Giant's Causeway, County Antrim

With its ancient folklore, mystical myths and celebrated saints, Northern Ireland is a land of legends. Whether rooted in fact or conjured up in fiction, the region’s famous figures are never less than fascinating.

Saints and Scholars

Perhaps the most legendary figure in Northern Ireland is the renowned snake banisher and shamrock plucker, Saint Patrick. Born in Roman Britain in the fourth century, at the age of 16 Patrick was captured by pirates and taken to Ireland. He’s said to have worked as a slave on Slemish Mountain in County Antrim for about six years, before fleeing, being ordained as a priest and returning to Ireland to help convert its population to Christianity. 

Of course, St Patrick is probably best known for snakes and shamrocks. Legend has it that he banished all snakes from Ireland, sending them into the sea - where some say they became slippery eels. Meanwhile, he’s thought to have picked a three-leafed shamrock from the ground to explain the Christian belief in the Holy Trinity.

Down Cathedral, County Down

You’ll find a wealth of sites in Northern Ireland with links to St Patrick, particularly in Armagh, Downpatrick and County Down. You might like to start at the Saint Patrick Centre in Downpatrick, which gives a great overview of the saint’s story and legacy. Also in Downpatrick is Down Cathedral, where Patrick’s remains are thought to be buried. Nearby Saul has a replica of an ancient church on the site of his earliest place of Christian worship in Ireland. And in Armagh, where Patrick set up his headquarters after being appointed successor to the first bishop of Ireland, there are two cathedrals named after the saint, Saint Patrick's Church of Ireland and Saint Patrick's Catholic Cathedral.  

The other major saint associated with Northern Ireland is St Columba or Colmcille, founding father of Derry~Londonderry. The saint - who, according to legend, once managed to scare off the Loch Ness monster in Scotland - is said to have founded his first monastery here in 545AD. To learn more about Colmcille’s connections with the city, visit Áras Cholmcille in the grounds of the Long Tower Church or the Tower Museum’s Story of Derry exhibition. The year 2021 marks the 1,500th anniversary of Colmcille’s birth, and plans are already being put in place to mark the occasion.

Colossal heroes

The Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim isn’t just named after the striking basalt columns bedecking its coastline. When you visit this must-see attraction you are, so legend would have it, following in the footsteps of giants.

The story goes that Irish giant Finn McCool, angry at the Scottish giant Benandonner, tore chunks off the coast and threw them into the sea, creating a path (now known as the Causeway) to his rival. As he approached, however, Finn discovered just how big Benandonner was. He quickly retreated with the Scot in pursuit. As Benandonner approached his home, Finn’s wife disguised her husband as a baby. When the Scottish giant saw the huge child, he decided his father must be even bigger and hastily made his exit.

Finn McCool is also said to have created Lough Neagh, the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles, by scooping up a large piece of ground and throwing it across the Irish Sea, leaving a crater behind which became the lough. The chunk of ground became the Isle of Man.

Another famed character in Northern Ireland folklore is Cuchulainn. County Armagh is rich in legend involving the warrior and his Red Branch Knights, with the Ring of Gullion – an area of outstanding natural beauty – closely linked to both Cuchulainn and Finn McCool. Visitors to Slieve Gullion Forest Park can also check out the Giant’s Lair children’s story trail, inspired by local legends.

Navan Fort, County Armagh

Also in Armagh is the Navan Centre and Fort, said to be the stronghold of Cuchulainn and the Red Branch Knights. There, visitors can enjoy an audio-visual show about the Ulster Cycle of myths and legends, while children can dress up in Celtic costumes to bring the history to life.

A magical kingdom

The Mountains of Mourne, County Down 

Moving forward into the twentieth century, one of Northern Ireland’s main mountain ranges inspired not just a song but a literary fantasy world. The Mountains of Mourne in County Down, which were celebrated in a Percy French song, also captured the imagination of author CS Lewis, who holidayed there. The Belfast-born writer’s Chronicles of Narnia, with their mythical characters including Aslan the lion, Mr Tumnus and Prince Caspian, are said to have been inspired by the Mournes.  Rostrevor, in the foothills of the Mournes, has a Narnia Trail in Kilbroney Park where fans can enter the world of Narnia through a wardrobe door and explore delights including the Beaver’s House and Aslan’s table.

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