Fairy and folk tales, leprechauns, ghosts and hauntings, myths and legends form part of Irelands oral and somewhat intangible heritage. These tales were recorded by different writers at different times, and enjoyed a surge in popularity from the 19th century onwards. W.B. Yeats edited collection of Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry in 1888 & Irish Fairy Tales in 1892, Lady Gregory’s Irish Mythology in 1902, and countless other writers in the 20th and 21st centuries provided their own selections and re-tellings of mythology. One of today’s challenges is incorporating modern understandings and values of these myths with places which survive in the landscape. Whether its history, legend or folklore, identifying a particular building or feature may not be possible, as the event is associated with a broader ill-defined ‘place’. For example in Louth, the Cooley peninsula is the setting of much of the Táin Bó Cúailnge while Faughart is known as the birthplace of Saint Brigid and a battlefield where the ‘last high king of Ireland’ died, but there often isn’t a specific spot you can point to and say ‘this happened here’.
One of the great challenges in meaningfully commemorating myths, legends and folklore is trying to tease out at what point did the story become associated with the site? Did the builders and occupants of ringforts associate their homes and workplaces with faeries? Or at what point after their abandonment did stories of faeries become intertwined with these places? Was it a national phenomenon, or a regional belief that gradually spread?
Certainly by the twentieth century when the Irish Folklore Commision collected stories such as the nuns haunting the ruined remains of Monkstown Castle in Dublin, it seems that many archaeological sites had their own ghost story. Malahide Castle has its jester, Charles Fort had its White Lady, and especially now with Halloween approaching, every tour guide seems to have a scary story of yesteryear to tell. However, even where folklore and legend become part of the ‘history’ of a site, there must be a degree of caution in over-interpreting their value. For example, deer appear in legends from the wider ‘Celtic’ world, though hardly any appear in more recent Irish folk-tales. However, they do appear in older lives of the medieval saints – with St Declan pulled in his chariot by a stag when his horse fell lame. St Kieran of Glendalough is associated with a tame deer, and was also said to have given his foster son and his men the appearance of deer to conceal them from their enemies. Deer occur occasionally in archaeological sources – they are shown in a hunting scene on the base of the south cross at Castledermot. However, the granite cross at Glendalough, the place most associated with St. Kieran is blank. Irish high crosses were almost certainly painted or otherwise decorated when erected. It is possible, even appealing, to postulate that deer could have adorned a panel on a cross at Glendalough considering the historical links between the saint and the animal. But theoretical models and arguments, however appealing, however plausible, do not make it so. And one of the cautions of research is to remain aware that regardless of how strongly a place is associated with myth, legend or folklore – it is unwise to be too sure of anything.