Demons of the Western Waters

painting of the Fomorians - a deformed group, one on horseback
The Fomorians by John Duncan

The Fomorians were a race of creatures from ancient times in Irish mythology said to have inhabited the islands and most remote corners of the country, typically north-west and west .  Two named strongholds were Conands tower on Donegal’s Tory Island and Dernish Island off the coast of Sligo.  They are usually described in the legends as ugly, gnarled and twisted demons living by or under the sea. 

The name Fomorian itself has been translated variously as Dark of the Sea, Under the Sea and Sea Giants.  Generally depicted as evil raiders of the mainland they serve in Irish mythology as the villains, representing chaos and the unknown.  However, there are exceptions to the case.  The Fomorian Elatha is quoted as being the ‘The beautiful Miltonic prince of darkness with golden hair’. 

Many scholars are of the opinion that the Fomorians were actually based on a real people inhabiting Ireland in the distant past before the arrival of the Gaels and Celtic culture, a group of mysterious indigenous tribes of hunter gatherers. How they reached Ireland is a matter of debate. One intriguing theory is that they were actually Seafarers who had sailed from North West Africa.

Many others believe they were pagan gods and spirits who have been ‘demoted’ to fairies, demons and creatures in folk tales when they were recorded by medieval Christian monks. Unsurprisingly, this kind of demotion was quite common with regards to pre-Christian Irish belief.  Literacy reached Ireland along with Christianity, and up until then the stories and legends had been passed on orally. When they were noted down by the monks in medieval times, naturally they had a Christian bias! One example is the invention of the leprechaun – originally Lugh was the Celtic sun god, became Lugh Chromáin, meaning Little stooping Lugh, and was eventually corrupted to Leprechaun.

The Fomorians were the bane of the mythological waves of migration to Ireland.  When the Partholonians came, the Fomorians cast a plague upon them and wiped them out.  Then came the poor Nemedians who were enslaved after years of war.  They were wiped out by a great flood and only a few escaped.  The Firbolg people arrived afterwards but the Fomorians left them alone, keeping to their coastal shadows, plotting.  Finally, the Tuatha De Danann - the old gods of the Gaelic people - arrived and won control of Ireland by banishing the Firbolg to Connaught and casting the Fomorians back to the seas.  There they continue to reside, waiting for the unlucky fisherman or those who venture that little bit too close to the coast at the wrong place and time....