Irish Folklore: Beware the Black Pig

The mythical ‘Black Pig’ features in many folklore stories through Ireland, a reflection of both the respect and fear in which this animal was held by our ancestors. In its most positive sense, the pig was prized for the taste of its meat and this is reflected in the many legends where mythological Gods and heroes are – pardon the pun – “pigging out” on it at various feasts in the otherworld. Another positive attribute of the animal was its fierce fighting spirit during the hunt (one of the reasons it was used so often by warriors as a symbol of courage).

At its most negative, the Black Pig reflected a preferred form in which dangerous or evil spirits were said to appear. Given the popularity of this particular concept in more ancient times, we find many examples of mythological heroes such as Fionn mac Cumhal slaying monster boars with supernatural powers. This kind of story proved so popular, in fact, that wiping out crazy pigs seemed to become something of an important rite of passage for the more up and coming mythological hero.

Because of its cultural importance, the Black Pig) was also associated with various ‘creation’ stories – those tales providing an explanation for how certain topographical features across the country were created. The most famous of those, without doubt, is the ‘Black Pigs Dyke’ (Claí na Muice Duibhe), a series of double-ditched and double-banked earthen ramparts which run from near Leitrim/Sligo to Armagh/Louth/Down and reaches a height of 1.4 metres in places. According to folklore, the banks were created by a giant Black Pig that ran through the countryside digging out the banks with its tusks. In fact, nowadays, the dyke is believed to have formed part of a defensive structure to deter cattle raiders. Dating evidence suggests that it was built around 390 – 370 BCE(Late Bronze Age or Early Iron Age). Given the huge time period since its original construction, it’s easy to understand how its creation could have been forgotten and alternative explanations suggested instead.

Of all the Black Pig creation tales, my favourite is that linked to a tumulus in the immediate neighbourhood of Scurmore (near Enniscrone) known as “The Grave of the Black Pig.” The legend behind this natural feature tells how, in the north of Ireland, an enormous magical boar committed great destruction. Determined to kill the animal, the hunters of the north assembled and pursued it to the south near Easky where it disappeared into the sea. Thinking it had been destroyed, the hunters headed home but, in fact, the Black Pig emerged from the sea again at Enniscrone Shore and started killing everyone it encountered. The local people rallied then, using long-handed spears and wooden poles, chased the crazed beast to Muckduff (Muc Dubh = “Black Pig”) where it was finally slain.

It turned out that the boar was not only exceptionally violent but also covered with a particularly nasty bristle that was deadly poisonous to the touch. One of the Enniscrone people, believing the poison dangerous only while the pig was alive, was foolish enough to touch it and died almost immediately. His comrades buried the remains of the pig under large quantities of stone and mud which created the mound that remains there to this day.

Enniscrone still holds its “Black Pig Festival” on the 8th-12th of August to celebrate this legend and a much less poisonous version of the animal now marks the mound where the animal is said to be buried. A sign beside the mound reads as follows:

The Black Pig of Muckdubh

“In the townland of ‘Muckdubh’ lays a large mound believed to be the grave of the great black pig. In old Irish folklore it is said that in South Donegal an evil spirit took possession of an old sow, whose evil ways took to attacking and eating the local men, women and children. Some of the local hunters set on a mission to rid themselves of this vicious creature. The chase took them through to Sligo and on to Lenadoon in Easkey where the beast plunged into the sea and swam ashore at Enniscrone strand. Finally the pursuit ended inland where she was slain and buried, hence giving the townland its name.”