Irish folklore stories are remarkable for its wealth and variety of supernatural maritime legends, many of which have been brought to life through song, poetry and film. These include stories of mythical beings, curious sea creatures and mystical islands, said to appear at exceptionally long intervals of time.
Of course, the Wild Atlantic Way is home to some of the most beautiful islands in the world, including the now-infamous Skelligs, forever immortalised in the closing moments of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But what about those islands only spoken of in folklore and legend?
“The most prominent of those is the mythical island of Uí Bhreasaíl”, says Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, an archivist for the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin. “Often referred to as ‘An Bhreasaíl’, ‘Hy-Brasil’, or simply ‘Brasil’, the legendary island is said to lie in the Atlantic Ocean, west of Ireland.”
Rays of sunshine over the Dingle Peninsula
“There are other notable islands exclusive to Irish legend”, Críostóir continues, “though some claim they do indeed exist! ‘Beag Árainn’ is said to arise periodically from the seas west of the Aran Islands, while ‘Tir Hudi’ is believed to appear off the north-west coast of Donegal. The way in which these islands are represented in legend – fertile and prosperous, with fine buildings and other infrastructure, including people – is undoubtedly coloured by ideas originating in speculative literature composed in Ireland and Western Europe in the Middle Ages”, explains Críostóir.
“The most common maritime legend told in coastal districts of Ireland is the evocative legend of the man who married a mermaid”, says Críostóir. In fact, it’s quite likely that the mermaid figure was originally conceived of as a seal. In recent tradition she is sometimes identified as a ‘seal maiden’, like the Irish selkie of Scottish tradition, as seen in the beautiful and evocative Oscar-nominated Irish film Song of the Sea. “That the mermaid was modelled to some degree on the seal is a natural development”, notes Críostóir, “as both creatures perch on rocks close to the water’s edge.”
Song of the Sea, image via Popinsomniacs
“Stories are also recorded of fishermen encountering massive serpents (in Irish, péist) while fishing”, adds Críostóir, “in some cases even alighting on them in their small boats and currachs. More popular still are accounts of mysterious phantom or ‘fairy’ boats, whose appearance as often foreshadows tragedy as it does good fortune. As a Galway fisherman explained to folklore collector Lady Gregory – a close friend of poet WB Yeats – more than 100 years ago: ‘The fairies are in the sea as well as on the land. That is well-known by those that are out fishing by the coast.’”
Finally, there’s a fantastic story behind what’s known as Aileen’s Wave in County Clare. Rising as high as 12m at times, this surfer’s dream is said to have originated from the spot where seven Celtic gods transformed into seven foals, before leaping into the afterlife.
A surfer tackles Aileen’s Wave in County Clare
Explore more interesting islands with our Islands of the Wild Atlantic Way feature, discover buried treasure and map out your journey with our handy trip planner.