Seán O’Sullivan, Legends from Ireland (London: B. T. Batsford 1977)

Bibl. details: Legends from Ireland [gen. ed. Venetia Newall] (London: B. T. Batsford Ltd. 1977), 176pp., ill. [drawings by John Skelton].

Introduction ‘The Dance of the Dead’



The present volume places a collection of legends before the readers. Since these differ in both nature and origin from folktales, some comment on them may be called for. Folk belief and custom, on which legends are based, reflect the inner mind and behaviour of peoples more closely than do folktales, and they offer a fairly sure key to the ways of thought of our ancestors. The event described in a legend was regarded as an actual happening, so far as the folk - be they rural or townsfolk - were concerned. It might have been an unusual happening which, because of its nature, attracted popular attention and was credible and worthy of being kept alive. In addition to this, a legend was normally local; the places, persons, events and dates mentioned in the story were usually known to both [11] the narrator and the audience. While some legends have wandered far afield, in most cases they are more likely to be associated with some local place or person, if the conditions are suitable. A legend may range from a dimly-remembered event to a detailed account of some more recent unusual experience, often associated with beings from the otherworld - ghosts, fairies, spirits, mermaids and such. At a time when our forefathers believed in the existence of an invisible world close-by, whose inhabitants could, and did, intrude into human affairs for good or ill, the scene was set for innumerable legends which described the contacts.

A legend will die only when its local roots have been severed and popular interest in it has ceased. It thrives best where social change comes slowly, and it is kept alive by constant repetition. As the first telling of a legend is usually more close in time and place to the event which it describes, it is more likely to better preserve the real facts than do later versions when the folk’s-eye view dims the outline and fantasy is added to a greater or lesser degree.

In recent years some academics have concentrated on legendry, rather than on folktales, as a subject for serious study. They have found, however, that it is much easier to describe the basic characteristics of a legend than to define what it really is. It is localised; it is factual and often has some historic validity; it is told in ordinary speech, unlike some folktales which have long repetitive ‘runs’ or rhetorics; it is a straightforward art form and is extremely variable; though usually short, it may, on the lips of an expert narrator, especially when he is telling of a personal experience, reach the length of even a folktale and comprise more than one episode; it describes events which the ordinary man has to face passively; it is credible, so far as the audience is concerned, especially when told in a convincing manner and referring to local persons, places and dates; it does not require a special setting or audience for its narration, as a folktale does, but can be introduced into normal conversation when the topic is relevant; and finally, a legend can have a moral or didactive force when it implies or lays down proper rules of behaviour.

Since legends are based on popular belief, in its many ramifications, it is not surprising that they are to be met with in an astonishing variety in Irish oral tradition. The variants already indexed in Ireland run to hundreds of thousands. Most of them have only a local distribution, but some (like the first legend in the present collection) are to be found in other countries also. These have been named Migratory Legends, some of which have been listed for Norway in a monograph by Professor Reidar Th. Christiansen of Oslo (see Bibliography). Often, however, each legend belongs to the area in which it originated and retains its individuality by its association with particular persons, places and dates.

The present volume contains the first collection of representative legends ever published in Ireland. It offers ninety-three examples in different genres. All are taken from oral tradition and give the personal style of the narrator. Sixteen (Nos. 9, 12, 15, 22, 27, 42, 72, 73, 75, 76a, 77, 81, 83, 87, 88 and 93) are in the English language, just as they were recorded. The remaining seventy-seven are translations which I have made from the original Irish versions, keeping as dose as possible to the style of the storytellers. The whole collection, has, therefore, been culled from living oral tradition. No item in it belongs to the ‘scissors and paste’ variety, which is usually garbled and summarised.

There is no book of this kind in existence. In years gone by, some such volumes were limited in scope (to fairy lore, for example), or else included items which ranged from folktales to translated extracts from early sagas, which were not legends at all. A similar criticism can be applied to some collections of legends published in other countries, which did not offer the individual narratives as examples of real oral tradition.

All of the legends in this volume have been selected by me from the manuscripts in the Department of Irish Folklore in University College, Dublin. They have never before been published in English. The Notes give full references to the original manuscript sources, together with details of the name and address of each narrator and of the collector. Mention is also made in the Notes of those legends from oral tradition, which have been published in Irish, without translation, in Bialoideas: The Journal of the Folklore of Ireland Society. I do not claim to have included examples of all available Irish legend-types; this would require several volumes of this size. Both collection and indexing still continue, and it is probable that many new legend-types will be revealed in due course. An all-embracing collection of Irish legends remains for future research-workers and editors.

The segregation of the individual items in this volume, under the different genres, has not been an easy task. Several legends might just as well have been placed in other sections as those in which they appear. For example, stories about the Devil (Section II) might equally well have been placed in Section IV (The Supernatural), and some legends in Section III (Origins) could have been allotted elsewhere. Again, in a country like Ireland, a religious flavour is to be found in many legends which do not, in the main, really belong to Section VI. A choice had to be made, and it is my hope that the Contents, as well as the Motif-Index and the General Index, will serve as a guide through the contents of this volume.

I wish to acknowledge my debt to the various collectors who recorded these stories and to the narrators, many of whom are now dead, who handed them on. I am also grateful to Professor Bo Almqvist, Director of the Irish Folklore Department, for allowing me to use the material, and to the other members of the staff for their assistance.

Seán Ó Súilleabháin       

33 - The Dance of the Dead (in ‘The Supernatural’ [sect.], pp.60-62.)

For a long time I have been listening to the old people telling about the man who was going to the fair at Ballydehob long ago to buy a cow. He didn’t know what time it was when he was leaving the house, because a fox had taken off a fine March cock that they had a short while before. It was a fine, starry night, with no moon.
 He was alone, and he had about fifteen or sixteen miles of a journey ahead of him. He went on about ten or twelve miles where he was a stranger and didn’t know anyone who lived there. As he was passing a house by the side of the road, he heard very fine, sweet music being played inside. He stopped to listen. He saw light in the house, and he could hear a lot of people dancing on the floor. The dance and music attracted him, for he had a light heart. He went to the door and knocked. It was opened for him and he went in. There was a fine, large kitchen, bursting with people, young men and women dancing. A fairly elderly man was sitting by the fire playing a fiddle for them.
 This man who was going to the fair was a very fine dancer himself. He couldn’t keep his feet from moving, so he took a quiet, graceful girl who was seated near the door by the hand and took her out on the floor. After the dance he bowed and thanked her and took her back to her seat. He drew himself aside, for there was a huge crowd dancing together on the floor. He was wondering where they had all come from. He stood watching the dance. He had never seen anything like it or heard such fine music. When he got a chance after a while, he gave a groat to the fiddler, and when the next dance started, he slipped out by the door. He said to himself, as he left, that he would try to find out more about these people when he would be on his way back from the fair in daylight. He didn’t forget to put a mark opposite the house on the other side of the road, so that he would find the house on his return.
 Off he went then to the fair and bought a cow. He then ate his breakfast to face the road home. He left Ballydehob at ten o’clock in the morning, driving the cow before him. He kept an eye on the places he passed through. The houses were few and far between. He asked everyone he met had any of them been at the dance last night in a certain house in such a place. He asked them who was the fiddler. But none of them knew anything about such a dance, and there hadn’t been a fiddler in the district for many years. He was told, however, that the old people had heard of a great fiddler who was there long ago, who used to play music in a dancing-school in a house by the side of the road. But he had been dead for forty years or more, and a new house had been built on the site of the dancing-school; a married couple lived there now.
 That’s what the people he met along the road on his way home told him. At last he reached the house where he had seen the dance the previous night, and he recognised it easily. The door was wide open. He left the cow to graze along the road and went in. The woman of the house was within. She asked him about the fair, and then he asked her about the dance and the dancers she had the night before. He also enquired about the fiddler and where he lived. The woman didn’t reply for a while, for she thought that he had either “a drop taken” or else was a bit “off his head”.
 ‘’Tis a long time since there has been a dance in this house,’ said she. ‘There used to be a dancing-school long ago where this is standing now; that’s over forty years ago. The old people, who used to dance there when they were young men and women, say that there was no beating the fiddler who used to play for them.’
 He listened to her till she had finished.
‘Come outside a minute with me,’ said he to her.
 She followed him out, and he led her across the road. He put his hand into a hole in the fence and pulled out two socks. ‘Do you see those two socks?’ he asked.
 ‘I do.’
 He then told her the whole story about the dance in her house the night before and how he had put his two socks into the hole in the fence so that he would know the house again on his way home. He told her about the dancers and how he had given a groat to the great fiddler they had.
 ‘Now what do you think of all that?’ he asked.
 ‘Me greatest surprise of all that I got,’ said she, ‘was when I found a groat on the chair near the fire when I was “reddening” it this morning. I was the first up in the house, and it was I who took the bolt off the door and opened it. When I asked my husband had he left the coin on the chair, he said that someone had been playing a trick on me.’
 ‘Now you know how the groat came to be on the chair,’ said he. I have ever been hearing that “they” are there,’ said she.


Note: O’Suilleabhain remarks, ‘This well-told legend comes from West Cork where, as in most other parts of Ireland, belief in revenants was very strong. The finding later on of the coin which had - been offered to the dead musician adds a piquant touch to the reality of the story.’ (p.62.)

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