HOME GoIreland.com
   Fri 2nd March 2001 << Back to start


The Learning TreeFolklore and Literature


Due to its late centralisation basic cultural forms have changed, but slowly, and as a result this is one of the more important countries in Europe in terms of folklore. Small local communities have until recently relied on their own resources for education and entertainment. This, and the particular taste for style in Irish speech, can be counted as the major reasons for the elaborate nature of our storytelling.

The main divisions of folk stories in Ireland are native hero-tales, adaptations of international folk-tales, and oral legends of famous persons and things.

Few of the mythological stories of old Irish literature are found in the folklore of recent times, but there are some significant exceptions. Especially notable is the lore concerning the champion, Lugh, who survives the schemes of his tyrant grandfather, Balar 'of the destructive eye', and slays that formidable opponent.

People everywhere love stories of great heroes. In Ireland, our hero-tales have been reinforced through the centuries by written texts. This is true of all versions of stories from the Ulster Cycle, or 'Ruraiocht', which have been current in folklore. Their sources were manuscript re-tellings that were read out at get-togethers in the evenings. Most dramatic are the deeds of the youthful super-hero, Cú Chulaind, who while still a boy and unarmed slew a massive and savage hound, and went on to fight whole armies single-handedly.

Folk accounts of Fionn Mac Cumhaill are much more varied and numerous, combining tragedy, comedy and simple curiousity. The special popularity of Fionn-lore is due to the simple and catchy form of his adventures and also to the large numbers of late literary texts that focus on him and his warriors. The account of his fugitive youth, and of how he gained prophetic wisdom through tasting a mystical salmon, was known to Irish speakers in every part of the country.

The companions of Fionn are equally colourful. Pre-eminent is Oisin, hero's son, who is claimed by tradition to have lived on into the Christian era and to have debated the ancient epics with St Patrick himself. Then there is Diarmaid O Duibhne, the handsome young warrior with a love-spot on his forehead, and all women who see this spot fall hopelessly in love with him. Ladies beware of modern day impostors!

Late folklore has added its own dimensions to the myth of Fionn, often describing him as an outwitter of hostile giants and attributing to him wise proverbs concerning social and economic life.

One very popular genre was the short animal tale, which attributes fanciful experiences and often human-like intelligence to the various creatures. Some of these tales purport to explain origins, such as how the wren became King of the birds or how the plaice got its crooked mouth, but especially popular were the imagined deeds of the clever fox.

The Book of Kells, Trinity College, DublinSince medieval times, people have been accustomed to select and develop material, which they heard in church sermons. Thus many stories tell of adventures in search of salvation, of tussles with demons, and of various other ways in which man acts out his moral dilemma in concrete terms. There are many artistic touches to these, such as a man who does penance in a river, and his tears of remorse are so bitter that they cut their way through the water and leaves holes in the bed of the river beneath.

An oral legend is a story to which a significant amount of belief is attached, and various examples of this genre are found in Ireland. Again demonstrating its importance in international cultural studies, Irish folklore has many fine examples of 'migratory' legends, which were once current in other parts of Europe as well. Instances are the legend of a river which periodically claims a victim, or that of a sleeping army of old which waits at a hidden location for the appropriate time to return.

Otherwise, Irish fairy lore, like that of Europe generally, is a combination of ancient ideas of the otherworld with explanations loosely derived from Christian literature. The most prevalent explanation is that the fairies were a section of the fallen angels after the great battle in heaven, which were allowed by God to inhabit land, sea and air. Most lore of the fairies has them inhabiting a world which is a mirror-image of human society, and engaging in agricultural and household chores in much the same way as humans do.

Local dedications and the custom of praying at holy wells has led to a large number of stories concerning the saints from Ireland's 'golden age'. The saint is portrayed as a kindly person who possesses astounding miraculous powers, such as in the common legend which has the holy man or woman banish a ferocious monster into one or other of the many Irish lakes. Traditions of the great trio of saints, Patrick, Brigid and Colmcille, had wide provenance. Patrick is represented as the original missionary who overcame druids and banished demons; Brigid functions in the role of protective goddess, though presented as a kindly Christian; whereas the image of Colmcille probably preserves something of the druid in his portrayal as a strong-willed and powerful figure with a high social profile.

There is a high demand for funny stories about learned individuals, and many such concern the celebrated Dean Swift and his saucy servant who continually tricks and exasperates him.

The natural environment, its flora and fauna, and the climatic and seasonal variations which colour it, have all been favourite subjects for the folk imagination. Many accounts tell of the origins of things and of traits attributed to them. Similarly the passing of time, whether in the life cycle of individuals or the festivals which punctuate the year, have given rise to a rich amalgam of folk belief, practice and narrative. Birth, marriage and death were traditionally the three focal points in human life, and this is strongly reflected in the folk superstitions concerning them. Death is especially marked in folk belief, and unique to Ireland is the 'bean si' or ghostly lady, whose eerie cry is heard to presage the death of members of old Irish families.


From the 6th to the 17th century most literature was composed in Irish. Some has been lost but a good deal is still available in the original and in translation. The early monks produced a large body of poetry, much of it religious, but they also recorded a great deal of pre-Christian material. Perhaps the best known of these is The Tain Bo Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). This is the epic account of the raid of the men of Connaught led by Queen Maeve to capture the marvellous bull owned by the men of Ulster. It has been beautifully translated by Thomas Kinsella, among others. The Navigatio Brendani (Voyage of St. Brendan) is another example of this type of writing.

Later classics include The Book of the Dun Cow and The Book of Leinster which date from the 12th-century and feature the adventures of Cuchulain, Finn McCool, Oisin, the Fianna and other legendary heroes who succumbed to Patrick's Crozier. These works provided great inspiration for writers such as W.B. Yeats and James Stephens.

Also dating from this period are the Annals of the Four Masters, a magnificent historical record of events in Ireland from the earliest times. Much of our knowledge of Irish history comes from the work of these Donegal scholars. In the 18th-century a schoolmaster from Clare, Brian Merriman, composed The Midnight Court (Cuirt an Mhean Oiche), a witty satire on the reluctance of Irishmen to marry. Writing later in the same century Jonathan Swift was the first Irish author to win international acclaim. He lampooned social and political mores at the time and the English attitude to Ireland in A Tale of a Tub, A Modest Proposal and Gullivers Travels. Contemporary with him was George Berkeley, the noted philosopher and author of Principles of Human Knowledge.

Other outstanding figures of this period are Edmund Burke, the philosopher and orator whose statue stands outside Trinity College and Oliver Goldsmith, the gentle author of The Vicar of Wakefield, The Deserted Village and She Stoops to Conquer. Richard Brinsley Sheridan is remembered for his dramatic works including The Rivals and The School for Scandal while Thomas Moore gained a reputation as a poet, author and musician.

The brilliant wit and bohemian lifestyle of Oscar Wilde, coupled with his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and comic plays such as Lady Windermere's Fan and The Importance of Being Ernest have made his name immortal. George Bernard Shaw had no doubt of his ability and compared his best works, Arms and the man, Sain Joan and Candida, to those of Shakespeare; his play Pygmalion was the basis for the musical My Fair Lady. In 1925 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

William Butler Yeats is probably Ireland's best known poet and has an immense influence on Irish letters. He won the Nobel Prize in 1923. Collections of his poetry and plays are now available in many languages. In celebration of life on the western seaboard J.M. Synge wrote Riders to the Sea and The Playboy of the Western World. The Irish-speaking Blasket Islands off the Kerry Coast have produced three great writers: Peig Sayers (An Old Woman's Reflections) Tomas O Criomhtain (An tOileanach) and Muiris O Suilleabhain (Fiche Blian ag Fas). They lyrically portrayed the hard but contended life of the islanders at the turn of the century.

Irish Fairy Tales and the exquisitely written The Crock of Gold are the fanciful work of James Stephens while Sean O' Casey is remembered for his tragicomedies The Shadow of A Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars. James Joyce, the author of Ulysses and Dubliners, now has a worldwide following. Samuel Beckett (another Nobel Prize Winner) was a magnificent novelist as well as playwright, who first achieved fame with his play Waiting for Godot.

Among the leading contemporary poets are Patrick Kavanagh, Louis MacNeice, Thomas Kinsella, Seamus Heaney (noble prize winner for literature in 1997), John Montague, Richard Murphy and Derek Mahon.

There is now a diverse richness in the literary and theatrical diet, which is unsurpassed. Modern farce, Shakespeare, classical pieces and modern Irish plays can now be seen happily co-existing. Every large town has its own amateur drama group that puts on at least one production a year. Ask at the tourist office for details of amateur dramatics in your area.


Home | Search | Irish Links | Copyright | Privacy Policy

© 2000 Copyright Access Ireland in association with GoIreland.com