6 Most Tragic Love Stories in Irish Mythology (Part One)

One thing I’ve always wondered about as I read all the old myth stories, is what’s the score when it comes to love, sex and marriage in pre-Medieval Ireland?

I mean, according to mythology, Lugh had two wives; Fionn mac Cumhall had several; Midir brought home Etain when he already had Fumnach; Cuchulain had an affair with Fand, who was married to Manannán, yet his wife Emer was waiting for him; Deirdre married her dead sister’s husband, the ageing Fionn, yet eloped with Diarmuid on her wedding night, and the Dagda had an affair with Boann, fathering Óengus on her, then stopped the sun in the sky for nine months so that the child could be born in one day and put into fosterage without her husband, Elcmar, finding out. Oh, but wasn’t she married to Nechtan?

Got a head-ache? Yeah, me too. It’s hard keeping track of all these long-lost love triangles. But they do make for some great stories, most of them not ending happily.

I suspect relationships and marriages were a lot more fluid in the past then they are now. Given that women were pretty equal with men in terms of their rights, I doubt a man had more than one wife at a time. But life was shorter and more violent back then; survival required heirs, and that meant if one’s wife died in childbirth, or battle, or from sickness, a man needed another. And visa versa, I’m sure.

According to P. Joyce’s A Smaller Social History of Ancient Ireland, the Brehon Laws were quite clear in that women were considered equal in marriage, retaining their own property, and were free to divorce (and remarry) a man if he didn’t fulfill his husbandly duties.

On marriage, the husband had to pay the bride’s father a ‘bride-price’, or dowry. This is where the idea comes from that a man ‘bought’ his wife. This payment was made in annual increments, of which each year an increasing proportion was paid directly to the wife, finally ending at the twenty-first year of marriage.

Although the marriage contract was officially recognised, there doesn’t seem to have been any legal or religious ceremony involved, and divorce, or separation, seems to have been easy, with no stigma attached, like there is today.

We can see this in the Tailten marriages, a pagan tradition which continued well beyond Christian times. At the annual festival of Lughnasa in Teltown (between Navan and Kells), young people could be married by joining hands through a hole in a large stone, or wall.

If the relationship didn’t work out, the marriage could be dissolved at the following year’s festival by standing back to back on top of Rathdhú (an archaeological feature in the landscape of Tailten) and walking away from each other. This type of marriage was called ‘handfasting’.

The Brehon Laws recognised ten types of relationships between men and women;

  1. Union between partners of equal rank and property.
  2. In which a woman has less property than the man and is supported by him.
  3. In which a man has less property than the woman and agrees to manage her livestock and lands.
  4. In which no property rights were exchanged.
  5. The mutual consent of a man and woman to share their bodies, but not a home.
  6. In which a defeated enemy’s wife is abducted.
  7. A temporary and primarily sexual union ie a one night stand.
  8. When a man seduces a woman through lying, deception or taking advantage of her intoxication ie what we call ‘date rape’ today.
  9. Rape.
  10. Union between the weak-minded or insane.

Think they just about got it all covered! We can see examples of some of these in the mythological cycles. But one thing the Brehon Law doesn’t mention is LOVE, and the myths are full of the stuff. It doesn’t come easy, however; most love stories in Irish myth end tragically for one or both lovers. So let’s take a closer look…

Clíodhna’s wave

This is my favourite tragic love story, and you can read my version of it in Grá mo Chroí, Love of my Heart, Love Stories from Irish Myth, which is FREE on Smashwords.

Clíodhna (Klee-na) of the Fair Hair was a daughter of the Sidhe who fell in love with Ciabhán (Kav-awn) of the Curling Locks, a prince of Ulster. She visited him from the Otherworld, and Ciabhan became so enamoured of her, that when she left to return home, he stole a fishing boat pulled up on the stony strand nearby, and attempted to follow her.

The little curragh was tossed about like jetsam upon the stormy sea, so that the poor young man nearly drowned. Manannán took pity on him, however, and brought him safely into his magical lands.

There he spent many happy days in Clíodhna’s company, until one day they were warned by Fand, Manannán’s wife, that the sea-god thought it high time Ciabhan returned to his own people.

Devastated, the lovers couldn’t bear to be parted, and stole Manannán’s magical boat, the Wave Sweeper, setting sail for Ireland. Back on the strand, Clíodhna fell asleep after their long sea voyage, and Ciabhán went hunting for a deer to provide their supper.

Having learned of their treachery, Manannán was furious and sent a huge wave to reclaim the runaway maiden, and so she was swept to her death. The wave which relentlessly pounds the shore there to this day is named in her memory.

deirdre of the Sorrows

Conchubar (Kon-or) mac Nessa, king of Ulster, had a storyteller named Feidhlimidh (Fay-lim) Mac Daill, and a druid named Cathbad. He prophecied that Feidhlimidh’s unborn daughter would grow up to be so beautiful, the men of Ireland would go to war over her. The warriors wanted the baby to be killed at birth, but Conchubar decided to have her raised in the forest in isolation, where she could do no harm. Her name was Deirdre (Dee-urd-ruh).

One day many years later, quite by chance,  Deirdre met Naoise (Nee-shuh), one of the three sons of Uisneach, who was passing through the forest. He was so dazzled by her beauty, that he agreed to elope with her. Accompanied by his two brothers, the couple fled to Scotland, far from King Conchubar’s wrath. They lived quite happily in the wilderness, hunting and fishing to survive.

Eventually, the king tracked them down, and sent Fergus mac Róith to bring them home, promising safe passage. Fergus was invited to a feast along the way, which his personal geis would not let him refuse, so the party continued on under the protection of Fergus’s son.

On arrival at the King’s court, Conchobar attacked and killed Naoise and his brothers. Fergus arrived too late to save them, and outraged, took up service with Queen Medb of Connacht, soon becoming her lover. He later led her army against the warriors of Ulster in the Cattle Raid of Cooley.

Conchobar took Deirdre as his wife, but after a year of her continued rejection of him, he grew tired of her, and decided to torture her further by giving her to the man who had made the death-stroke against her beloved Naoise.

Deirdre had other plans, though. On the way to her new husband, she threw herself from the chariot, hitting her head against a stone, and so was killed, although some versions of the story say she died from grief.

Niamh and Oisin

One day, Oisin (Osh-een) was out hunting with his father, Fionn mac Cumhall, and the men of the Fianna, when he was approached by a beautiful woman riding a white stallion.

She told him she was Niamh of the Golden Hair, a woman of the Sidhe, and she had long loved him from afar. She invited him to go with her and live in the Otherworld. Although sad to be leaving his family and friends, Oisin agreed.

He lived very happily with Niamh in Tir na Nog for what he thought was three years, but then he grew sad and homesick. Niamh reluctantly agreed to let him return to visit his family, and lent him her white horse, who would carry him safely there. She warned him not to let his feet to touch Ireland’s soil.

When Oisin arrived in Ireland, he did not recognise it. He couldn’t find any sign of his home, his family or friends. He saw some men struggling to remove a boulder from a field, and went to help them. Through chatting to them, he realised that three hundred years had passed while he had been with Niamh in Tir na Nog.

Shocked, he slipped and fell from his saddle as he leaned over to haul up the rock. Instantly as his feet touched the earth, he was transformed into a very old man, and died. Some versions say he survived long enough to meet St Patrick and tell him all the stories of Fionn and the Fianna, before converting to Christianity.

So that’s it for Part One. Please come back on Wednesday to read Part Two, in which I reveal the tragic love stories of Diarmuid and Graine, Fionn and Sadbh, and one of my personal favourites, Tristan and Iseult, which actually appears in the Arthurian tales, but is definitely an Irish story.

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53 Comments on “6 Most Tragic Love Stories in Irish Mythology (Part One)

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    • Gosh, thank you! I write about what I love, and to know that others love it too just makes my day. So glad it helped you with your project. Any chance you could tell me a little about it? You have me intrigued!


  6. Oh my goodness – another great read! Sorry I am rummaging through your interesting blog now. I am loving the name ‘Niamh of the Golden Hair’ – better than just blonde!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Feel free to rummage as much as you like! 😁 Yes the old storytellers had a very poetic turn of phrase, didn’t they? They liked to make reference to people’s hair… Ciabhán, who I also mention in the post, was known as ‘of the Curling Locks’… I think they must have all been quite vain about their hair in those days! 😂😄😅

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve always loved the poetic hair references, too. I think it was very much a status symbol, probably the entirety of the significance is lost. Sometimes I think people just had beautiful hair. Blathaín, Niamh’s daughter, took after her mother in hair… it’s blond with natural golden highlights, she fashioned it in tresses and wore it down and tied beads into it, giving the appearance in the sunlight of a waterfall of golden glints against a darker blonde background. Stunning. Her hair framed a face with gentle features and kind hazel eyes and at around 5/7 (pretty tall for a woman of her time … got that from Oisín,) with long fingered hands, she was truly beautiful. Her mother must have been just as physically beautiful, if not more so. But I think the daughter outdid the mother in compassion and kindness in this case. Kindness tends to make lovely looking people shine brighter.


  7. Beautiful post, Ali. I’ve also often wondered about the place of love in ancient Irish society, given how it is portrayed in mythology. I did read somewhere, I think in one of the stories about Oisin and Niamh, that members of the fianna could marry for love, as if that was a particularly special reason to marry someone. The truth is probably that anyone had some sort of likelihood for truly loving the partner(s) they chose – but the idea of love as a way of completion, romantically filling out another, is in my opinion more modern. And it’s unclear of course if that was the kind of love portrayed in the original stories or not. Such stories always seem to change with the times in which they are told. I completely agree with you and believe that the notion of marriage was far more fluid for our ancestors. Caoilte had a woman named Caoimhe, with whom he had nine children, but also had a strong union with Ailbhe. There were a few people before her, and at least one after Ailbhe died, but it is safe to say that he and Ailbhe have had a bond strong enough to last almost 2000 years. That’s pretty awesome. And Caoimhe apparently never got jealous. The arrangement seemed very reasonable to her. But she fell out when she lost her sons all in one battle, that got her pretty angry, and griefstricken, and she returned to her birth family in terms of loyalty..

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can understand that. Most people are probably closest to their own family rather than their partners. And losing all your sons in a battle would do something terrible to you emotionally. Even losing one would be unbearable. I agree, stories are always adapted to the values of the people telling them and listening to them. But whole stories revolve just on a couples love for each other, Baile and Aillin, for example, and Oengus and Caer Ibormeith, so I think love was as powerful then, as it is now. Well, that is what I think, anyway, but of course that may be my modern values speaking! 😁😂😄


      • Oh, I think love has and hopefully will remain one of the strongest forces between/among humans, Ali. I think there is much that draws us together, rather than separates us regardless of what time we happen to live in, and being in love and being love in general is a powerful commonality. 🙂

        What might change is what love comes to mean in a culture which is true of any part of an intrinsic human emotion which can be socialized. But there is always something more fundamental, unnamable, running beneath whatever conception or expectations or judgments are put over it. Sorry for the sappy analogy but it’s like there’s a current that is always moving a particular direction, beneath a changing tide, the core humanness of emotion is what carries us, while we differ in how we make sense of it on the surface. I doubt I could ever generalize if people across time conceived of love or had expectations about it that differed substantially, or how much from us, in part because I have my own embedded interpretation/conception which colors wondering about it in the first place.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. So, at least, love did exist, Ali. I love the story of Niamh and Oisin as Oisin gets to time travel. Sad end for him but it could be the earliest form of time-travel to a certain degree. How cool to see the future just before leaving this world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, although he was expecting a lovely reunion with family and friends. I dont think I’d want to outlive everyone I know and love, would you? My preferred time travel would be into the past, not the future, but only if I knew I could get back again! 😂

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Interesting to learn about the ten different types of relationships between men and women, according to the Brehon Laws… I am thinking that those ones could be even useful to analyse Greek Mythology… Particularly when it comes to Zeus, the Ruler of Gods, who was also known for being quite a cheater…
    The stories you have chosen are beautiful… I found them deep and touching.
    Sending best wishes. Happy week!, Aquileana 🔆

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah thank you Aquilanea! They are beautiful sad stories. I wish I could tell them in more depth so the real beauty of them would shine, but there’s no room for that in a blog post, sadly. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  10. This is BRILLIANT. my fave bit was hearing of the stone they joined hands through – are there any more little tidbits like that? I love stuff like that because it gives me ideas for ceremonies and rituals in my book – I am lacking a bit in that department so any little nuggets you know of from mythology would be greatly welcomed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well I have posts on the blog about the sunwise ritual, the crane dance ritual, the tarbfeis and imbas forosnai, if you’re interested.


  11. Man, they did love their tragic tales back then 🙂

    “Think they just about got it all covered” – and then some! It’s amazing to see Rape mentioned in the same breath as the rest of them. Makes you wonder just how frequent that was.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, but the worst thing about it is that a woman could be made to marry the rapist if her family wanted it, apparently. I’m not so sure I believe that part, it sounds so inhuman and cruel.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It does. Unless rape was perceived by everyone (including the victim) totally different than today, I guess. Although I can’t imagine how that could be.


  12. With a mother whose maiden name was Lanigan, we grew up on these stories. But she would always add some twist to the effect that of course all these bad things happened because the heroes didn’t listen to their mother’s advice. I was in college, taking my first Irish Lit. class before I realized that most of these tales did not actually involve a mom.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. My family includes the Moores of Georgia and Texas. How that happened went like this:

    My cousin married a Lunsford in GA and had eight kids. The Lunsfords owned lots of property and he started a lumber business in the 1800s that made a fortune. They hauled lumbar by horse and wagon to Texas, where he had a distribution center before the railway came through. He spent months at a time away from home. In Texas he married another woman and had twelve kids. Yes, twenty kids between two wives. Neither family knew about the other family until he died. Both his wives wanted their inheritance and went to court. The Lunsford lady claimed rights to his fortune because the land the trees were grown own belonged to her family. The Texas lady claimed rights because her family had made him business loans. It was all distributed between his twenty kids and nearly one hundred grandkids, which watered it down significantly. Seriously, this story might have had a different ending had there been better methods of birth control back in the day.

    Liked by 1 person

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