Na Fomhóraigh

Na Fomhóraigh - Toraigh, in English Tory Island
Na Fomhóraigh – Toraigh (Tory Island)

The Fomhóraigh

The demonic Otherworld race of Irish, Scottish and Manx mythology and folklore.


All spelling, names and terms in Modern Irish unless stated otherwise.

The modern singular and plural forms of the name are:

Fomhórach “Under-Demon (Phantom, Monster)”

Fomhóraigh “Under-Demons (Phantoms, Monsters)”

The name is derived from the following words:

Fo- (faoi-) “Under (Beneath, Below)”

*Móraigh “Demons (Phantoms, Monsters)”

*Mórach “Demon (Phantom, Monster)”

Scottish:  Famhair (gs. Famhair, pl. Famhairean)

Manx: Foawr (gs. Foawir, pl. Foawir)


The Fomhóraigh are a race of supernatural beings or people found in the indigenous literary and folkloric traditions of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. They originate in the religious beliefs of the pre-Christian Gaelic peoples and feature as the traditional opponents of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Christian-assimilated pantheon of the north-western Celts. Their influence was to remain in all three Gaelic nations, albeit greatly debased and diluted, and is still to be found in some contemporary works of fiction, drama and art.


Since the Fomhóraigh were drawn from the oral religious beliefs of the Gaelic peoples the early Christian scribes sought to assimilate their race to the new Church-approved literature they were creating in the great monastic centres of Medieval Ireland. However like the Tuatha Dé Danann the adaptation of the Fomhóraigh was strongly influenced by the pre-Christian traditions surrounding them, notably their rivalry with the Tuatha Dé and their occasional monstrous or abnormal human forms. This resulted in the worse aspects of their character being given added emphasis by the historiographers leading to an early equation with various grotesque races drawn from Christian mythology, particularly the misshapen offspring of the Old Testament figure Ham. Later inspiration from Classical sources, in particular the legends of the Titans and the Gigantes, pushed this image even further away from the source materials. As a result the Fomhóraigh are frequently presented in modern Irish and Scottish folklore as physically larger than life or as actual giants.

The Name

Fomhóraigh (the modern form of an earlier Middle Irish Fomhóire) is almost certainly pre-Christian in origin and is generally accepted to be a compound name with the first half derived from the Old Irish word fo- (Modern Irish faoi) “under, below, beneath”. However the second half of the name is more difficult to translate with three opposing schools of thought. The first favours a derivation from the Old Irish mur (Modern Irish muir) “sea”, which taken with fo- gives a meaning along the lines of “Undersea Ones”. This translation is close to an explanation of the name offered by some late Medieval Irish scribes who believed that the elements making up the word Fomhóraigh were linked to the sea. However this may have been a case of monastic scholars seeking out an interpretation for a name they no longer understood and devising one out of the semantic similarities between the words –mhór and mur (no doubt the perceived symbolism between the Fomhóraigh and the sea-borne Scandinavian incursions of the 9th to 11th centuries helped promote such an idea). The second interpretation suggests mór “great” with a number of possible translations such as the “Under Great Ones” or “Under Giants” (“under” again as in the sense of “underground”). Later in Irish myth and folklore Fomhórach is equated with the word Fathach “Giant” (pl. Fathaigh) which gives some credence to this meaning.

However a third offering is a suggested (but not actually extant) Old Irish word *mor / *mór “demon, phantom” (in Modern Irish this would be rendered *mórach with a plural of *móraigh though the word itself has not survived in the spoken language). This term is thought to be found in the important female deity name Mórríon “Demon, Phantom Queen” and Fomhóraigh could thus be translated as “Under-Demons, -Phantoms” (again, probably in the sense of “underground, below ground, subterranean”). This is the meaning accepted here since it enjoys the greatest academic support.

The Fomhóraigh and the Tuatha Dé Danann

The earliest surviving texts in Irish literature reflect the original subterranean sense of the Fomhóraigh’s name, depicting them as dwelling beneath the surface of the earth and sea. This clearly placed them in the context of the Irish Otherworld. This was also the domain of the gods, in the guise the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the Fomhóraigh were most frequently encountered in the mythological tradition as the Tuatha Dé’s enemies. However, one should be careful not to offer a simplistic interpretation of the rivalry between the Fomhóraigh and the Tuatha Dé Danann. Both groups interacted, intermarried and shared some names, titles and personages in common. Two extremely rare names applied to both illustrate this: Na Daoine Teathrach “The People of Teathra” and Fir Teathrach “Men (People) of Teathra”. Teathra (gs. Teathrach) was a Fomhórach who for a time ruled the Tuatha Dé in the more literary accounts of early Irish history. His name can be interpreted as a poetical one for the “sea” and the use of it shows the complexity of Tuatha Dé and Fomhóraigh relationships.

This has led to the suggestion that the Tuatha Dé Danann and Fomhóraigh represented one pantheon of gods, and the division between both mistakenly arose out of the reinterpretations made by the Early Christian redactors when they assimilated the old pre-Christian myths to their new body of Irish literature and history. A variation of this idea argues for two broad divisions of a single community of the gods, with one (the Fomhóraigh) viewed as slightly more hostile or “demonic” than the other. Related to this is another theory stating that the differences between both sets of Otherworldly beings reflected class divisions in the community of the gods, with the aristocratic and noble classes on one hand and a commoner class on the other (so reflecting the class system of then contemporary Irish society).

However, the differences between the concept and portrayal of the “Gods” and “Under-Demons” seems to go much further than mere class, and is a more fundamental, if fluid, one. The monstrous and violent attributes of the Fomhóraigh were always there, though exaggerated in the texts written by the Christian scribes, especially as the literature developed. It seems highly likely that they were indeed rivals to the Tuatha Dé Danann. Yet this rivalry did not prevent personal and communal interaction between both, though it is probable that some beings were erroneously ascribed to the Tuatha Dé or Fomhóraigh camps in the incorporation of the mythology into the new literary tradition, compounding the confusion found in the legends.

Related to this discussion a comparison with the Germanic traditions of continental Europe and England is essential for exploring the literary inheritance of the Celtic peoples. Taking the division of the Scandinavian pantheon into two closely related groups, the Æser and the Vaner (who were probably identical with the Alver or “Elves”), one finds some similarities with the Tuatha Dé and the Fomhóraigh. However a far closer comparison for the Fomhóraigh is to be found the opponents of the gods in the Scandinavian and Germanic myths, namely the Jotne. This title has been somewhat inaccurately translated as “Giants” and in modern folklore and retellings emphasis has been placed on their supposed monstrous size and nature (as with the Fomhóraigh). Yet in the original mythological stories the Jotne are often far from abnormal in physical form, let alone giants. Just like the Fomhóraigh they can appear as beautiful men and women, little different from the “gods” with whom they freely mate and produce offspring. Indeed at times it is difficult to discern where exactly the line should be drawn between “the gods” and “the giants” since such fluidly exists between them. Of course the very same thing could be said of the relationship between the Tuatha Dé Danann and the Fomhóraigh.

The suggestion that the literary form of the Fomhóraigh is simply a confused amalgamation of a lower class of gods and “anti-gods”, though not without merit, must be tested against the more plausible theory discussed above that what we have is an original – and actually quite intact – representation of a race of beings separate from “the gods” but yet closely related. This race can interact, interbreed and intermarry with the gods and though at times some may act in a hostile manner or take on a monstrous form they are little different from their divine opponents. This places them in much the same position as their Germano-Scandinavian equivalents, the Jotne.

The association of the Fomhóraigh with the world under the sea (and lakes) may have led to the later medieval reinterpretation of their name as the “Undersea Ones (Beings, Monsters)” referred to above. This in turn was influenced by the Scandinavian (Viking) raids and invasions of Ireland and Scotland from the 9th century CE onwards, leading to the Fomhóraigh developing more aquatic associations and an overseas origin.

Appendix I: The Names of the Domain of the Demons or the Demonic Otherworld

Insí Tuaisceartach “Northern Islands”

Túr Bhalair “Tower of Balar”

Túr Chonainn “Tower of Conann” (also appears erroneously as Túr Chonaing “Tower of Conaing”; Conang is a late adaption of an Old English name)

Má Teathrach “Plain of Teathra (the Sea)”

Lochlann “Lake Land (Land of Lakes)”

Lochlann is one of the most debated of Irish placenames, and generally refers to Scandinavia in later Irish literary and annals usage (indeed it is the modern Irish term for the Scandinavian region). It may derive from the Irish word loch “lake” and a borrowed Scandinavian word for “land”, Gaelicised as lann, lainn. Or it may be a Gaelicised version of an existing Scandinavian name for a new Viking settlement in Scotland (a hitherto unattested *Lodland). This makes the name almost certainly of 10th century origin or later following the Scandinavian (Viking) incursions in Ireland and Scotland (the name may have come from Scottish sources if this particular theory is correct).

But in the earliest texts it appears as Laithlinn, Lathlinn. This can be translated variously as “Warrior(s) Pool, Lake, Sea” or “Marshy, Swampy Pool, Lake, Sea” and be a type of kenning for the ocean, and making its use older than the Scandinavian presence in the Celtic Isles. Or, again, it could be a Gaelicised version of the proposed Scandinavian territorial name above (Norse Lodland to Old Irish Lathlinn to Midddle/Modern Irish Lochlann. However it has been argued that this semantic sequence, though attractive, is linguistically untenable).

Appendix II: Names Of The Most Prominent Fomhóraigh Figures

This list is a sample of the more commonly encountered figures from the indigenous Irish, Scottish and Manx literary traditions, presented in Modern Irish spelling with alternative spellings, versions and sobriquets.

Balar son of Buaraineach (aka. Balar Bailcbhéimneach, Balar Biorógdhearc, Balar Béimneach) [gs. Balair]

Breas  son of Ealadha and Éire (aka. Eochaidh Breas)


Ceithle [gs. Ceithleann]

Cichol Grichenchos

Conann / Conang [gs. Conainn / Conaing]

Ealadha son of Dealbhaodh [gs. Ealadhach]

Inneach mac Dé Domhnann

Morc [gs. Moirc]

Teathra [gs. Teathrach]

Eithne / Eithle daughter of Balar [gs. Eithneann / Eithleann]

Appendix III: Beings Thought To Be Similar

Fathach (gs. & npl. Fathaigh, gpl. Fathach) “Giant”

As Irish mythology developed the Fomhóraigh were often regarded as Fathaigh “Giants” (Old Irish aitheach “giant”) and greater emphasis was placed on their prodigious size and stature. The term was also applied to some mortal or legendary heroes, particularly in the folkloric period, such as the very late tales of Fionn mac Cumhaill. Its clear that Irish versions of “Giant” stories are partly derived from the imagery associated with the Fomhóraigh mixed with Classical influences, and in recent centuries English and Germanic fairylore.

© An Sionnach Fionn


Online Sources For The Above Articles:

  1. Warriors, Words, and Wood: Oral and Literary Wisdom in the Exploits of Irish Mythological Warriors by Phillip A. Bernhardt-House
  2. Irish Perceptions of the Cosmos by Liam Mac Mathúna
  3. Water Imagery in Early Irish by Kay Muhr
  4. The Bluest-Greyest-Greenest Eye: Colours of Martyrdom and Colours of Winds as Iconographic Landscape by Alfred K. Siewers
  5. Fate in Early Irish Texts by Jacqueline Borsje
  6. Druids, Deer and “Words of Power”: Coming to Terms with Evil in Medieval Ireland by Jacqueline Borsje
  7. Geis, Prophecy, Omen and Oath by T. M. Charles-Edwards
  8. Geis, a literary motif in early Irish literature by Qiu Fangzhe
  9. Honour-bound: The Social Context of Early Irish Heroic Geis by Philip O’Leary
  10. Space and Time in Irish Folk Rituals and Tradition by Lijing Peng and Qiu Fangzhe
  11. The Use of Prophecy in the Irish Tales of the Heroic Cycle by Caroline Francis Richardson
  12. Early Irish Taboos as Traditional Communication: A Cognitive Approach by Tom Sjöblom
  13. Monotheistic to a Certain Extent: The ‘Good Neighbours’ of God in Ireland by Jacqueline Borsje
  14. The ‘Terror of the Night’ and the Morrígain: Shifting Faces of the Supernatural by Jacqueline Borsje
  15. Brigid: Goddess, Saint, ‘Holy Woman’, and Bone of Contention by C.M. Cusack
  16. War-goddesses, furies and scald crows: The use of the word badb in early Irish literature by Kim Heijda
  17. The Enchanted Islands: A Comparison of Mythological Traditions from Ireland and Iceland by Katarzyna Herd
  18. The Early Irish Fairies and Fairyland by Norreys Jephson O’ Conor
  19. The Washer at the Ford by Gertrude Schoepperle
  20. Milk Symbolism in the ‘Bethu Brigte’ by Thomas Torma
  21. Conn Cétchathach and the Image of Ideal Kingship in Early Medieval Ireland by Grigory Bondarenko
  22. King in Exile in Airne Fíngein (Fíngen’s Vigil): Power and Pursuit in Early Irish Literature by Grigory Bondarenko
  23. Sacral Elements of Irish Kingship by Daniel Bray
  24. Kingship in Early Ireland by Charles Doherty
  25. The King as Judge in Early Ireland by Marilyn Gerriets
  26. The Saintly Madman: A Study of the Scholarly Reception History of Buile Suibhne by Alexandra Bergholm
  27. Fled Bricrenn and Tales of Terror by Jacqueline Borsje
  28. Supernatural Threats to Kings: Exploration of a Motif in the Ulster Cycle and in Other Medieval Irish Tales by Jacqueline Borsje
  29. Human Sacrifice in Medieval Irish Literature by Jacqueline Borsje
  30. Demonising the Enemy: A study of Congall Cáech by Jacqueline Borsje
  31. The Evil Eye’ in early Irish literature by Jacqueline Borsje and Fergus Kelly
  32. The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory by John Carey
  33. “Transmutations of Immortality in ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare'” by John Carney
  34. Approaches to Religion and Mythology in Celtic Studies by Clodagh Downey
  35. ‘A Fenian Pastime’?: early Irish board games and their identification with chess by Timothy Harding
  36. Orality in Medieval Irish Narrative: An Overview by Joseph Falaky Nagy
  37. Oral Life and Literary Death in Medieval Irish Tradition by Joseph Falaky Nagy
  38. Satirical Narrative in Early Irish Literature by Ailís Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh
  39. Lia Fáil: Fact and Fiction in the Tradition by Tomás Ó Broin
  40. Irish Myths and Legends by Tomás Ó Cathasaigh
  41. ‘Nation’ Consciousness in Early Medieval Ireland by Miho Tanaka
  42. Bás inEirinn: Cultural Constructions of Death in Ireland by Lawrence Taylor
  43. Ritual and myths between Ireland and Galicia. The Irish Milesian myth in the Leabhar Gabhála Éireann: Over the Ninth Wave. Origins, contacts and literary evidence by Monica Vazquez
  44. Continuity, Cult and Contest by John Waddell
  45. Cú Roí and Svyatogor: A Study in Chthonic by Grigory Bondarenko
  46. Autochthons and Otherworlds in Celtic and Slavic by Grigory Bondarenko
  47. The ‘Terror of the Night’ and the Morrígain: Shifting Faces of the Supernatural by Jacqueline Borsje
  48. ‘The Otherworld in Irish Tradition,’ by John Carey
  49. The Location of the Otherworld in Irish Tradition by John Carey
  50. Prophecy, Storytelling and the Otherworld in Togail Bruidne Da Derga by Ralph O’ Connor
  51. The Evil Eye’ in early Irish literature by Jacqueline Borsje and Fergus Kelly
  52. Rules and Legislation on Love Charms in Early Medieval Ireland by Jacqueline Borsje
  53. Marriage in Early Ireland by Donnchadh Ó Corráin
  54. The Human Head in Insular Pagan Celtic Religion by Anne Ross
  55. Gods in the Hood by Angelique Gulermovich Epstein
  56. The Names of the Dagda by Scott A Martin
  57. The Morrigan and Her Germano-Celtic Counterparts by Angelique Gulermovich Epstein
  58. The Meanings of Elf, and Elves, in Medieval England by Alaric Timothy Peter Hall
  59. Elves (Ashgate Encyclopaedia) by Alaric Timothy Peter Hall
  60. The Evolution of the Otherworld: Redefining the Celtic Gods for a Christian Society by Courtney L. Firman
  61. Warriors and Warfare – Ideal and Reality in Early Insular Texts by Brian Wallace
  62. Images of Warfare in Bardic Poetry by Katharine Simms
  63. Rí Éirenn, Rí Alban, Kingship and Identity in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries by Máire Herbert
  64. Aspects of Echtra Nerai by Mícheál Ó Flaithearta
  65. The Ancestry of Fénius Farsaid by John Carey
  66. CELT (Corpus of Electronic Texts) – published texts
  67. Mary Jones (Celtic Literature Collective) – translations

Printed Sources For The Above Articles:

  1. The Gaelic Finn Tradition by Sharon J. Arbuthnot and Geraldine Parsons
  2. An Introduction to Early Irish Literature by Muireann Ní Bhrolcháin
  3. Lebar Gabala: Recension I by John Carey
  4. The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory by John Carey
  5. Studies in Irish Literature and History by James Carney
  6. Ancient Irish Tales by Tom P. Cross and Clark Harris Slover
  7. Early Irish Literature by Myles Dillon
  8. Irish Sagas by Myles Dillon
  9. Cycle of the Kings by Myles Dillon
  10. Early Irish Myths and Sagas by Jeffrey Gantz
  11. The Celtic Heroic Age by John T Koch and John Carey (Editors)
  12. Landscapes of Cult and Kingship by Roseanne Schot, Conor Newman and Edel Bhreathnach (Editors)
  13. The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger by Patricia Lysaght
  14. The Learned Tales of Medieval Ireland by Proinsias Mac Cana
  15. The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest by Máire MacNeill
  16. Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature by Kim McCone
  17. The Wisdom of the Outlaw by Joseph Falaky Nagy
  18. Conversing With Angels and Ancients by Joseph Falaky Nagy
  19. From Kings to Warlords by Katharine Simms
  20. Gods and Heroes of the Celts by Marie-Louise Sjoestedt (trans Myles Dillon)
  21. The Year in Ireland by Kevin Danaher
  22. In Ireland Long Ago by Kevin Danaher
  23. Irish Customs and Beliefs by Kevin Danaher
  24. Cattle in Ancient Ireland by A. T. Lucas
  25. The Sacred Trees of Ireland by A. T. Lucas
  26. The Lore of Ireland: An Encyclopaedia of Myth, Legend and Romance by Dáithí Ó hÓgáin
  27. Irish Superstitions by Dáithí Ó hÓgáin
  28. Irish Folk Custom and Belief by Seán Ó Súillebháin
  29. Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval Ireland: Monuments, Cosmology and the Past by NB Aitchison
  30. Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland by Lisa Bitel
  31. Irish Kings and High-Kings by John Francis Byrne
  32. Early Irish Kingship and Succession by Bart Jaski
  33. A Guide to Early Irish Law by Fergus Kelly
  34. Early Irish Farming by Fergus Kelly
  35. A Guide to Ogam by Damian McManus
  36. Ireland before the Normans by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín
  37. Early Medieval Ireland: 400-1200 by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín
  38. A New History of Ireland Volume I: Prehistoric and Early Ireland by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (Editor)
  39. Early Ireland by Michael J O’ Kelly
  40. Cattle Lords & Clansmen by Nerys Patterson
  41. Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland by Patrick C Power
  42. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe by H R Ellis Davidson
  43. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe by Hilda Ellis Davidson
  44. Lady with a Mead Cup by Michael J Enright
  45. Celtic Mythology by Proinsias Mac Cana


1 comment on “Na Fomhóraigh

  1. laim hua duinn

    the fomorians a gaelic race of beings lived on eire 5000 years ago approx 3000bc after the court tombs of the foyle and norhtern eire were built and the boyne valley passage tombs of 3200bc do you have any info on who these peoples were an sionnach fionn


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