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West Irish Folk-Tales and Romances

West Irish Folk-Tales and Romances
Author: Various
Title: West Irish Folk-Tales and Romances
Release Date: 2018-09-06
Type book: Text
Copyright Status: Public domain in the USA.
Date added: 27 March 2019
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The Camden Library.





Collected and Translated






Whatever profit might, from the scientificpoint of view, be considered likelyto spring from a study of Gaelic folk-lore,it would probably be considered beforehand thatit would come from the study of the materialas a single body, uniform throughout, and, assuch, to be brought into comparison with thefolk-lore of other countries. When, however, wecome to an actual survey of the material, certainappearances present themselves which lead us toexpect that, possibly, a large part of our gain willaccrue from the observation of the differenceswhich characterise different parts of the materialwithin itself. Ireland, though an island ofmoderate extent, is yet sufficiently large to containdistricts far enough apart to isolate in somedegree their respective peasant populations; whileit is also admitted that the homogeneity of theGaelic tongue does not indicate a correspondinghomogeneity of race. It may turn out, in fact,[vi]ultimately, that we have in Ireland, not one, butseveral bodies of folk-lore placed in relations mostfavourable for aiding in the solution of certainproblems; while, finally, we shall, by a comparisonwith the Gaelic folk-lore of Scotland, obtain a stillwider field for similar observations and inferences.

It is true, unfortunately, that our Irish materialis not by any means what it might have been,either in quantity or quality; its defects beingsuch that any conclusions arrived at through theline of investigation here to be suggested must atpresent be considered of a very provisional nature.Of the folk-lore of the large province of Munsterwe know next to nothing. I have myself hithertobeen able to make no attempt at collection in thesouthern counties. Some of Mr. Curtin’s storieswere probably obtained in Kerry; but he has nottold us which. We have, therefore, nothing to fallback upon but the somewhat sophisticated littlefairy tales of Crofton Croker. For Leinster, weare better off, as we have the Wexford tales ofKennedy. For the inland parts of Connaught wehave Dr. Hyde’s volume; for the coast of Connaughtand Donegal, the tales included in thisbook, and many others in my possession not yetpublished.

With regard to Crofton Croker’s tales, it needsbut a small acquaintance with Ireland to beassured that they are not peculiar to Munster.[vii]The cluricaun still pursues his trade of boot-makingby the shores of Achill Sound in Mayo.Donegal knows all that the south ever knew onthe subject, and has perhaps even a greater wealthof information. It is admitted that in the city ofDublin the tribe does not now exist; but such isnot the case even in this highly-civilised watering-placeof Bray, only twelve miles distant from themetropolis. In a word, this minor mythologywas, may we not say still is, common to thewhole island.

The fairies, however, do not very often formthe subjects of the longer detailed narratives.Let me now turn to these. Among the Connaughtstories I have found a good many parallelson the coast to those of the inland districts,though I have not included any in this volume.In Donegal, on the other hand, while I haveobtained only two partial variants of the inlandConnaught tales, I have found several closeparallels to the Connaught coast tales—a fact,however, which may be accounted for by thepartially Donegalese descent of the Achill people.If we now bring the Wexford tales into comparison,it will be found that they do not containmany parallels to those of the other districts. Iknow of only five from Connaught, and two fromthe more distant Donegal, both variants of twoof the Connaught tales, one of them, perhaps[viii]the best known of all such stories—no other,indeed, than Mr. Lang’s “far-travelled tale”—thatof “The Three Tasks”; the other, of whichI obtained complete versions in Galway and inMayo, and which I know to exist in Donegal,is represented in this volume by “Morraha BrianMore,” and in Kennedy by the “Fis fá an aonSgeul.” Now this latter does not appear to bemuch known except in Ireland; but it will hardlybe contended that it was independently inventedin the four Irish counties in which it has beendiscovered. Still less would this be maintainedregarding the other. The tale, which has provedits popularity by flourishing in three quarters ofthe globe, shows the same quality on a smallerscale by flourishing in at least three provinces ofIreland.

And perhaps this is the best place to note thatthe theory of independent origin is contrary toone of the closest analogies to be observed innature. When animals and plants of the samespecies are found in wide-distant regions, nonaturalist assumes for a moment that they originatedseparately. However puzzling the problemmay be, the student of nature seeks to solve it byexplanations of a very different kind; and alreadymany of the most difficult cases have yielded theirsecret to patient investigation. It will assuredlyturn out to be the same with folk-tales. As[ix]regards Ireland we see that there is a presumption,which will scarcely be contested, in favour of theview that certain entire tales were dispersed froma common centre, thus showing on a small scalethe working of the whole process. When, however,we come to parts of tales, such as specialphrases, rhymes, etc., the evidence of a commonorigin is beyond question. There are plenty ofminor examples in this volume; but here I woulddirect special attention to the three sea-runs whichoccur in “Bioultach,” “King Mananaun,” and“The Champion of the Red Belt,” found in Galway,Mayo, and Donegal respectively (see Note,pp. 253-4). I think it difficult for any one whoreads these and notes their likenesses and theirdifferences, not to believe that they were originallycomposed by one person. The variations are easilyaccounted for by imperfect recollection, substitutionsfor forgotten phrases, and all the gradualalterations sure to arise in the case of irregularoral transmission among peasant narrators.

The evidence, then, seems so far to show thatthe fairy belief is common to all Ireland; that ofthe more elaborate traditional narratives, a certainsmall proportion seems to be widely diffused,while the larger portion separates into divisionspeculiar to certain districts, the greatest divergencebetween one locality and another occurringwhen the localities are most widely separated.


Now, that there should be any considerabledivergence seems surprising when the facts arefully taken into account. Ireland is not a largecountry. For centuries—we do not know howmany—before the Norman invasion, the inhabitantshad spoken Gaelic. The absence of politicalunity, the ceaseless wars and forays, must allhave tended to fuse the population and obliterateoriginal differences much more than a settled stateof society. Yet they exist. The differences infolk-lore are not greater than other differences.Ethnologists know that the so-called Gaelic raceis really a compound one, containing in additionto the true Celtic (Aryan) element probably twothat are not Aryan—a Mongolian or Finnishelement, and an Iberian element. Very littleattempt has hitherto been made to settle in whatparts of the country these elements respectivelypreponderate; but that there must be some preponderanceof different races in different localitiesis shown clearly enough by the varying physicaltypes. It is beyond question that Donegal differsfrom Connaught, and that both differ fromMunster; and when we find that, in spite of acoexistence of at least two thousand years in thesame island, and the possession of a commonlanguage, different districts have a different folk-lore,is it extravagant to surmise that these differentbodies are due to varying racial deposits?


Let us now compare Ireland as a whole withthe Scotch Highlands. The language of both isstill, as for fifteen hundred years, practically thesame. The inhabitants are of closely-allied race,in part identical, and for many centuries a constantcommunication was kept up between both countries.The folk-lore is partly alike, partly unlike.The similarity is occasionally very great. Thereare entire tales which are all but identical as toldon both sides of the sea. There is identity ofphrases and sentences. In Campbell’s version ofthe “far-travelled tale,” “The Battle of the Birds,”occurs a striking phrase, in which the raven is saidto have carried a man “over seven benns andseven glens and seven mountain moors.” Nearlythe same phrase occurs in Kennedy’s version—“sevenmountains (benns), seven glens and sevenmoors,” which is the more surprising, as this storyhad passed, one does not know how long before,from its Gaelic into its English dress. Comparethe phrase from “Morraha” in the present volume—“hesat down and gave a groan and the chairbroke in pieces”—with Campbell’s “The King ofAssaroe”—“his heart was so heavy the chair brokeunder him.” Many other examples could begiven. We have before our eyes, so far as Irishand Scotch folk-lore are similar, an example ofhow two branches of a race originally so closelyunited as almost to form one, have for some[xii]hundreds of years drifted or been forced apart,the process being thus unfolded to us in the fulllight of history by which a body of folk-lore,originally one, has separated into divisions showingdistinct characteristics, while it retains the strongesttokens of its original unity.

But it seems as if there was a large amount offolk-literature in each country which the othernever possessed. To this I shall come presently,after I have first brought forward a comparisonwith German folk-lore. But before attemptingthat, it is desirable first to offer a few remarkson the style of the stories in this volume.

It will, I hope, be observed that the style is notuniform, but that it differs considerably from onestory to another, and not so much in accordancewith the narrator as with what he narrates. I mustof course partially except the case of P. Minahan,whose individuality is stamped on everything thatcomes from him; but this is not so with the othernarrators. If “The Gloss Gavlen” be comparedwith the only other tale of M’Ginty’s, “The Kingwho had Twelve Sons,” it will be seen that thestyle of the two is quite distinct, the first beingnoticeable for a certain archaic simplicity of whichthere is no trace in the other. Again, the styleof “Bioultach” is surely quite different from thatof T. Davis’s other contribution, “The Story,” in“Morraha,” while the opening of the latter from[xiii]M’Grale is easily distinguishable from that of“The Little Girl who got the better of the Gentleman,”or “Gilla of the Enchantments.” EvenMinahan varies with his subject, as will appear froma comparison of “The Woman who went to Hell”with “The Champion of the Red Belt.” It seemsfrom this as if some of the tales had a certainindestructibility of style, an original colour whichpassed unaltered through the minds of perhapsgenerations of reciters, this colour being determinedat first by the character of the subject. Ingeneral, the tales of fierce fighting champions, ofthe more terrible monsters, sorcerers and the like,have a certain fierceness, if one may use the word,of style; while those of more domestic incidentare told with quietness and tenderness.

Let me now briefly compare the folk-tales ofGermany with those of the Scotch Highlands.

It cannot, I think, escape notice in readingGrimm’s collection, that a very large number ofthe tales bear a strong impress of quiet domesticity.They are very properly named “household” inmore senses than one. And this is a matter notmerely of style but of substance. The incidentsare, to a vast extent, domestic in character. Thereis no occasion to give a long list of the tales Irefer to. I may mention as types “The ThreeSpinners,” which turns entirely on the results ofdomestic drudgery to the female figure; and[xiv]“Thrush-Beard,” a tale analogous to “The Tamingof the Shrew” legend. But this domestic stampbecomes more fully apparent when we bring intocontrast the Highland stories. Among these thereare indeed parallels to Grimm; but they are relativelyfew, and there is a whole class of incidentsand stories of which little trace is found in theGerman collection. The domestic incident all butdisappears. The tales are more romantic, picturesque,extravagant. The giants and monstersare more frequent and fearful. The stories ofhelping animals—and this is very characteristic—thoughnot entirely absent, are far less numerousthan in Grimm.

Now, turning to Ireland, we find

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