Charles Welsh, “Irish Fairy and Folk Tales” (1904)

[ Source: Irish Literature, gen. ed. Justin MacCarthy, Vol. III, (Philadelphia: John Morris & Company 1904), pp.xvii-xxv. ]

THE history of Ireland and of the Irish people dates from a very remote antiquity; indeed, Its beginnings are lost in the twilight of fable, but its language, as Mr. Douglas Hyde says, “has left the clearest, most luminous, and most consecutive literary traces behind it of any of the vernacular tongues,” excepting the Greek.
 Linguistically speaking, the Celtic people are a branch of the great Aryan race. The Irish are part of a vast Indo-European family which countless ages ago spread to the West over a great part of Europe. The Gaelic language has roots which go far down toward the parent stock; its literature, consequently, is of the utmost interest and value to those who seek to read the riddle of the past and to push back the horizon of knowledge concerning it. The reader will not, therefore, be surprised to learn that the Irish fairy tales and folk stories are among the oldest of those of any of the European races. “Of all the traces that man in his earliest period has left behind him,” says Mr. Douglas Hyde in his Beside the Fire, “there is nothing except a few drilled stones or flint arrowheads that approaches the antiquity of these tales.”
 And although they have many counterparts in other languages, which would seem to indicate a common origin in the far off past, notably in Oriental folklore, the spirit of the race is enshrined in them in a more characteristic and striking degree, perhaps, than in the fairy tales and folklore of any other country. This is doubtless due to their preservation in the ancient Gaelic; to the fact that the wandering bard has lingered longer in Ireland than elsewhere, and to the fact that the professional story-teller, although fast disappearing, is not yet entirely extinct in that country.
 Story-telling has always been a favorite amusement of the Celtic race. In ancient times the professional story-tellers were classified, and were called, according to their rank, ollaves, shannachies, filís, or bards. Their duty was to recite old tales, poems, and descriptions of historical events in prose or verse at the festive gatherings of the [xvii] people. They were especially educated and trained for this profession, which was looked upon as a dignified and important one, and they were treated with consideration and amply rewarded wherever they went.
 It is recorded how the story-tellers used to gather together of an evening, and if any had a different version from the others, they would all recite theirs and vote, and the man who had varied would have to abide by their verdict. In this way stories have been handed down with snch accuracy that the long tale of Dierdre was, in the earlier decades of the eighteenth century, told almost word for word as in the very ancient MS in the Royal Dublin Society. In one case only it varied, and then the MS was obviously wrong - a passage had been forgotten by the copyist. But this accuracy is rather in the folk and bardic tales than in the fairy legends, for these vary widely, being usually adapted to some neighboring village or local fairy-seeing celebrity.
 While the Irish fairy tales and folk tales are among the oldest in the world, they are also the most numerous and diversified. Although the same personages figure in them over and over again, many collectors have classified their chief figures more or less. The following will give an idea of the main grouping:
 There are “the Sociable Fairies,” who go about in troops, and quarrel and make love much as men and women do. They are land fairies or Sheoques (Ir. Sidheog, “a little fairy”), and water fairies or Merrows (Ir. Moruadh, “a seamaid”).
 The Sheoques haunt the sacred thorn bushes and the green raths or royalties - those little fields circled by ditches, and supposed to have been ancient fortifications and sheepfolds. Many a mortal they have said to have enticed into their dim world. Many hare listened to their fairy music, till human cares and joys drifted from them and they became great seers, or “ fairy doctors,” or musicians, or poets, like Carolan, who is said to have gathered his tunes while sleeping on a fairy rath or else they died in a year and a day, to live ever after among the fairies. These Sheogues occasionally steal a child and leave a withered fairy, a thonsand or maybe two thousand years old, instead. [xviii]
 The Merrows sometimes come out of the sea in the shape of little hornless cows. In their own shape, they have fishes’ tails and wear a red cap, called in Irish cohuleen driuth . The men among them have green teeth, green hair, pigs’ eyes, and red noses; but their women are beautiful and sometimes prefer handsome fishermen to their green-haired lovers.
 Among “ Solitary Fairies” is the Lepricaun (Ir, Leith bhrogan, i.e. the one shoemaker) . He is seen sitting under a hedge mending a shoe, and whoso catches him can make him deliver up his crocks of gold, for he is a miser of great wealth; but if you take your eyes off him he vanishes like smoke. He wears a red coat with seven buttons in each row, and a cocked hat, on the point of which he sometimes spins like a top. In Donegal he goes clad in a great frieze coat.
 The Cluricaun (Ir. Clobhair-cean) occupations are robbing wine cellars and riding sheep and shepherds’ dogs the livelong night, until the morning finds them panting and mud-covered.
 The Gonconer or Ganconagh (Ir. Gean-canogh, i.e. love-talker) is a creature of the Lepricaun type, but a great idler. He appears in lonely valleys, pipe in month, and spends his time in making love to shepherdesses and milk-maids.
 The Far Darrig (Ir. Fear dearg, i.e. red man) is the practical joker of the other world. He presides over evil dreams.
 The Pooka (Ir. Pùco, a word derived by some from poc, a he-goat) also is of the family of the nightmare. His shape is usually that of a horse, bull, goat, eagle, or ass. His delight is to get a rider, with whom he rushes through ditches and rivers and over mountains, and whom he shakes off in the gray of the morning. Especially does he love to plague a drunkard; a drunkard’s sleep is his kingdom. At times he takes more unexpected forms than those of beast or bird. When it rains in Ireland at the same time that the sun is shining it is a sure sign that the Pooka will be out that night
 The Dullahan has no head, or carries it under his arm. He is often seen driving a black coach, called “coach-a-bower “ (Ir. Coite-bodhar), drawn by headless horses. It rumbles to your door, and if you open it a basin of blood is [xix] thrown in your face. It is an omen of death to the houses where it pauses.
 The Leanhaun Shee ( Ir. Leanhaun sidhe, i.e. fairy mistress) seeks the love of men. If they refuse, she is their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can escape only by finding one to take their place. Her lovers waste away, for she lives on their life.
 The Far Gorta (man of hunger) is an emaciated fairy that goes through the land in famine time, begging and bringing good luck to the giver.
 The Banshee (Ir. Bean-sidhe, i.e. fairy woman) is a sociable fairy grown solitary through much sorrow. The name corresponds to the less common Far Shee (Ir. Fear sidhe), a man fairy. She wails, as most people know, over the death of a member of some old Irish family.
 There are also the “House Spirits”: the Water Sherie, a kind of will-o’-the-wisp; the Soulth, a formless luminous creature; the Pastha ( piastbestia), the lake dragon, a guardian of hidden treasure; and the Bo men fairies, who destroy the unwary ; and there is the great tribe of ghosts, called Thivishes in some parts.
 Representative stories of each of these groups will be found in the writings of those who have made it their business to collect and retell the fairy tales and folk lore of the country, and we have, under the heading of “Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland, anonymous,” brought together a few of the typical stories to which no names are attached.
 And there is fairy poetry as well, of which not a little is to be found in the works of the Irish poets from William Allingham to William Butler Yeats. But it is not so abundant as one might expect. The ancient myths and legends and the half-mythical history of Ireland and her manifold wrongs and sufferings seem to have appealed more to the Irish poetical spirit.
 The very first collections of fairy tales and folk tales are of course to be found in the old Chap-books. “They are,” says Mr. W. B. Yeats, “to be found brown with turf smoke on cottage shelves, and are, or were, sold on every hand by the peddlers, but cannot be found in any library of this city of the Sassanach (London). The Royal Fairy Tales, The Hibernian Tales, and The Legends of the Fairies, are the fairy literature of the people.” [xx]
 Of a certain volume of the Hibernian Tales, Thackeray writes pleasantly in his Irish Sketch Book, remarking: “So great is the superiority of the old stories over the new, in fancy, dramatic interest, and humor, that one can’t help fancying that Hibernia must have been a very superior country to Ireland.”
 ”These Hibernian novels, too,” he continues, “are evidently intended for the hedge-school universities. They have the old tricks and some of the old plots that one has read in many popular legends of almost all countries, European and Eastern; successful cunning is the great virtue applauded; and the heroes pass through a thousand wild extravagant dangers, such as could only have been invented when art was young and faith was large. And as the honest old author of the tales says they are suited to the meanest as well as to the highest capacity, tending both to improve the fancy and enrich the mind, let us conclude the night’s entertainment by reading one or two of them, and reposing after the doleful tragedy which has been represented. The “Black Thief “ is worthy of the Arabian Nights, I think - as wild and odd as an Eastern tale. … Not a little does it add to these tales that one feels as one reads them that the writer must have believed in his heart what he told; you see the tremor, as it were, and the wild look of the eyes as he sits in his comer and recites and peers wistfully around lest the spirits he talks of be really at hand.” And after telling us the Chap-book version of the story of “Hudden, Dudden, and Donald,” and of “the Spaeman,” he says: “And so we shut up the hedge-school library, and close the Galway Nights’ Entertainments; they are not as amusing as Almack, to be sure, but many a lady who has her opera box in London has listened to a piper in Ireland.”
 It is significant of how Ireland’s contribution to English literature in every department has been ignored by the English, and in consequence by the entire literary world, that in the two great collections of Chap-books made by the elder and the younger Boswell, which are now in the library of Harvard University, there are scarcely any of Irish origin, though England and Scotland are fully represented; and yet during the period covered by these collections, as these remarks by Thackeray and W. B. Yeats would indicate, [xxi] the ontput of this literature was as large as, if not larger than, that of either England or Scotland. If it had not been for a certain purchase made by Thackeray at Ennis when on his tour through Ireland, and for a certain rainy day in Galway abont 1840, the English people would probably never have known that the Irish people had their Chap-books from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century as well as the people of almost all other European countries.
 The systematic collection of Celtic folk tales in English began in Ireland as early as 1825, with T. Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland . Among the novelists and tale-writers of the schools of Miss Edgeworth and Lever folk tales were occasionally utilized, as by Carleton in his Traits and Stories, by Lover in his Legends and Stories, and by Griffin in his Tales of a Jury Room . These all tell their tales in the manner of the stage Irishman. Patrick Kennedy, a Dublin book-seller, printed about one hundred folk and hero tales and drolls in his Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts, 1866; Fireside Stories of Ireland, 1870; and Bardic Stories of Ireland, 1871. Lady Wilde has told many folk tales very effectively in her Ancient Legends of Ireland, 1887. Mr. J. Curtin’s Myths and Folk Tales of Ireland, 1890, must not be forgotten. Douglas Hyde has published in Beside the Fireside, 1891, English versions of some of the stories he had published in the original Irish in his Leahbar Sgealaighteachta, Dublin 1889. Miss MacLintock has published many tales in various periodicals during the past twenty years; a period which has been remarkably fruitful in active workers in this hitherto comparatively untilled field. P. W. Joyce’s Old Celtic Romances,’ W. Larminie’s West Irish Folk Tales, P. J. McCall’s Fenian Nights’ Entertainments, Seumas Mac- Manus’ Donegal Fairy Tales, D. Deeney’s Peasant Lore from Gaelic Ireland,’ and many other books too numerous to mention are rich in material of this kind. But Dr. Douglas Hyde, Lady Gregory, and W. B. Yeats have done more than all to reveal to us “the old weird world which sleeps in Irish lore.” They know the people of Ireland thoroughly, and in their works they give us not only the folk and fairy tales of the people, but they make us feel [xxii] how entirely they enter into and pervade and influence their every-day lives.
 One reason, perhaps, why the Irish people are as a rule so supremely gifted with the power of poetical self expression, why they are endowed with so rich and luxurious a fancy, is because for centuries they have been nourished on such a wealth of fairy tales and wonder stories as is exceeded by no other literature of the world.
 Emerson says, “What nature at one time provides for use, she afterward turns to ornament,” and Herbert Spencer, following out this idea, remarks that “the fairy lore, which in times past was matter of grave belief and held sway over people’s conduct, has since been transformed into ornament for The Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, The Faërie Queene, and endless small tales and poems; and still affords subjects for children’s story books, amuses boys and girls, and becomes matter for jocose allusion.”
 Sir Walter Scott also says, in a note to “The Lady of the Lake”: “The mythology of one period would appear to pass into the romance of the next, and that into the nursery tales of subsequent ages”; and Max Müller, In his Chips from a German Workshop, says: “The gods of ancient mythology were changed into the demigods and heroes of ancient epic poetry, and these demigods and heroes again become at a later age the principal characters of our nursery tales.”
 In just the same way many of the Irish folk tales are the detritus of the ancient bardic stories, and we can see this detrition in actual process in Ireland to-day, where the belief in the fairies and legends still exists in the minds of many of the older folks. As Lady Wilde says in her introduction to Irish Legends : “With the highly sensitive organization of their race, it is not wonderful that the people live habitually under the shadow and dread of invisible powers which, whether working for good or evil, are awful and mysterious to the uncultured mind that sees only the strange results produced by certain forces, but knows nothing of the approximate causes.” And so Tir-nan-og, the country of the young, the place where you will get happiness for a penny, so cheap and common will it be, is still devoutly believed in by many to whom Hy Braesil, [xxiv] tbe Island of the Blest, is also something more than a name.
 And it is not a little curious to note in this connection that, while the fairy tales of other lands have long been the natural literature of childhood, it is only in later years that even in Ireland itself her fairy tales, folk lore, wonder tales, and hero stories have figured in books especially made for young people.
 The fairy tales and folk lore of Ireland should have a special interest not alone for Irish-Americans, but for that greater American nation which is being evolved out of the mixture of the blood of all the races of the world, today. We inherit, we are infused by, and we are transmuting into terms of national individuality, all the romance, all the culture, all the art, and all the literature of the past, of all the nations of the world.
 And when this individuality shall have been achieved, we shall have a culture which will be distinctly American, we shall have an art which will be distinctly American, we shall have a literature which will be distinctly American.
 There has entered, and there will enter, into the composition of this new and individual race, a greater infusion of the Celtic element than of any other, and it is therefore of the highest importance that the literature in which this element has been cradled, tbe literature to which the Celtic spirit responds most quickly and with the happiest results, should form part of the mental nourishment of our young people, in the form of the fairy tales and folk lore of Ireland.
 We have given our children freely for the last two hundred years of the English Mother Goose rhymes and fairy tales, of the German, and even of the Norse fairy tales and romances - much of the content and idea of which is remote, and to which because of race-inherited feelings and tendencies, they cannot respond - while we have left unheeded the vast treasures which exist in Irish fairy literature, a literature which makes the strongest appeal to the largest ingredient in the composition of the new American race which is being evolved.

Chas: Welsh


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