants revenge.

"The Giant with the Flaming Sword" - Published in 1909 (Source: Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas / Wikimedia Commons)
“The Giant with the Flaming Sword” – Published in 1909 (Source: Myths of the Norsemen from the Eddas and Sagas / Wikimedia Commons)

The giant enlists the help of his widowed sister Ailna (sometimes Áille), who pulls the classic transform-into-a-deer-and-lead-a-hunting-party-into-an-enchanted-mist maneuver. The hunting party in this case, of course, consists of Fionn and his men.

Joyce’s translation of the story reads that “Dryantore trapped the Irish warriors in a druid’s fog,”—a line that will take on added significance at the end of this section.

Now, the next phase of Dryantore’s plan is to conjure some enchanting music, which will put Fionn and his Fenians to sleep. This is the suantraí (lullaby) strain of ancient Irish music.

The plan works, and when Fionn and his men awake, they find themselves in a dungeon deep inside a mountain. Then, they see him…“a warrior coming forth from the palace, in size like a giant, rough and fierce-looking.”

Still under the music’s spell, the Fenians are unable to defend themselves. It’s not looking good. Not looking too good at all. But when Dryantore learns that one of Fionn’s men, Dara (also: Daire), is a musician, the tide begins to turn.

Dryantore temporarily lifts the spell so Dara can play a song on his timpán (a lyre-like stringed instrument). Dara plays a goltraí (sorrow music) to such effect that Dryantore is distracted and Dara’s mates are able to steal the giant’s magical drinking horn, ensuring they’ll be able to break the spell and escape.*

*Not before running the giant through with a spear, of course. The Fenian warrior Oscar is the one who delivers the fatal blow, but not before sustaining his own wounds. And I quote:

“When the Fena saw the giant fall, they raised three mighty shouts of joy. And Glanlua brought the magic drinking-horn to Oscar, from which he drank, so that his wounds were healed, and his strength straightway returned to him.”

Now that’s a giant story. It’s reminiscent of the Homeric account of Polyphemus the Cyclops, an account that sees Odysseus and his crew become trapped in the giant’s cave.

But a closer examination of the plot of “The Chase of Slieve Fuad” reveals that nothing Dryantore does really requires that he be a giant. All of the supernatural feats he performs—e.g., conjuring the sleep-inducing song and the “druid’s fog”—are accomplished not with size and strength, but with magic.

It’s almost as if you could remove the giant from the story entirely and replace him with a human-sized wizard or druid

…which is exactly what happens in an alternate version of “The Chase of Slieve Fuad.”

In the alternate version, Ailna leads Fionn and the Fianna not to her behemoth brother, but to her druid, Fer Gruadh (The Grey One). Otherwise, the story remains the same.

6. Grana

Remaining in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology, we encounter Grana: “the Irish giantess,” to borrow C.J.S. Thompson’s term.

Grana lived at the rock of Carrigogunnell, or “Rock of the Candle.” The “Candle” eponym originated with tales of Grana lighting a candle at night, which she used to lure victims to their demise.

“Plate engraving of Carrigogunnel Castle Ireland from vol 2 of The scenery and antiquities of Ireland (Bartlett, William Henry, 1809-1854) In the volume between p.184 and p.185 Date: 1842 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

In Thompson’s reckoning of events, the female giant “lay in wait in her cavern,” presumably so she could then jump out and attack her victims (source: Giants, Dwarfs and Other Oddities, 1968). However, in T. Crofton Crocker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of The South of Ireland (1844), it’s specified that Grana used an enchanted candle to curse those who looked at the flame, and it was actually this curse that led to a person’s demise. And I quote:

“Death was her sport. Like the angler with his rod, the hag Grana would toil, and watch, nor think it labour, so that the death of a victim rewarded her vigils. Every evening did she light an enchanted candle upon the rock, and whoever looked upon it died before the next morning’s sun arose. Numberless were the victims over whom Grana rejoiced; one after the other had seen the light, and their death was the consequence. Hence came the country round to be desolate, and Carrigogunnel, the Rock of the Candle, by its dreaded name.”

Now, this wouldn’t be a giant story without a fight. And this being the Fenian Cycle, there was, of course, a brave warrior of the Fianna—Regan—willing to take the giant on. Granted, he needed a little bit of encouragement from the boss, Fionn mac Cumhaill. To quote Crocker:

“It was the mighty Finn himself who lifted up his voice, and commanded the fatal candle of the hag Grana to be extinguished. ‘Thine, Regan, be the task,’ he said, and to him he gave a cap thrice charmed by the magician Luno of Lochlin.”

Yes, in order to extinguish Grana’s enchanted candle, Regan, naturally, must don an enchanted hat.

Because here’s the thing: if Regan so much as glimpses the “slightest glimmer of [the candle’s] blaze,” he’s a dead man. Fortunately, the “cap thrice charmed” automatically drops down over Regan’s eyes any time he looks in the candle’s direction. Thus, he is able to scale the rock of Carrigogunnell unharmed.

When the giant’s back is turned, Regan grabs her candle and tosses it into the River Shannon.

Mission accomplished.

Overcome by curiosity, Regan removes his cap and takes a proper look at Grana.

“She was gigantic in size, and frightful in appearance. Her eyebrows grew into each other with a grim curve, and beneath their matted bristles, deeply sunk in her head, two small gray eyes darted forth baneful looks of evil. From her deeply-wrinkled forehead issued forth a hooked beak, dividing two shrivelled cheeks. Her skinny lips curled with a cruel and malignant expression, and her prominent chin was studded with bunches of grisly hair…

“[When] he beheld the enraged hag, with outstretched arms, prepared to seize and whirl him after her candle[,] Regan instantly bounded westward from the rock just two miles, with a wild and wondrous spring.”

Yes, Regan—a blossoming  track and field star, no doubt—does a casual two-mile long-jump to the West, narrowly escaping Grana’s wrath.

But he’s not out of the woods yet.

Grana rips a huge chunk out of the rock of Carrigogunnell and hurls it in Regan’s direction…

The projectile falls harmlessly to the ground, well short of its target. Regan returns to his leader, Fionn, in triumph, and Grana is never heard from again.

Oh, that Grana.

I think we can all agree that she is not painted in the most flattering of lights.

As Thompson summarizes: “[Grana] was a terrible old woman who lived on the rock and desolated the surrounding country.”

But is it possible, perhaps, that Grana actually inherited her “terrible” nature from a character who appears in an earlier Fenian Cycle story?

(If the alarm bells aren’t already ringing in your head, they should be…wild Irish mythology theory ahoy! In 3…2…1..)

What if the giant Grana was actually based on the Irish princess Gráinne (anglicized as Grania)? 

"Grania questions the druid", illustration by Henry Justice Ford in The Book of Romance (1903) (source: Wikimedia Commons)
“Grania questions the druid”, illustration by Henry Justice Ford in The Book of Romance (1903) (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Best-known for her role in the story The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne, Gráinne famously flees from her betrothed—an elderly Fionn mac Cumhaill—because she is repulsed by his old age. To add insult to injury, she runs off with one of his young, handsome warriors, Diarmuid Ua Duibhne (a.k.a. Diarmuid of the Love Spot).

As you might have already gleaned, from a personality perspective, Gráinne left a lot to be desired. To quote Ellis:

“[The Fianna] would ‘not have given one of Diarmuid’s fingers for twenty such as Gráinne’. Gráinne’s character is always drawn with consistency in the myths. She is a shallow person, wilful, ruthless and passionate, and what in modern terms would be described as a neurotic.”

source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, 1987

One can see how this mythological dislike of Gráinne could have been mapped over onto the monstrous character of Grana—a character that allows Gráinne’s internal ugliness and prejudices (re: aegism) to be made outwardly manifest.

7. Fionn Mac Cumhaill / 8. Oona  / 9. Benandonner

Warning: We are now officially exiting the realm of Irish mythology and entering the realm of Irish legend and folklore. And if you’re wondering if there’s any real difference between a myth, a legend, and a folktale…yes. Yes there is.

Specifically, myths are sacred stories, while folktales lean more secular. Legends are somewhere in the middle and often have nationalistic/patriotic undertones. (Think Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed if you’re American; Robin Hood and King Arthur if you’re British; William Tell if you’re Swiss, etc.)

four quadrant chart showing differences between myths, legends, folktales, and fairytales

The Irish hero Fionn Mac Cumhail (anglicized as Finn McCool) is malleable enough as a character to fit into all three of these storytelling categories.

He is first and foremost a warrior, a champion. Like his father before him, Fionn is the leader of the Fianna, defenders of Ireland and its High King at Tara. That’s according to the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology—a collection of sacred stories. 

But over time, those sacred stories became warped and inflated. Notably, Fionn is reimagined as Fingal by Scottish poet James Macpherson. But more pertinently to the topic at hand, Irish and Manx legend inflate Fionn into a giant.

“It should be stressed,” according to Ellis, “that Fionn Mac Cumhail came to be regarded as a giant only in later legends.”

The legendary version of Fionn mac Cumhail is a big goofy giant who builds the Giant’s Causeway so he can walk from Ireland to Scotland. When the Scottish giant crosses over intent on fighting Fionn, our “hero” hides, while his wife Oona (also a giant, and the real hero of the story) snaps into action.

Oona dresses Fionn as a baby. When Benandonner arrives, she explains that her husband, Finn Sr., isn’t at home, but he’s welcome to wait and have some griddle-cakes. 

Oona serves Benandonner griddle-cakes with griddle-irons hidden in them, and he chips his teeth trying to eat them. After insinuating that the Scottish giant is a weakling, Oona serves normal griddle-cakes to Fionn—still disguised as a baby—while boasting that her son, along with his much larger father, eat them all the time. Fionn gobbles them down. Sufficiently intimidated, Benandonner takes his leave.

Yes, these are giants. Monster-sized beings who, in another version of the story, do end up duking it out. In the midst of their battle, Fionn scoops up a huge chunk of earth and flings it at Benandonner, inadvertently creating both the Isle of Man (where the chunk lands) and Ireland’s biggest lake, Lough Neagh (it’s the hole leftover from Fionn’s scooping).

And let’s not forget that this whole ordeal also resulted in the creation of the Giant’s Causeway, a coastal area featuring thousands of hexagonal basalt columns. It’s one of Ireland’s (and I’d argue, the world’s) greatest geological wonders. 

photo of Giant's Causeway in County Antrim in Northern Ireland
Photo by Patrick Metzdorf on Unsplash


Notably, in Irish, the Giant’s Causeway goes by a different name entirely: 

Clochan-na-bhFomharaigh [Clohanavowry], or “the stepping stones of the Fomorians”.

10.  The Fomorians

We will end with the beginning: Ireland’s first giants, the Fomorians (also: Fomorii), who appear in the first of the four cycles of Irish mythology, the Mythological Cycle.

The Fomorians are portrayed as evil, monstrous, supernatural beings who originate from beneath the sea, or perhaps from “under the worlds of men,” according to the 7th-century elegy Cethri meic Airtt Mis-Telmann (or The Four Sons of Art Mes-Telmann).

In most myths, the Fomorians appear as raiders. While never settling in Ireland, they make frequent visits, harassing and collecting taxes from Ireland’s subsequent waves of settlers (as detailed in the Lebor Gabála Érenn, or as it’s commonly called in English, the Book of Invasions).

The Tuatha Dé Danann—the Irish pagan pantheon of gods and goddesses who settle in Ireland after the Fir Bolg/before the Milesians—put an end to the Fomorian problem during the second battle of Magh Tuireadh (also: Moytura).

But let it be known: defeating Fomorians in combat is no easy feat, as the already monstrous marauders can evidently shapeshift into giants. To quote Ellis:

“During the second battle of Magh Tuireadh the Fomorii appeared in the guise of giants and, indeed, when Oisin followed Niamh to the Otherworld he had to battle with a Fomorii giant.”

source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology (1987)

The Otherworld giant to which Ellis refers is called Fomhor Builleach of Dromloghach—a name that translates literally from modern Irish to “Autumn Beater of Dorsal” … make of that what you will. Although perhaps the “Fomhor” is merely meant to signify that the giant is a Fomorian.

P. W. Joyce, for his part, refers to the giant as “Fomor of the Blows,” (source: Old Celtic Romances, 1920).

The Fomorians, John Duncan's interpretation of the sea gods of Irish mythology (1912)
The Fomorians, John Duncan’s interpretation of the sea gods of Irish mythology (1912) (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Regardless, the giant is the “big bad” in the tale of Oisín and Niamh Cinn-Óir (of the golden hair), a Fenian Cycle story that sees Oisín, son of Fionn mac Cumhaill, following Niamh, daughter of the sea-god Manannán mac Lir, to Tír Na nÓg, the land of eternal youth.

But wait a minute…

Didn’t the Tuatha Dé Danann (Manannán mac Lir included) destroy all of the Fomorians way back in the Mythological Cycle? What’s one doing in the Fenian Cycle?

Look, I don’t know what to tell you.

Just kidding, I do:

Storytelling is a complex, communal process. Given enough time, plot holes and continuity errors become inevitable. Retcons become necessary. Narrative pathways that had been seemingly sealed off forever for the sake of bringing closure are unceremoniously reopened.

Of course, it should also be said that Fomorians are infamously tricky little bastards. Big bastards, I mean.

And perhaps there was none so big, and none so tricky, as Balor of the Evil Eye…

…whom we’ll learn more about in my next post.


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.

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