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Irish Myths & Legends – Part 3: Diarmuid & Grainne

By Dawn Rainbolt, Marketing Executive
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The Tragic Lovers of Diarmuid & Grainne

Ireland has a wide array of fascinating Irish folklore and stories – this article is part of a series identifying some of Ireland’s most interesting myths and legends.

So… what’s the story of Diarmuid and Grainne?

Tales of tragic lovers are prevalent in so many cultures – England, of course, has Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, probably the world’s most well-known of the doomed lovers. But other cultures have them too – in Spain, find Isabel and Diego, commonly known as ‘Los Amantes de Teruel,’ in Estonia there is the story of Maija, the Rose of Turaida, and her lover Victor. And of course, there are the famously tragic Tristan and Iseult. Mythology and history are littered with such tales as these…

Ireland’s own tale of tragic lovers is that of Diarmuid and Grainne (pronounced ‘djeer-met’ and ‘grauhn-ya’). Many of Irish mythological tales are interconnected, with characters who weave in and out of various stories and take on differing roles. The hero of this series’s part 1, the giant called Finn McCool, becomes the antagonist in the tale of Diarmuid and Grainne.

The Tale of Diarmuid and Grainne

As the story goes, Diarmuid was retained in Fionn’s service as one of his best warriors. The powerful chieftain and mythological giant Fionn MacCool, the giant credited with building the Giant’s Causeway, was courting the beautiful young woman Grainne, who also happened to be the daughter of the High King. Grainne had previously rejected every past suitor on the grounds that they were not the young man she once saw as a girl and subsequently fell in love with. Despite this, when the great warrior Fionn MacCool proposed to her, she felt flattered decided it was time to move on from her childhood crush.

However, it was at their engagement party that Grainne met Diarmuid – the boy from her childhood. It was love at first sight.

Giants Causeway from cliffs above

Finn McCool’s Giant’s Causeway stretches out into the sea towards Scotland.

Diarmuid and Grainne escaped together – some versions say she actually drugged the whole banquet except for Diarmuid in order to get him on his own! In any case, the couple eloped together. Upon waking up in the morning and finding his beloved and best warrior gone, one can imagine that Finn McCool wasn’t very happy about that. No – the angry, jilted giant pursued them all over Ireland.

Legend has it that Diarmuid and Grainne never slept in the same place. Across Ireland, there are dozens – perhaps hundreds! – of so-called “Diarmuid and Grainne beds” – local places where the couple are reputed to have spent a night while on the run. Caves, alcoves, neolithic tombs, bed-like stones – there are many places associated with the couple.

Keash Caves Sligo

Caves – much like the caves found at Keash or in the Gleniff Horsehoe – were long attributed as beds of Diarmuid and Grainne.

One such place is Diarmuid and Grainne’s Cave in the Gleniff Horseshoe, tucked under the shadow of Sligo’s iconic landmark, Ben Bulben mountain. County Sligo is a place to be outdoors. Whether you decide to summit Ben Bulben or you prefer a more gentle hike around Ben Bulben Forest Park, Sligo’s iconic landmark is forever intertwined with the story of these lovers, though from most parts of the county, you can see Ben Bulben in the distance.

The tragic part of Diarmuid and Grainne’s story is still to come. Fionn MacCool, hurt by Diamuid’s supposed ‘betrayal’ of him, chased the lovers all over Ireland. The story culminates at Sligo’s Ben Bulben mountain, where Diarmuid comes to face to face with an angry (and magical) bull. A prophecy had stated that a boar was the only creature that could harm Diarmuid. (In another version of the story, the wild boar was actually reincarnation of Diarmuid’s half-brother Donn, murdered by Diamuid’s jealous father and brought back to life by Donn’s own father).

Gleniff Horseshoe

The eerie and mystical Gleniff Horseshoe, where Diarmuid & Grainne’s Cave is located.

In the name of chivalry, the great hero Diarmuid bravely threw himself in the path of the charging beast despite the prophecy in order to protect the damsel (in distress), his pregnant wife, Grainne. They fought, Diarmuid is mortally wounded, Grainne is saved, and the boar dies.

After years of searching, Fionn finally comes upon his prey – Diarmuid dying in the arms of pregnant Grainne. She begs Fionn McCool to save her lover with water from his magical hands, but the giant, still spiteful about Diamuid’s betrayal, refuses to take the high road to save him. And tragically, in the shadow of the beautiful Ben Bulben mountain, Diarmuid dies in Grainne’s arms.

Ben Bulben

It’s not hard to imagine Ben Bulben as the scene of a magical love story

Mix nature and mythology in County Sligo, where the iconic Ben Bulben Mountain serves as the dramatic backdrop for the legend of the tragic lovers. Hike through this beautiful and eerie region or perhaps summit Ben Bulben as your guide paints the picture of Diarmuid and Grainne’s story. It’s not hard to see why Sligo and Ben Bulben have inspired the final scene of this tragic love story.

Check out our trips in Sligo

Meet the Author: Dawn Rainbolt

“American by birth but European in spirit, Dawn has called the US, Costa Rica, Spain, England, Poland, France and now Ireland home over the years. While she has travelled to more than 30 countries, she has fallen in love with the rich Irish culture and sweeping landscapes of Ireland. Armed with a Masters Degree in Tourism Marketing and a love of writing and photography, she is Wilderness Ireland's Marketing Executive since 2017.”

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