From pirate queens who took on rival ships at sea, to the men and gods that helped them, we love to hear the tales of local legends and famous Irish heroes who have, over the centuries, left their mark on the imaginations of Irish children and adults alike.

With its rich and eventful history, Ireland has had its fair share of heroes – both legendary and real – to keep the avid seanchaí (storyteller) busy for hours. On the list of the more famous tales of Irish heroes are stories of the infamous Queen-Pirate, Grace O Malley, and of the fabled figure, Finn MacCool, an Irish giant.

A tale of two Queens

Born in 1530, Gráinne Ní Mháille, also known as Grace O’Malley, was the daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, a wealthy seafarer and the chieftain of the Ó Máille clan, who ruled the territory of Fir Umaill in the Clew Bay region.

Grace grew up sailing with her father and his men and became the Queen and Chieftain of the Ó Máille clan when her father died. She inherited Eoghan’s large shipping and trading business, which she added to the land she’d inherited from her mother. She was a wealthy and powerful woman – a political and military leader who broke the chauvinistic mould of her time. It is said she ruled the West Coast with an iron fist, as captain of a fleet of ships, with over fighting 200 men under her command, who she personally lead in battle against the individual English generals who attempted to take her land and power from her.

When the antagonism from a particular English governor became too great, she managed to secure a meeting with Queen Elizabeth I at the palace of Greenwhich to share her grievances and, eventually, won the Queen’s respect and favour so she could continue her merchant career without hindrance.

The origins of the Isle of Man and Lough Neah

Irish tales of Finn MacCool (or Fionn mac Cumhaill), describe him as a benevolent Irish giant who lived on the Antrim coast with his wife Oonagh.  As popular folklore has it, he was responsible for building a massive causeway, made from giant stepping stones, from Ulster in the north of Ireland, across the sea to Scotland to reach Benandonner, his Scottish rival who frequently taunted him from afar.  

The story goes that, when Finn eventually laid eyes on Benandonner and saw his true size, he became fearful and decided to make a hasty retreat back home, with the Scottish giant in hot pursuit. The clever Oonagh quickly disguised her husband as a giant baby to protect him from Benandonner, and then invited the rival giant in for a meal.

She proceeded to tell Benandonner tales of Finn’s favourite past times (which included throwing and catching giant-sized boulders, which the Scottish giant struggled to even lift when he tried) and fed her guest a meal of griddle-cakes with griddle-irons secretly baked inside.

Benandonner chipped his teeth on the griddle irons hidden in the cakes but Oonag’s ‘giant baby’ devoured one without any issue (Oonag had given her 'baby' a griddle cake to eat that was griddle-iron free). Benandonner concluded that Finn must be a formidable giant, if his baby was anything to go by, and decided to return to Scotland instead of confronting him.

Safe now from harm’s way, Finn ran after his Scottish rival and scooped up a piece of earth to throw at him as he retreated. Finn missed, and the clod of earth fell into the sea instead, forming the Isle of Man.  The hole created by Finn from scooping up the earth filled with water and formed Lough Neah – the biggest Lough in Ireland today.

To prevent Finn from following him across the sea, Benandonner ripped up the causeway behind him, leaving ragged shorelines on either side, which can still be seen today.

Have your own adventures in Ireland

If you’re interested in having some story-worthy adventures of your own in Ireland, contact Arboyne Hotel in Navan, County Meath, today to find out more about our family adventure packages and special accommodation offers.