5 Weirdest Hero Deaths in Irish Mythology

There’s some pretty freaky weird stuff that goes on in Irish mythology. Like the Tuatha de Danann arriving in Ireland from the sky on black storm clouds; like Nuada’s silver arm, possibly the world’s first ever bionic arm; like the Sword of Light, and Lugh’s spear which is so desperate to kill of its own accord it must be kept cool in a cauldron of mysterious liquid; like the stone which roars in recognition of the rightful High King… I could go on.

Sounds like science fiction, right?

Wrong. It’s Irish mythology. Those ancient storytellers were way ahead of us. It’s the kind of stuff that would capture young imaginations, really engage young people in their heritage. Instead, they get Deirdre making tea for a giant called Finn, and people being turned into swans for 900 years, only to die immediately they become human again.

Where’s the fun in that?

Today, though, I’m all about weird, and weird deaths in particular. Irish heroes often lived dramatic and tragic lives. They lived by honour, and valour, and courage. They weren’t afraid of death; why would they be, when they understood about reincarnation?

Many of them lived and died by the sword. Their deaths were marked by erecting cairns over their bodies, and songs and stories would be made about them.

But some came to a decidedly more ‘sticky’ end than the rest. Here are my top 5 weird and fascinating hero deaths, in reverse order…

5. Medb.

See that woman in the picture floating in the water? She’s Medb, Queen of Connacht. You’ve read about her before on this blog. Medb is most well known for taking on the armies of Ulster in order to get possession of the mighty brown bull of Cooley. She didn’t die in battle, though; she was murdered, but in quite an unusual way.

Before she became Queen, she murdered her pregnant sister, Clothru. The baby was born by caesarian section and survived, a boy named Furbaide. He resented Medb for killing his mother, and plotted his revenge.

Medb often bathed in a pool on Inis Cloithreann, an island on Lough Ree. Furbaide measured the distance between the pool and the shore with a rope. He set up a target at this distance, by placing an apple on top of a stake which was Medb’s height, and practiced firing stones at it with his sling. When he was proficient, he waited for his moment.

Unfortunately, when it came, he was caught unaware, and the only missile he had to hand was a cheese he was eating. He hurled it with his sling across the lake. His practice paid off, and his aim was true. The cheese struck Medb on the head and she was killed outright. It was probably not the glorious death she had imagined for herself.

4. Cormac mac Art. 

Cormac was a wise and just High King of Ireland, credited with creating the Brehon Laws, and was revered for his wisdom. For a king so beloved, he died under very strange circumstances. Although Christianity did not come to Ireland until the C5th, according to the Christian monks who wrote down his story, somehow Cormac found Jesus. His own Druids then turned against him, and even though he had relinquished the Kingship to his son Cairpre by this stage, they cursed him.

“So they cursed Cormac in his flesh and bones, in his waking and sleeping, in his down sitting and his uprising, and each day they turned over the Wishing Stone upon the altar of their god, and wove mighty spells against his life.”

from T.W.Rolleston’s The High Deeds of Finn and other Bardic Romances of Ancient Ireland.

It was said the poor man died from choking on a salmon bone. Before he passed, though, he left strict instructions that he was not to be buried with all the pagan kings at Brú na Boínne (Newgrange), but was to be given a Christian burial on the other side of the River Boyne at Ross-na-Ree.

His wishes, however, were disregarded, but as his body was being carried across the river, a great surge of water rose up and swept the king away. He was found by shepherds, washed up on the river bank at Ross-na-Ree next morning. Not knowing who he was, they laid his body to rest right there beneath the earth in an unmarked grave, and so Cormac got the burial he requested after all.

I suspect this story has been the victim of a bit of butchery at the hands of its Christian scribes, from the looks of it!

3. Fionn mac Cumhall.

Fionn was a contemporary of Cormac mac Art, and served him faithfully as leader of a war-band called the Fianna. The Fianna were looked up to by the people of Ireland as protectors, and the warriors followed a strict code of honour and chivalry. However, when Cormac died, Cairpre the new King did not trust the Fianna, and they met in battle at Gabhra, just to the west of the Hill of Tara.

Fionn was last seen charging into combat single-handedly against the five sons of Urgriu. No one saw him killed, and his body was never found. This led to the rise of a legend; that Fionn sleeps with his Fianna somewhere under the green hills of Ireland, awaiting the call of the Dord Fian to awaken them in the hour of Ireland’s greatest need.

Remind you of anyone? King Arthur, perhaps? It’s possible that the story of King Arthur could be based on that of Fionn mac Cumhall… he certainly lived a few centuries before King Arthur.

2. Cuchulainn. 

He was born Sétanta, but after killing one of Cullan’s guard-dogs with his hurling ball when he was just a child, he became known as the Hound of Cullan. Cuchulain was a champion of Ulster, and managed to hold back Queen Medb’s army almost single-handedly when he was only 17 years old.

Medb was so furious at her defeat by a mere boy, that she conspired with her allies to lead him to his death. On his way to meet her, he came across the Morrigan in the guise of an old woman, washing bloody clothes in a stream. He recognised the garments as his, and knew this foretold his doom.

He then met an old woman who offered him a meal of dog flesh. Cuchulain was under a geis not to eat dog meat, but in ancient times it was a far worse taboo to refuse hospitality, and so he accepted the food.

Thus mentally and spiritually weakened by these encounters, he was attacked by Lugaid, one of Medb’s co-conspirators, who had three magical spears made. The first killed Laeg, Cuchulain’s charioteer. The second killed his great grey horse, Liath Macha. The third mortally wounded Cuchulain.

Determined to die like a warrior on his feet, Cuchulain tied himself to a standing stone, which can still be seen in Knockbridge near Dundalk. And here’s the really weird part; one version of the story claims he tied himself to the stone with his own entrails. How gutsy is that? (On no, pardon the pun, couldn’t resist!)

Cuchulain’s reputation as a warrior was so fierce, that his enemies dared not approach him to take his head, until the Morrigan alighted on his shoulder in the form of a crow.

1. Cairbre. 

And finally in the number one spot we have Cairbre, poet of the Tuatha de Danann, with a story which has long fascinated me. Cairbre cursed Bres, tyrant-king of the Danann, for his poor hospitality, by uttering a satire so vicious, the king’s face was covered in a rash of red boils. This was said to be the first satire ever made in Ireland, and set an example for the power of ‘the double-edged sword’, known as the ‘Tongue of Knowledge’.

That’s pretty weird, but get this; according to the Celtic Encyclopedia (Vol 2)…

“Cairbre eventually died a druidic death of pure light at the hands of Nechtan during the battle of Segais Well.”

How weird is that? I mean, I don’t know about you but I’m imagining Gods with light sabres. An ancient text called ‘The Death Tales of the Tuatha de Danann’ tells it slightly differently…

“Of a stroke of the pure sun died Cairpre the great, son of Etan: Etan died over the pool of sorrow for white-headed Cairpre.”

It’s still weird, though; what exactly does ‘a stroke of the pure sun’ mean? All this may not be intended quite so literally as we think. It’s a fact that ancient storytellers loved to weave riddles and symbolism throughout their tales.

I had a chat (via blog comments) with Stuart France of Something Feral about this very subject. He explained that being as the ‘battle’ took place at the Well of Knowledge, perhaps it was a contest between two great poets/ bards/ filidh/ druids. Light is another way of saying energy, and knowledge. A druidic death could represent an initiation into this druidic knowledge, perhaps a kind of rebirth. It’s certainly plausible. You can read our discussion here.

So there you have it, a little taste of Irish weirdness to go with your coffee on another manic Monday morning.

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72 Comments on “5 Weirdest Hero Deaths in Irish Mythology

  1. Pingback: Emain Macha, Stronghold of Ulster Kings or Site of Sacred Ritual? | aliisaacstoryteller

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  4. I’d been meaning to come back and read this post, and I was not disappointed, Ali! Such strange deaths all around – I imagine some of them are symbolic or, as you say, have been ‘edited’ in later years. Ireland has a rich and wonderful mythology, that’s for sure 🙂


  5. We certainly got a sanitised version of all of this in school, Ali, when we would have rathered hearing this. Despite reading loads of mythology never once were we taught that Queen Medbh was killed by cheese. Probably because the fact that she was bathing would have implied she was naked. And as for Deirdre and the tea, you know how I feel about that. Cú Chulainn was glorified more as a hurler than a warrior which says a lot about priorities in Co. Clare in the 1980s. Ah, those were the days.


  6. I love this post.
    It may sound creepy but I believe that the story of someone’s death tell a lot of things, not just about the person but also other things surrounding the person. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Killed by a piece of cheese? That has to be the most bizarre death I have ever read about, Ali. I knew eating cheese before going to bed can give some of us nightmares, but being hit on the head with a piece and then dying from the wound take the biscuit (no pun intended). However, it does make the perfect ending for a short story with a great twist.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha! Yes indeed, Rachele. She was buried beneath a huge stone cairn which draws a lot of tourists. Wonder how she feels about that. If there was ever a marker stone it was probably inscribed with Ogham, but is long gone. The legends remain though. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  8. what awesome tales, sword and sorcery, light and magic love them all. Kind of glad though that I didn’t live back then though I was struck in the head by a cheese sandwich thrown by an angry child once!! So glad I lived to tell the tale!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: My Article Read (3-14-2016) – My Daily Musing

  10. Awesome post, Ali!
    For what it’s worth, I think it’s more likely that Cormac is buried at Sí Mór. It is certainly odd to be the only person in a given century and throughout your entire country to find Jesus. 🙂 I definitely suspect some Christian wishful thinking. 🙂

    Wow, that story of Cairpre the great is intriguing and strange to say the least! I never knew about it before… you’ve got me wondering… the druid/shamanic allegory explanation makes sense, but I don’t really want to think about it… 🙂 The text has been inspiring me to think up a lot of creative fictional explanations, actually, which doesn’t happen to me often. And I can’t stop juxtaposing the concept of sleeping in darkness with dying by light. Two halves of the same whole? Rebirth, indeed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Éilis! Well you know my feelings already about Sheemor. It is such a special site with immense peace and energy, it could only be someone extremely important and revered who rests there. Although the two smaller mounds threw me, I thought initially maybe Fionn, Bran and Sceolán. But I don’t know. I’d like to think it was Cormac.

      Thats a very interesting concept, Éilis, sleeping in darkness and dying by light. People are born from the darkness of the womb, plants from the darkness of the womb, emerging into light, consciousness, knowledge. Further than that, it’s just too big for my poor brain to grasp hold of! But what if it was literal? We’re assuming it’s druidic symbolism because for now that’s easier to accept. But what if it’s not that? Then I’m flummoxed! (Love that word!) 😁

      Liked by 2 people

      • That’s always the fascinating and sometimes disturbing question, isn’t it? Well, the fianna sleeping in the cave isn’t literal, I at least got to investigate that one and was more than relieved about it. Cairpre dying by light, though… I just don’t know either. It could just as likely be literal than not, it would be really exciting to find out! … Flummoxed is a great word like bewilderment 🙂 I share the feeling. I wonder if we’d have to go ask… that would involve Tír na nóg, possibly, in which case I’m hesitant.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. Ok so one dies in a way we don’t know, three die from food and one in a flash of light. Strikes me this is culinary killing and the mystery one is probably because he moaned about the dish of the day and the last guy probably blew himself up lighting the stove.., What is it with weird deaths – and Gordon makes stuff up – just saying…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haven’t you got a copy of the Mabinogion handy, they are wonderful tales. I would advise the Victorian translation by Lady Guest. The story is as I gave it (trimming it a bit).

      Liked by 2 people

        • I would say that the Mabinogion is hardly an obscure source, after all I first read it when I was about twelve or thirteen.
          You would say that the Mabinogion is clearly an obscure source, as I didn’t discover it until I was about twelve or thirteen.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Well, I think it depends largely on where you live and what kinds of stories you were exposed to as a child. I didn’t hear about the Mabinogion until I was in my twenties and studying druidry. I grew up on a lot of mythology as a child, but it was Greek and Roman, and was presented as *those awesome classic but obviously false stories of a bygone era*. Part of me knew better, that at the very least mythology was quite a different thing than fiction as it gave us a road map to living and there was always some kind of truth behind the origin. There are people who I know quite well who live and work with the gods of their land through, in part, studying the Mabinogion quite extensively- one in particular has built the Druid Order of Anglesey around it. Obscurity, as well as familiarity, are very relative concepts.

            Liked by 2 people

            • Like you, I knew only of Greek and Roman legend until adulthood. Then I started reading about Arthur, but still did not know anything about Welsh myth. Then I moved to Ireland and that was when my world opened up. But there is so much to learn here that I have not progressed yet into the myths of other cultures.

              Liked by 1 person

  12. In terms of weird deaths, nothing can beat the Welsh. In the Mabinogion Lleu has been told by oracle that he can not be killed during the day or night, nor indoors or outdoors, neither riding nor walking, not clothed and not naked, nor by any weapon lawfully made. During love making he reveals to Blodeuwedd, his unfaithful wife, that he can only be killed at dusk, wrapped in a net with one foot on a cauldron and one on a goat and with a spear forged for a year during the hours when everyone is at mass.

    Having made the spear she sets him up, with the net caldron and everything, explaining to her rather dim husband that she wants to see him at his most vulnerable position. Her lover then stabs him.

    She is later turned into an owl for her crimes.


  13. Pingback: Reblog – 5 Weirdest Hero Deaths in Irish Mythology | Coloring Outside the Lines

    • Hi Allie! Well, I can’t be 100% sure, as I wasn’t there lol! But that’s the story, poor Medb, what a way to go! Must have been a very hard lump of cheese…


  14. I loved this Aliisaa, the death of Cuchulain has always fascinated me, but I heard that it was his son by the warrior woman from Scotland that eventually killed him? He was tied to the stone and all the other parts but where in the world I heard the last part I don`t know. My Granny was a great storyteller so it could have been from her. I remember she was babysitting me one night, the grown ups were all down at Floods, the local pub in Kimmage, Dublin. We were watching the old movie of Titanic and I said to her “So they all drowned Granny?” she replied. “Oh yes all dead, their ghosts forever haunting the bottom of the ocean.” I have not been able to watch anything to do with the titanic ever again. Went totally off post there, sorry but a tale does have legs, arms and a mouth to talk with. lol

    Liked by 1 person

  15. This just became my face post EVER! Wicked wicked wicked info, and such weirdness! Tied up with his own entrails?! Bleugh! Awesome! Death by cheese!! Pahahaha amazing! Light sabre hey….?! *scratches head*

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mm mm. . Dark chocolate ginger, sounds good to me David! I just had an almond croissant, very naughty but my little treat to myself. 😁 Huge hugs to you!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Always interesting. I’m truly amazed at the courage of the ancients. Modern day Kings expect to be protected from the masses and those who might thwart their designs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! That is true, but even back then, the king had his bodyguards. The Fianna, for example, protected Cormac, until he was no longer king, and they had to serve the new King instead. The king’s of Ulster were protected by the Red Branch Knights. Having said that, it was kill or be killed. Kings never lived very long!

      Liked by 1 person

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