The Magnificent Beasts and Wonders of Ireland
Mythical Irish Beasts and Mythical Irish Wonders, both written and illustrated by Mark Joyce
“We are lucky in Ireland that much of our past has been preserved, not only in the ancient texts, but also in our landscape." -Mark Joyce, Mythical Irish Wonders
Mythical Irish Beasts and Mythical Irish Wonders are two magnificent encyclopedias exploring the rich and complex world of Irish folklore. Mark Joyce, who wrote and illustrated both volumes, has two daughters who at the ages of 10 and 11 were fascinated with all things Harry Potter. This inspired Mark to write Mythical Irish Beasts and help Irish children grow just as familiar with, and captivated by, legends and creatures from their own culture.
As Mark writes in the preface for Mythical Irish Wonders, “These stories easily rival Greek and Norse mythology,” yet we are not as acquainted with most of them as we should be. Speaking to the Connacht Tribune, Mark said: “When it comes to Irish mythology, there’s an element that’s being lost. We’re so familiar with other mythologies and that’s great, but we have our own stories, and they were being left behind.”
An extraordinary undertaking and an exceptional achievement, especially considering the amount of work involved, Mythical Irish Beasts was published in 2018. Its companion, Mythical Irish Wonders has just been released and is equally impressive. This reveals some of the more obscure stories Joyce uncovered while consulting ancient texts and conducting research for the first book.
When I was younger, I loved Irish legends. I had a few books by Michael Scott, and my father would also tell us stories, but I’d more or less forgotten everything. It was wonderful to revisit favourites from my childhood and discover so many creatures and stories I’d never heard of before, thanks to these fabulous books.
In Mythical Irish Beasts we catch the first glimpse of what becomes known as the Loch Ness monster, and encounter mermaids, banshees, werewolves and headless horsemen. There's a monster with three hearts made of snakes, a ruinous male fairy called Gancanach (love-talker) and his female counterpart, Leanhaun Shee (faerie-mistress). While I’d heard of the Pooka, I wasn’t really sure what it was. I had no previous knowledge of the sad story of Sadhbh, who married Fionn and was Oisín’s mother, but vanished without a trace.
Elaborate feather-coats worn by bards, enchanted commandments known as ‘geis,’ magical wells and their powers, and fairy royalty are among the marvels of Mythical Irish Wonders. We’re told of the epic games which were the equivalent to the Irish Olympics and held at Teltown in Meath every Lughnasa (1st August). We learn more about Brehon laws and Ogham and meet poisonous wooden cows. Mug Ruith and his fire-breathing dogs feature in Mythical Irish Wonders as does Tethra, the king of Mag Mell. This is a fairy island that can only be reached by a “glorious act of death,” similar to the Norse Valhalla or Greece’s Elysium. Aillen Madmidgna, fairy musician of the Tuatha De DeDanaan, also lived there, but would return to the Hill of Tara every Halloween to play on an ancient Irish instrument called a 'tiompan.'
Both books mention several shapeshifters (humans that can take an animal form), many enchanted pigs and a wide variety of magical islands. I’d heard of the phantom isle of Hy Brasil, but in Mythical Irish Wonders we learn that it is recorded in several ‘real’ maps. There’s also an extensive list of all the different names for Ireland, most of which were new to me.
The explanations behind some of the place names we take for granted are intriguing. I wasn’t aware that a multi-eyed monster called Suileach that gave Donegal’s River Swilly its name. I had no idea that Rathcroghan in Roscommon was thought to be the gate to the underworld of Ireland. Or that Gleann na nGealt in Kerry translates as ‘Valley of the Mad,’ and is an area that a 15th century vampire, called Mis, terrorised.
Mark writes in his preface for Mythical Irish Beasts, “In Ireland, I believe we are still close to this realm of ‘other.’ It is in our national DNA. Fairy rings are left intact and hawthorn trees are left uncut for fear of fairy retribution. This other realm is also still in our native place-names like Bru Si or ‘fairyhouse’ in Co. Meath, Abberanville or ‘great beast’ in Co. Galway, and Pollpeasty or ‘pool of the monstrous reptile’ in Wexford.”
The artwork in both of these books is outstanding, and I love the explanations for his designs included by Mark in each preface. In Mythical Irish Beasts he writes: “Regarding the illustrations of these mythical Irish beasts, I have tried to give them a more contemporary feel, while acknowledging that no image can compete with a dark room and a malevolent scratching at the door.”
In the preface for Mythical Irish Wonders, Mark says that he hopes, “the drawings together with the stories will convey a sense of magic and mystery. And that they will shine a light on some of the lesser known stories from the treasure house that is Irish mythology.”
Remarkably accessible, these books provide descriptions of characters, and brief histories and summaries of the events and places chronicled. Neither writer nor reader gets caught up in too many details. Mark encourages us to seek out longer versions of the stories ourselves, but all the basic elements for understanding and learning about Irish mythology are here.
The interesting illustrations, striking covers, and the wealth of information contained within them, give these books a charged quality. Incredibly comprehensive and exceptionally beautiful, these are wonderful reference books to return to again and again, providing endless entertainment and enjoyment.
I hate mentioning Christmas this early, but I have to mention what gorgeous gifts Mythical Irish Beasts and Mythical Irish Wonders would make. They're the perfect fireside read and coffee table book all at once, and ideal for leafing through on Christmas day.
Although they complement one another, they don't need to be read together, or even in order (but if you have one, you'll probably want the other). Suitable for children aged nine or ten and upwards, and certain to be appreciated by adults of all ages.
About the Author
Mark Joyce is a native of Connemara and has a varied background in the arts. He studied in Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design and worked in the film industry in Ireland for a number of years. Mark has worked with leading Irish craft companies as a designer, producing posters for numerous festivals as well. The owner of Joyce’s Craft Shop in Recess, Co. Galway, Mark is the fourth generation of his family to run it. His photographic book A Portrait of Connemara was published by Currach Books in 2015.
Title: Mythical Irish Beasts
Author & Illustrator: Mark Joyce
Publisher: Currach Books
Publication Date: November 2018
Title: Mythical Irish Wonders
Author & Illustrator: Mark Joyce
Publisher: Currach Books
Publication Date: October 2020