It’s straightforward to see four distinctive cycles within Irish mythology, and these cycles are Mythological, Ulster, Fenian and Historical. Within each cycle, they are numerous works including epic poems, stories and superstitious tales. Which we will look more in-depth at a later stage.
The content of these stories reflects the change in Irish culture through time. For instance, as religion moved from early Paganism towards Christianity, the protagonists of the stories moved from gods to kings, and the plots moved away from the supernatural towards the factual. With this came a shift from entirely mythological to more factual.
The Mythological Cycle is the earliest cycle and is the least well preserved. It tells stories of gods and supernatural events. The contents of these stories reflects the fact that they were written in times of paganism, before Christianity came to Ireland.
This cycle narrates through five migratory invasions of Ireland. It is an interesting Cycle as, instead of telling how people came to be, it tells of how people came from elsewhere to Ireland. Within the Mythological cycle there are hundreds of tales in prose and verse, some entirely mythological and some pseudo-history. One of the best tails is that of the Children of Lir.
This cycle contains tales from the first century AD; a time of heroes and warfare. These stories center mainly around heroes within the Ulaid province. Specifically, this cycle tells stories of the King of Ulster; Conchobar mac Nessa, and the warrior Cu Chulainn (also known as Cuchulainn) along with their friends, enemies and lovers. Some characters from the mythological cycle reappear.
The stories of Cu Chulainn are some of the most exciting from the Ulster Cycle. I’ll start from the beginning, with his birth.
The Fenian Cycle was written in the 3rd century AD and is based in the provinces of Munster and Leinster. The stories centre on heroes hunting, fighting and adventuring.
Most tales focus on the life of the brave hero Fionn Mac Cumhail (Finn Mac Cool). There are many stories about Fionn, but the story of how he gained his extensive knowledge is a particularly interesting one.
This cycle was written between 200 AD to 475 AD; the time when Irish religion was moving from Paganism to Christianity. This is reflected in the changing content of the stories. The tales centered around kings rather than gods and lacked the supernatural aspect. This cycle contains more historical stories than the previous three, as well as myth.
There are a number of collections within this cycle. One of the largest groups contains stories surrounding Cormac mac Airt, the King of Ireland, and his ancestors.