Ireland has many fascinating Irish folklore and stories – this article is part of a series identifying some of Ireland’s most interesting myths and legends.
Tales of tragic lovers exist in many cultures – mythology and history are littered with such tales.
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, known as ‘Los Amantes de Teruel.’ In Estonia there’s the story of doomed Rose of Turaida and her lover Victor. And of course, the famously tragic Tristan and Iseult.
Ireland’s own tale of tragic lovers is that of Diarmuid and Grainne (pronounced ‘djeer-muht’ and ‘grauhn-ya’). Many of Irish mythological tales are interconnected with characters weaving in and out of various stories. The hero of part 1 of this series, the giant called Finn McCool, becomes the antagonist in the tale of Diarmuid and Grainne.
As the story goes, Diarmuid was a mighty warrior who was retained in Fionn MacCool‘s service of elite warriors, the Fianna.
Fionn MacCool (or Fionn mac Cumhaill in Irish) needed to find a wife. The very same giant who is credited with building the Giant’s Causeway was a powerful chieftain and mythological giant – but he needed to choose a bride to appease his clan. He had many potential brides to choose from, but it was Grainne, the most beautiful young woman in Ireland (who also happened to be the daughter of the High King) who he pursued to become his wife.
The good lady Grainne had previously rejected every past suitor. As a young girl, she had spied a strong young man and had fallen head over heels, and now she turned any potential suiters away 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, and decided it was time to forget her childhood crush. She accepted.
However, it was at their engagement party that Grainne met Diarmuid – the boy from her childhood.
It was love at first sight.
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.
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).
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 MacCool to save her lover with water from his magical hands, but this is a tragic tale, and giants, like men, have an ego to bend to. The giant Fionn MacCool is 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.
Many places are associated with the beds of Diarmuid and Grainne. Since they were on the run, it’s said that they needed to sleep in a different place each night to keep ahead of Fionn MacCool and his Fianna warriors.
These places might be caves, crevices, boulders, Neolithic tombs or other natural or archeological features – and they are simply everywhere. See a few examples below.
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.
Or, visit the Giant’s Causeway and the Causeway Coast to see where all of this started. And who knows – perhaps you’ll even come to face to face with the giant Fionn MacCool and his fierce band of warriors the Fianna as they search for Diarmuid and Grainne.