10 Writing Prompts from Irish Mythology
Writing Prompts

10 Writing Prompts from Irish Mythology

This week’s prompts come from Irish mythology. This was quite a challenge for me than the post on Greek Myths as I knew basically nothing about it before I started. (NowI also have a list based on Norse Myths!) I used Wikipedia a lot and a helpful website called Bardmythologies.com. I encourage you to check this site out and read all of the myths, they are truly fascinating. Two books also came in handy during my research that I would like to highly recommend. One is The Book of Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland compiled by W. B. Yeats and the other is Heroic Landscapes: Irish Myth and Legend by Rod O’Donoghue. The latter takes a more academic approach to the mythology.
Irish Mythology is broken down into four cycles: The Mythological Cycle, The Ulster Cycle, The Fenian Cycle, and The King Cycle. There are varying degrees of documentation for the different cycles with the Mythological having the least. All of them are filled with amazing tales that are sure to inspire more than a few new stories for you.

1) Tuatha De Danann

Myth

The story of the Tuatha De Danann is long and interwoven with many other peoples on Ireland. I will give a summary here because it is fascinating and could inspire a great many stories.
First there was a group called the Formorians. They were raiders and sea pirates who, through years of stories, became sea gods. (O’Donoghue argues that they started as gods and were demoted to pirates.) They were depicted as “ugly, dark and demonic, sometimes seen as giants or elves and were witnessed with goat or horse heads or other terrible features.” (Bardmythologies.com) They are the quintessential “bad guys” of the Mythic Cycle of Irish mythology. Every group of people who came to Ireland, which included every group of people who inhabited the place, were accosted by the Formorians. They attacked and exacted taxes from their Island of Tory off the north coast.

They had a great battle with the Partholonians, who eventually disappeared altogether. Then they fought the Nemedians. These people were not entirely eradicated but instead, the survivors of the final battle scattered and founded the next two main invaders of Ireland, the Fir Bolg and the Tuatha De Danann.

The name Tuatha De Danann is typically consdiered to mean Tribe of the goddess Danu, but nothing is known of this goddess. After the Nemedians fled, one of the groups went to the north. They picked up worship of the goddess and all of their magical abilities there (or according to some in Greece). While visiting the four great cities of the north they collected four magical items:  “From Falias they got the Lia Fáil, the stone of destiny, which roared when a rightful king took his seat upon it. From Gorias they brought the claíomh solais, or sword of destiny. From Murias came the cauldron of the Daghda, which could feed a host, however large, without ever being emptied. From Finias came the Sleá Bua, a magic spear.” With these and their new goddess, they returned to Ireland.

When they arrived the Fir Bolg, who had gone to Greece, been enslaved there and escaped, had already arrived and established themselves. They divided the country into five provinces, the fifth one being the administrative center and often considered a more metaphorical or magical place.

The Fir Bolg greeted the newcomers, “a group of beautiful, tall, fair people” who arrived in a mist, amicably but soon betrayed them and tried to attack. The Tuatha De Danann were victorious but allowed the Fir Bolg to keep the province of Connaught. But the king of the Tuatha De, Nuada, was removed after he lost his hand in the battle and the new king, Bres, was half Formorian. He allowed the Formorians to impose taxes and oppress the Tuatha De by other means. This led to an epic battle between the Tuatha De Danann and the Formorians. The Tuatha were victorious and Nuada was given a silver arm and put back on the throne.

Eventually the Tuatha De were themselves defeated. After being afraid of a visiting king’s praises of Ireland they murdered him. His grandsons, the Sons of Mil, came and after betrayal, magic storms, and fierce fighting, were the victors. The Tuatha De Danann were forced out and it is often said they went to the otherworld with their magic and rule there as kings of the fairies or are the fairies themselves

Writing Prompt

The Tuatha De Danann story has so many points that can be used for stories. You could make a whole series out of this little history. The epic sea storms they conjured to destroy the Sons of Mil, the silver-armed king, the four magic objects, their eventual defeat and retreat to the land of the fairies would all make wonderful tales.

For our purposes, try starting with the arrival of the mist shrouded Tuatha De Danann. Imagine being the Fir Bolg watching them materialize. You just established your own kingdom after being routed from your homeland by the Formorians, demonic sea gods, then being enslaved by the Greeks. Now, when you thought things were going to go your way, a new player arrives and you aren’t sure if they mean well or not. If their magic is benevolent or malevolent.

I used this prompt to write the story Legacy. Check it out to see how I turn inspiration into story.

2) Children of Lir

Myth

During a contest for the next High King of the Tuatha De Danann, two men came to the foreground. Lir of Derravaragh and Bobh Dearg of Munster. Bobh Dearg ended up winning because he was married to a strong woman and Lir was single. So, Bobh offered Lir one of his daughters in hopes of tying them together and preventing an uprising.

Lir chose to marry Aobh and they were very happy. They had a daughter, Fonnoula, a son, Aodh, and then twin boys, Conn and Fiachra. But Aobh died in childbirth with the twins and Lir was incredibly sad. He clung to the children and they spent every moment together, even sleeping all in one giant bed.

When Bobh Dearg discovered his daughter’s death we was also distraught. He hated the thought of Lir and the children alone so he asked his remaining daughters if one would marry Lir. Aoife volunteered and was excited at the prospect. But when she arrived she found Lir and the children didn’t need her and, in fact, quite ignored her. She became jealous and tricked Lir into letting her take the children to see their grandfather. But on they way she coaxed them into a lake and turned them all into swans. At the last moment she felt pity for the look in the Fionnoula’s eyes and so changed the curse slightly. They kept their voices and human minds. And the spell would break after three hundred years on this lake, three hundred on the sea of Moyle, and three hundred on another lake in Ireland and when a king’s son from the north married a king’s daughter from the south.

Aoife was able to stall the discovery of her deed by telling both Lir and Bobh Dearg that the other had the children. But she was eventually found out and “Bobh Dearg transformed Aoife into a demon of the air, and she went shrieking off into the sky to be buffeted and blown about. And when the wind blows hard, sometimes you can hear her shrieking still.” (Bardmythology.com)

Lir moved his household to the lake to live with his children and was able to spend the first three hundred years there with them. But then they had to leave. The Sea of Moyle was a terrible treacherous place and they had to find each other again after each storm. Fionnoula held them to her and kept them as safe as she could until the three hundred years were over. On their way to the third lake, they flew over their old homeland and discovered the time of the Tuatha De Danann was over and their father’s estate was naught but stones and grass.

During their stay on the final lake, they made friends with a Christian monk who taught them of his religion and had many great conversations with them. They asked him to baptize them and he refused because they were swans. When the wedding from the curse took place they were transformed back into humans but all nine hundred years came back to them and they became decrepit. The monk then agreed to baptize them and Fionnoula asked that they be buried together in the way that they huddled on the Sea of Moyle.

Writing Prompt

I read a version of this once (well, it claimed to be a version of Hans Christian Anderson’s “Wild Swans” but the principle is largely the same) that was a steampunk take on the myth. It’s called “The Mechanical Wings” by Pip Ballantine. I recommend it. (It also appears in an anthology Clockwork Fairy Tales: A Collection of Steampunk Fables.)

Now, I want you to tell the story from Aoife’s point of view. She watches as her sister is chosen to marry a highly regarded man and lives a very happy life. Then when she dies her father feels so bad he asks that she try to replace her sister. How would she really feel? And what happens to her after she is transformed into a demon? Does she live forever and watch everything else she loved crumble away? Does she join the storm winds on the Sea of Moyle and harass the children-swans for three hundred years?

3) Cuchulainn and Emer

Myth

Cuchulainn was a legendary warrior from Ulster. Most of the Ulster Cycle of Irish mythology revolves around him. This story is about how he came to marry his wife.

After establishing himself as a great warrior and coming of age, Cuchulainn also turned out to be the most beautiful young man. All of the other men got sick of their wives ogling him so they decided he had to get married. They tried setting him up but he rejected all the women they introduced him to. Finally, he heard of a woman who might be good enough for him. Her name was Emer and she possessed the six gifts a woman should have: beauty, voice, sweet speech, needlework, wisdom and chastity. When he arrived to meet her he began talking in riddles. No one else could understand him but Emer answered in riddles and they carried on their conversations this way. At one point, “Cuchulainn peeked down the top of her shirt and said ‘I see a fine country there with a sweet resting place.’ Emer replied, ‘No man shall rest there unless he can leap over three walls, kill three groups of nine men with one blow, leaving one man in each group alive, and slay one hundred men at each of the fords between here and Emain Macha.’” (Bardmythology.com) Cuchulainn left in high spirits. He had won her affection and she gave him tasks to complete to win her.

But Emer’s father didn’t think Cuchulainn was worthy so he disguised himself and convinced the young warrior that he should go train with Scathach, a woman warrior known for training great fighters. He hoped that Cuchulainn would die during training or on the journey. But Cuchulainn did not die. He returned for Emer. In an attempt to protect her, her father put up extra fortifications. In conquering them, Cuchulainn met Emer’s requirements. Her father fell off the wall and died during the assault. The two were happily married. They were each others’ equal in brains and she never got jealous when he went off to war or was with other women because he always returned to her.

Writing Prompt

This myth begs to be written from Emer’s point of view. Play with those six gifts a woman should possess. Have fun with the tasks she assigns Cuchulainn to win her hand. Or perhaps give her her own agenda. Does she want to marry Cuchulainn, or anyone at all? What adventures could she have while her warrior husband is off cavorting?

4) How Cuchulainn Got His Name

Myth

Cuchulainn’s birth name was Setanta. His uncle was Conor or Conchobar Mac Nessa, a king. One day Conchobar was invited to a feast at the home of a smith name Culann. On the way he saw Setanta playing with the other boys and beating them at all the games of speed and strength. He told the boy to join him when he was done playing. When the king and his retinue arrived the smith had his dog chained up. He said he lived too far from the king’s protection and didn’t have enough money for guards so he trained the dog to kill any man but himself. Conchobar told him they were all there and he could let the dog go, forgetting he had invited his nephew to join them later.

Setanta was on his way carrying a ball and hurley stick when the dog spotted him and let out a terrible bark. All of the feast-goers fell silent and knew someone was about to die. The dog charged Setanta and, thinking quickly, they boy threw the ball down the dog’s throat, choking it. Then he grabbed its hind legs and smashed its head against a rock, killing it. The king was mighty glad to see his nephew alive but the smith was distraught over the death of his beloved dog. He said his work was worthless now because anyone could come and take it from him.

Setanta felt terrible so he told the smith to get a puppy of his old dog and train it the same way. And in the mean time, Setanta would serve as his guard dog.  A druid in the group said that from now on the boy’s name should be Cu Chulainn, meaning Cullan’s hound. Setanta didn’t like it but the druid insisted that everyone would come to know that name so he accepted it.

Writing Prompt

Write a story about what life must have been like for the smith. Every night a boy came and slept on his doorstep to watch for intruders. The boy is a demigod and therefore quite capable of protecting himself and the smith. But what other things can they learn from each other?

5) The Curse of Macha

Myth

There was a farmer whose wife had died and left him with three children. He had to go to work in the field but had no one to watch them so they stayed home alone while he was gone. One day, he came home and everything was clean, the children tended, and a strange woman was cooking dinner. The man didn’t want to complain when he needed help so he accepted the woman’s offer to be his wife. The woman, Macha, was clearly not of this world. She was a wonderful wife and the children loved her, but she had a peculiarity. She would move so fast her feet barely touched the ground. The farmer didn’t mind though, and never said a word about it.

One day the king of Ulster had a feast to celebrate getting new chariot horses. The farmer was excited to go and enjoy himself but Macha had a warning for him. She said he couldn’t say anything about her to anyone or disaster would follow. He managed most of the feast without saying anything. When the other’s boasted of their wives he managed to keep quiet. But when the king gloated about his horses being the fastest creatures in Ireland he could take it no longer and said his wife was faster.

The king was infuriated and demanded that the wife be brought to prove the farmer correct or he would pay with his life. Soldiers went to fetch Macha and brought her back despite the fact that she was quite clearly pregnant. She begged that they have pity and wait until she gave birth and recovered but the king was unmoved and none of the others would protect her.

So she raced the chariot. The king had striped everything off the horses and chariot, and even himself, that he could but it wasn’t enough. Macha finished the race with her belly out in front of the horses’ noses.
But during the race she started going into labor. When she finished, she gave birth but her twins did not survive. She clung to them and put a curse on all the men of Ulster. When they most needed their strength it would flee them. And for nine days and nine nights they would feel the childbirth pains a woman must endure. She set the curse to last for nine generations and start as soon as the man was old enough to grow a beard. Then she took her babies and ran off over the hills and was never heard from again.

Writing Prompt

What sort of imaginative curses can you come up with? Can you think of a way a future tech could be made to emulate a curse? Think of a scenario in which a person on a new planet colony is betrayed. As a result they form some sort of science-based “curse” on the residents. No no one new wants to move to that planet and an investigation must be conducted.

 

 

6) The Hostel of the Quicken Trees

Myth

Finn is the main hero of the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology. In this tale, he and a band of his men get stuck in a trap after being betrayed by someone Finn trusted.

During a battle to defend Ireland’s shores, Finn killed the invading king. But, being a fair man, he spared the king’s son, Miadach, and took him home to raise as his own. He felt Miadach was part of his family now but the boy did not reciprocate and hated Finn, plotting against him through the years. When he was grown, Finn gave him land and he went off and never returned.

Then one day when on a hunt, Finn and his companions met Miadach on the road. The younger man invited them to the Hostel of Quicken Trees for drinks and Finn accepted. Conan Maol Mac Morna, a bald, cranky man, didn’t like Miadach and warned Finn not to go, but was scolded and forced into it anyway. Finn left behind his actual son and some of the warriors he brought with just in case.

When they got to the Hostel, it was beautifully decorated and sumptuous. But when they got inside they realized Miadach hadn’t joined them and suddenly all the trappings were gone. And they were stuck to the floor! The more the tried to get up the more stuck they got until Finn only had one hand left loose. Due to a previous adventure, he was able to bite his thumb and see Miadach’s plans. A neighboring king and his army were on their way to finish the heroes off. The king was the one who magicked them to the floor and only his blood could release them.

Finn called for the other warriors and explained to them what was happening. A series of difficult battles, which not all the heroes survived, showcased the overwhelming might of the Fianna, Finn’s people. They killed the king and used his blood to free Finn and his two trapped companions. There wasn’t enough blood left to free Conan Maol Mac Morna entirely so he made them pull him up, ripping the skin off his back. To save him from bleeding to death, they skinned a black sheep and put its skin on his back. They had to shave him every spring.

Writing Prompt

I’ll admit I mainly chose this myth because I loved the title. For this myth, try writing a story about a hostel that traps its guests. Slowly the luxurious trimmings disappear leaving the characters confused and increasingly concerned. The villain is an enemy from the past of one of the characters but they have to figure out which one in order to find the way out.

7) Oisin and Niamh Chinn Or

Myth

Oisin was the son of Finn. His own birth was a very strange tale, but this is about his wife.

Oisin was a very great warrior and also a skilled poet with a beautiful voice. One morning he was watching the sun rise over the ocean and was mesmerized by the reflection of sunlight over the water. Then a woman appeared and rode a white horse on the sunlight until she approached him. Her name was Niamh Chinn Or from Tir na nOg and she had heard of his greatness. She asked him to come with her to “a land where there was no sorry or death, and where time had no dominion and a hero could remain strong forever” and marry her. (Bardmythology.com) Loving adventure and being infatuated with Niamh’s beauty, he agreed right away and rode off with her.

They lived happily for some time and had three children. But he got homesick and wanted to see his father again. He asked if he could go home to visit. Niamh told him that it might only have felt like three years here but it was much more back home and nothing was the way he left it. He wanted to go anyway so she let him but gave him a warning. She told him not to get off the back of the white horse.
When he got there he found that all Ireland had changed. It was no longer the age of heroes. Most people were hungry and weak and the architecture was in ruins. No one even remembered his father or the Fianna or thought them myths.

He decided to go back to his family. On the way he saw some men trying to lift a boulder with a lever. He offered to help and leaned off the horse to toss it away by himself. But as he leaned the saddle strap broke and he fell to the ground, his horse fleeing. As soon as he was off the horse the centuries returned to him and he aged rapidly. The locals took him to Saint Patrick who asked for his story. Oisin told him who he was and of his adventures and Saint Patrick wrote it all down. Then he tried to convert Oisin. Oisin refused saying he would rather be in hell with his father than be in “a heaven that would not let his father in.” He died unbaptized and Saint Patrick buried him.

Writing Prompt

Imagine a person being magicked away from our current time. What would they find if they were suddenly brought back to their homeland but in the distant future. How would they be treated by the locals and what kind of “conversion” would they be faced with?

8) Mongan and Dubhlacha

Myth

Mongan was the son of Mananan Mac Lir, god of the sea, and a mortal woman, the wife of the co-king of Ulster, Fiachra Finn. Only Fiachra Finn knew of his son’s real father, having let the god take his shape and sleep with his wife in exchange for help with a battle. Fiachra Finn co-ruled Ulster with his cousin Fiachra Dubh. After ruling together for many years Fiachra Dubh wanted the throne to himself and killed Fiachra Finn. When Mongan returned from the otherworld where he was learning magical things with the god, he found his father dead. Fiachra Dubh offered to share the throne with him, afraid that he would retaliate, and also gave him his daughter, Dubhlacha. Mongan did eventually kill Fiachra Dubh in retaliation after being scolded by Mananan Mac Lir.

Much later, Mongan was out seeing his land when he came upon a herd of white cattle with red ears. He desired it so much that he agreed to give the owner, Brandubh, anything he wanted in the future if he could have the cattle now. He was very disappointed to learn that Brandubh wanted his wife!

So, he let Brandubh take his wife. She agreed to go as long as he didn’t touch her or marry her for a year. During that year Mongan visited Dubhlacha in the guise of a monk three times. Mongan used magic to transform himself and then removed it to visit with his wife once they were alone. Finally, though, Brandubh, set a date for the wedding. Mongan wanted to stop it but couldn’t figure out how. Then he saw an old, ugly hag and got an idea.

He transformed the hag into the most beautiful girl ever, which pleased her very much. When Brandubh saw her he wanted her immediately. Mongan, pretending to be a different king and the girls father, made Brandubh work hard to get her. Brandubh eventually gave Dubhlacha up in exchange.  Mongan and his wife were reunited and Brandubh was sorely disappointed to wake up next to the ugly hag instead of the beautiful girl.

Writing Prompt

This myth is about deception. Brandubh tricked Mongan into giving him his wife. Mongan tricked Brandubh into letting him be alone with his wife later. And at last Mongan was able to trick Brandubh into giving his wife back.

Write a story where the main characters keep tricking each other into giving away things precious to them. Or you could try a version of this story where the women are the ones pulling the strings and the men only think they are the clever ones.

9) Brigid

Myth

Brigid is both a pagan goddess and a Christian saint. As a goddess she was associated with poets, spring, fertility, healing and smithing. She was a member of the Tuatha De Danann. Her father was the Dagda, a father god and leader of the Tuatha De in charge of time, seasons and associated with strength and manliness. Her husband was Bres, the king who allowed the Formorians power over the Tuatha De. As a saint she is celibate, though still called on for fertility, and Ireland’s first nun. She founded a convent and the cross of rushes is attributed to her. Her feast day remained the same from pagan times to Christian, the Imbolc festival or first day of spring.

Writing Prompt

There are two aspects of Brigid that I find fascinating. The first is the way she transitioned between belief systems. Her identity changed some, going from being married and having a child to being a celibate nun, but the persistence of her cult is impressive. Write a story about a goddess trying to survive in the face of a religious revolution.

The other aspect I love is her connection to smithing. I also love that she is connected to fertility and was often invoked by women in labor. That connects smithing with childbirth. Write a story where women are the blacksmiths. If you are tough enough for childbirth, you are tough enough to be a blacksmith.

10) The Banshee

Myth

The following is an excerpt from The Book of Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland compiled by W. B. Yeats:

The banshee (from ban [bean], a woman, and shee [sidhe], a fairy) is an attendant fairy that follows the old families, and none but them, and wails before a death. Many have seen her as she goes wailing and clapping her hands. The keen [caoine], the funeral cry of the peasantry, is said to be an imitation of her cry. When more than one banshee is present, and they wail and sing in chorus, it is for the death of some holy or great one.

Writing Prompt

Write a story about a person who notices a banshee is following him/her and acting oddly. They don’t know they are a member of one of the “old families” and so think the banshee is mistaken or somehow broken. What unique ways could the character and banshee interact? How does the main character discover his/her true lineage?

 

There were so many myths to choose from. I wish I could have included more. Let me know in the comments what your favorite Irish myth is.

 

 

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