Some deep legends seem to appear across cultures. Across geographical boundaries one legend that has managed to pop up in various mythologies is that of the shapeshifters, and specifically werewolves.
A common feature of horror films and literature, such beasts are present in the lore of various far-flung lands, and in many tales are spoken of as being quite real. One realm where werewolves were very popular is in Ireland, and here going back through the centuries we have tales of a mysterious tribe of wolf-men that inspired fear and respect wherever they went.
Although wolves went extinct long ago in Ireland, there was a time when they were rather numerous here, and these fierce animals inspired many stories and legends over the centuries.
Like in many other cultures, the Irish too had their legends of werewolves, and among the most famous of these was that of a kingdom that was called Ossory, and where there dwelled a tribe of warriors said to have the ability to transform into hulking wolves. The werewolves of Ossory even in human form were said to have a wild appearance, with fierce eyes, disheveled long hair, and a taut muscularity that implied animalistic strength, with these warriors often draped in wolf skins.
They were said to make their transformations and run amok across the countryside, attacking livestock and settlements, but it was also said that alliances could be formed with them, with the werewolves being prized warriors who many tried to recruit to their causes. These werewolves have been mentioned in Irish lore since all the way back to the 11 the century, with one Latin poem about them written in the tome De mirabilibus Hibernie, or “On the Marvels of Ireland,” which reads:
There are some men of the Irish race,
Who have this wondrous nature from ancestry and birth:
Whensoever they will, they can speedily turn themselves
Into the form of wolves, and rend flesh with wicked teeth:
Often they are seen slaying sheep that moan in pain.
But when men raise the hue and cry,
Or scare them with staves and swords, they take flight [like true wolves].
But whilst they act thus, they leave their true [i.e. their own] bodies
If any man harm them or any wound pierce their flesh,
The wounds can be seen plainly in their own bodies:
Thus their companions can see the raw flesh in their jaws
Of their true body: and we all wonder at the sight.
The most well-known story related to the werewolves of Ossory is that of the legendary werewolf warrior called Laignech Fáelad, who was said to be the brother of Feradach mac Duach, the king of Ossory, and the ancestor of the subsequent kings who ruled the land until being invaded by the Normans in the 12th century.
Laignech Fáelad was said to be one of the fiercest warriors and most powerful werewolves in all of Ireland, and it was he who was said to have carried on the lineage of the werewolves, siring many children who were also cursed with his affliction of transforming into an animal. Indeed, many tales tell of him being the original werewolf, from which all others were created. The medieval Irish work Cóir Anmann, or “Fitness of Names,” says of Laigneck:
He was a man that used to go wolfing, i.e. into wolf-shapes, i.e. into shapes of wolves he used to go, and his offspring used to go after him and they used to kill the herds after the fashion of wolves, so that it is for that that he used to be called Laignech Fáelad, for he was the first of them who went into a wolf-shape.
Another legend of the werewolves of Ossory is connected to St. Patrick, who was trying to stamp out paganism in the land through introducing Christianity and who thought of them as being cursed by God due to wickedness and sin. An account from De Ingantaib Érenn (On the Wonders of Ireland) would say of St. Patrick and the werewolves:
It is told that when the holy Patricius (St Patrick) preached Christianity in that country, there was one clan which opposed him more stubbornly than any other people in the land; and these people strove to do insult in many ways both to God and to the holy man. And when he was preaching the faith to them as to others and came to confer with them where they held their assemblies, they adopted the plan of howling at him like wolves.
St Patrick responded by praying for God to punish the clan, resulting in them suffering a fitting and severe though very marvelous punishment, for it is told that all the members of that clan are changed into wolves for a period and roam through the woods feeding upon the same food as wolves; but they are worse than wolves, for in all their wiles they have the wit of men, though they are as eager to devour men as to destroy other creatures.
The werewolves were not permanently transformed, as they either took the form of a wolf every seventh winter or were transformed into a wolf for a seven-year period, following which they never transformed again.