I suppose that depends on what you mean by ‘giant’. The Oxford Dictionary is vague: ‘An imaginary or mythical being of human form but superhuman size’. It backs this up with, ‘An abnormally or extremely tall or large person, animal, or plant‘.

If you Google it, you will be told that Irish mythology is full of stories of giants. Despite popular belief, search a little more deeply, and you’ll find this is not true. More often than not, it is folklore which tells of giants, as last week’s post explains; Fionn mac Cumhall reduced to hiding in a crib dressed as a baby, even though he was so large he was responsible for building a road across the sea to Scotland, which we now know as the ‘Giant’s Causeway’; the giant witch-hag falling to her death as she leaped from crag to crag, carrying boulders in her apron which formed the cairns of Loughcrew, and so on.

giant2Clearly, from these examples, Irish giants were… well, fecking gigantic! But how ginormous is a giant, exactly? Here’s an interesting story, which might give us a clue.

DNA extracted from the teeth of a man named Charles Byrne, from Northern Ireland, who lived in the 18th century, proves that he had a genetic mutation which resulted in extreme growth. He was 7ft 7 ins tall when he died in the 1780s aged just 22. His skeleton can still be seen at the Hunterian Museum in the London headquarters of the Royal College of Surgeons.

By StoneColdCrazy at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16500747
By StoneColdCrazy at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16500747

What’s so intriguing about this case, is that the DNA matched with that of five Northern Irish families still living in that area today, and scientists believe they all inherited the gene mutation from the same common ancestor who lived up to 66 generations, or 1500 years, ago. Who knows, perhaps in the future, it will be traced even further back. If so, then perhaps we have just found the origin of the giant stories in Irish folklore. (You can read the full story here.)

The Tuatha de Danann were said to be tall, slender and powerful, although they were never described as giants. The Fomori, a sea-faring race who battled against the arrival of the Danann, were led by a King known as Balor, said to be a giant with one eye in the centre of his head which could kill people with one look.

Although the Fomori are portrayed as nasty and despicable, and really quite ugly, it is only Balor who is described as a giant. I would also dispute their ugliness; Elatha was so beautiful that when he appeared over the sea to Eriu in his silver boat, she consented immediately to sleep with him. Their resulting son, Bres, was also beautiful; in fact, that is the very meaning of his name.

Balor locked his daughter, Ethne, away in a tower on an island after hearing a prophecy that he would be killed by his own grandson. Despite this, Cian of the Danann comes to her and they sleep together. She gives birth to triplet sons, but Balor orders them to be thrown into the sea. One of them is rescued by Birog, a druidess, and he grows up to be Lugh, God of Lightning. At the Second Battle of Moytura, Lugh does indeed kill his grandfather with a spear through his evil eye, and so the prophecy came to pass.

My favourite giant story, however, concerns the origins of the five sacred guardian trees of Ireland. I can’t help feeling that this myth has really really ancient origins. One day, a tall stranger, some say a giant ‘as high as a wood’, came to the court of the High King at Tara bearing a branch from which grew three fruits, an apple, an acorn, and a hazelnut.

The stranger’s name was Trefuilngid Tre-eochair, meaning ‘of the three sprouts’. From the description, he was clearly a descendant of the Otherworld;

“As high as a wood was the top of his shoulders, the sky and the sun visible between his legs, by reason of his size and his comeliness. A shining crystal veil about him like unto raiment of precious linen. Sandals upon his feet, and it is not known of what material they were. Golden-yellow hair upon him falling in curls to the level of his thighs.”

He requested of Conan Bec-eclach, a just and brave High King, that all the men of Ireland be assembled, and from them he selected seven of the wisest men of knowledge from each ‘quarter’ of the land, and also seven from Tara.

He taught them all about their history and heritage, and shared with them his knowledge, but during that time, not a drop of wine or morsel of food passed his lips, for he was sustained purely by the fragrance of the fruits of his branch.

When his work was done, he gave the fruits from his branch to Fintan, the White-Haired Ancient One, who extracted seeds and planted them in each quarter of the land, and one in the centre, at Uisneach. The trees which grew from these seeds became the five sacred trees of Ireland.

Searbhan was a giant who protected a sacred rowan tree in the forest of Dubros (in Co Sligo), upon which grew magical berries which had the power to restore youth to the old. During their flight from jealous Fionn mac Cumhall, Diarmuid and Grainne entered the forest, looking for a safe place to sleep. Being quite pregnant by this time, as soon as Grainne laid eyes on the glossy red berries, she was consumed with an insatiable craving for them.

Inevitably, Searbhan refused to give her any, causing Diarmuid to attack him in anger. The giant swung his huge club, but Diarmuid was a mighty warrior of the Fianna, and not only did he dodge nimbly out of the way, but he managed to relieve Searbhan of his weapon, and kill him with it.

Here in Co Cavan, folklore local to the Burren tells the tale of two sibling giants, Lugh (an important and well loved character from mythology, borrowed yet again) and Lag, who both fell in love with the same female giant. To see decide which one of them should win her, they challenged one another to jump over a wide chasm. They both succeeded. Lag then decided he would jump the chasm backwards, and of course, he fell to his death. He was buried in a wedge tomb beside the chasm, which to this day is known as ‘the Giant’s Leap’.


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50 thoughts on “Were There Giants in Ancient Ireland?

  1. I don’t know why, I’m fascinated with stories of giants. Thanks so much for sharing this.

    I also find fascinating that the myth of the coming of these sacred trees echoes a very similar Lakota myth, where the White Calf Buffalo Woman brings the sacred Sage to that people.
    Maybe it’s true, as some scholars say, that all humans are cusines 😉

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  2. That’s fascinating about Charles Byrne and a possible ancient genetic origin. I know someone around seven feet tall… he has a condition that affects his nervous system and growth among other things and he isn’t expected to live past 50. The story about the sacred trees is beautiful. I agree, it definitely sounds like it originated from a tale that is far older.

    I really hope you’re doing well, Ali. Just so you know, I really want to click like on all of your posts but wordpress is still not letting me use the like button on anyone’s blog. Anyway, here is a hug from me to you and Carys.

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  3. I have a feelingthere’s a great deal of myths and legends which wrap around truth – to keep those truths from being lost or destroyed by competing cultures….and when you consider that continents ripped and drifted, there may be more connections in the past than we know at this time. DNA does illuminate ancienent things once and a while.
    Always enjoy your tales and style

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  4. Have you heard of the TV series ‘Land Of The Giants’, Ali? It was first broadcast back in the 1960s and 70s and is currently being screened on The Horror Channel (during the early evening).
    I’d hate to be a giant having to shop for clothes! I’d love to be a little taller, but nothing more than 6ft.

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  5. You always amaze me with all the knowledge you possess of Ireland lore… Were you always interested, even as a kid, or is this something you studied more in recent years? Either way, WOW! (The museum skeleton is breathtaking, and how interesting that the families from there have the same gene mutation! And I LOVE the triplets story!) ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! Thank you! Ive always loved mythology. When I was a child I lived on the Greek island of Cyprus, and my dad took me to lots of archaeological sites. So thats how I got started, with Greek Mythology. As a teen, I was living in UK, so my fascination turned to the Arthurian tales, which I still adore in all their forms. I moved to Ireland 15 years ago, but it was only in the last 8 years that I discovered the wealth of heritage that is Irish mythology. And it blew me away! I think . I must have lived in Ireland in a previous life, as a witch most likely! 😁

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  6. Undoubtedly it is the origin of giant stories , especially as we know exaggeration is widespread in myth. Giants are mentioned in the Bible and Methuselah was reputed to have lived to nine hundred and sixty five. That you have time to entertain and enrich us is much appreciated.

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  7. Balor´s story is quite extreme but also exciting!. But … I agree with you.. Trefuilngid´s myth is great!… it brought me back to greek mythology and Myhrra´s account resonated with me…. But mostly, I´d say it is a story related to the origins: a sort of cosmogony, so to speak… (Which reminds me of Hesiod as well!).
    It is worth noting how many analogies we might find among so many different cultures. Even if these simaliraties are subtle at ties, one could feel the connection…
    In greek Mythology, the Giants were the offspring of Gaia (Earth), born from the blood that fell when Uranus (Sky) was castrated by his Titan son Cronus… So here we have the most evident counterpoint!. Also… the The Cyclopes… those gigantic, one-eyed monsters!…
    Great post Ali… Thank you for sharing!. Best wishes for your week ahead. Aquileana 😀

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    1. Thanks Aquileana! I never realised until recently how much contact the European Celts had with the Greeks, or how much they aspired to be like them. So it makes sense that as they adopted elements of Greek culture, that they would also take on board elements of religious belief too, although in so doing, adapting it into their own culture and belief system and making it uniquely their own. So fascinating! And thanks for all the tweeting! 😚😚😚 Have a great week!

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  8. The Giants of Ancient Ireland ~ myths and stories I’ve never heard. Come to think of it, only the giant in Jack & the Beanstalk do I remember a UK giant…but no more. My favorite, Trefuilngid Tre-eochair, beyond the history you give his name is pretty cool too 🙂

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    1. Haha! Thank you, Randal! He is my favourite too, because he bucks the trend… giants are usually portrayed as a bit dim, clumsy, slow. But in this case, he was gentle and knowledgeable, and he came to share his knowledge with mankind. I’m not sue mankind really deserved it…

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  9. So Irish mythology even has it’s own Cyclops. It has to show that either they were real beings or that stories were carried far and wide during trade and the old Greek stories reached Ireland. I wonder which it could be?
    xxx Gigantic Hugs Ali xxx

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    1. Well the ancient Celts of Europe did a lot of trade with the Greeks, so aspects of their culture must have carried over. The Fomori were said to have only 1 eye, one arm and one leg. But this is probably a reference to their magical powers… remember the crane dance ritual?

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