Beside the Fire

A collection of Irish Gaelic folk stories

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Irish and Scotch Gaelic folk-stories are, as a living form of literature, by this time pretty nearly a thing of the past. They have been trampled in the common ruin under the feet of the Zeitgeist, happily not before a large harvest has been reaped in Scotland, but, unfortunately, before anything worth mentioning has been done in Ireland to gather in the crop which grew luxuriantly a few years ago. Until quite recently there existed in our midst millions of men and women who, when their day’s work was over, sought and found mental recreation in a domain to which few indeed of us who read books are permitted to enter. Man, all the world over, when he is tired of the actualities of life, seeks to unbend his mind with the creations of fancy. We who can read betake ourselves to our favourite novelist, and as we peruse his fictions, we can almost see our author erasing this, heightening that, and laying on such-and-such a touch for effect. His book is the product of his individual brain, and some of us or of our contemporaries have been present at its genesis.


But no one can tell us with certainty of the genesis of the folk-tale, no one has been consciously present at its inception, and no one has marked its growth. It is in many ways a mystery, part of the flotsam and jetsam of the ages, still beating feebly against the shore of the nineteenth century, swallowed up at last in England by the waves of materialism and civilization combined; but still surviving unengulfed on the western coasts of Ireland, where I gathered together some bundles of it, of which the present volume is one.

The folk-lore of Ireland, like its folk-songs and native literature, remains practically unexploited and ungathered. Attempts have been made from time to time during the present century to collect Irish folk-lore, but these attempts, though interesting from a literary point of view, are not always successes from a scientific one. Crofton Croker’s delightful book, “Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland,” first published anonymously in 1825, led the way. All the other books which have been published on the subject have but followed in the footsteps of his; but all have not had the merit of his light style, his pleasant parallels from classic and foreign literature, and his delightful annotations, which touch, after a fascinating manner peculiarly his own, upon all that is of interest in his text. I have written the word “text,” but that word conveys the idea of an original to be annotated upon; and Crofton Croker


 is, alas! too often his own original. There lies his weak point, and there, too, is the defect of all who have followed him. The form in which the stories are told is, of course, Croker’s own; but no one who knows anything of fairy lore will suppose, that his manipulation of the originals is confined to the form merely. The fact is that he learned the ground-work of his tales from conversations with the Southern peasantry, whom he knew well, and then elaborated this over the midnight oil with great skill and delicacy of touch, in order to give a saleable book, thus spiced, to the English public.

Setting aside the novelists Carleton and Lover, who only published some incidental and largely-manipulated Irish stories, the next person to collect Irish folk-lore in a volume was Patrick Kennedy, a native of the County Wexford, who published “Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts,” and in 1870 a good book, entitled, “The Fireside Stories of Ireland,” which he had himself heard in Wexford when a boy. Many of the stories which he gives appear to be the detritus of genuine Gaelic folk-stories, filtered through an English idiom and much impaired and stunted in the process. He appears, however, not to have adulterated them very much. Two of the best stories in the book, “Jack, the Cunning Thief,” and “Shawn an Omadawn,” I heard myself in the adjoining county Wicklow, and the versions of them that I heard did not differ very widely from Kennedy’s. It


 is interesting to note that these counties, close to the Pale as they are, and under English influence for so long, nevertheless seem to have preserved a considerable share of the old Gaelic folk-tales in English dress, while in Leitrim, Longford, Meath, and those counties where Irish died out only a generation or two ago, there has been made as clean a sweep of folk-lore and Gaelic traditions as the most uncompromising “West Briton” could desire. The reason why some of the folk-stories survive in the eastern counties is probably because the Irish language was there exchanged for English at a time when, for want of education and printed books, folk-stories (the only mental recreation of the people) had to transfer themselves rightly or wrongly into English. When this first took place I cannot tell, but I have heard from old people in Waterford, that when some of their fathers or grandfathers marched north to join the Wexford Irish in ’98, they were astonished to find English nearly universally used amongst them. Kennedy says of his stories: “I have endeavoured to present them in a form suitable for the perusal of both sexes and of all ages”; and “such as they are, they may be received by our readers as obtained from local sources.” Unfortunately, the sources are not given by him any more than by Croker, and we cannot be sure how much belongs to Kennedy the bookseller, and how much to the Wexford peasant.


After this come Lady Wilde’s volumes;—her “Ancient Legends,” and her recently published “Ancient Cures, Charms, and Usages,” in both of which books she gives us a large amount of narrative matter in a folk-lore dress; but, like her predecessors, she disdains to quote an authority, and scorns to give us the least inkling as to where such-and-such a legend, or cure, or superstition comes from, from whom it was obtained, who were her informants, whether peasant or other, in what parishes or counties the superstition or legend obtains, and all the other collateral information which the modern folk-lorist is sure to expect. Her entire ignorance of Irish, through the medium of which alone such tales and superstitions can properly, if at all, be collected, is apparent every time she introduces an Irish word. She astonishes us Irish speakers with such striking observations as this—“Peasants in Ireland wishing you good luck, say in Irish, ‘The blessing of Bel and the blessing of Samhain be with you,’ that is, of the sun and of the moon.”[1] It


 would be interesting to know the locality where so curious a Pagan custom is still practised, for I confess that though I have spoken Irish in every county where it is still spoken, I have never been, nor do I expect to be, so saluted. Lady Wilde’s volumes, are, nevertheless, a wonderful and copious record of folk-lore and folk customs, which must lay Irishmen under one more debt of gratitude to the gifted compiler. It is unfortunate, however, that these volumes are hardly as valuable as they are interesting, and for the usual reason—that we do not know what is Lady Wilde’s and what is not.

Almost contemporaneously with Lady Wilde’s last book there appeared this year yet another important work, a collection of Irish folk-tales taken from the Gaelic speakers of the south and north-west, by an American gentleman, Mr. Jeremiah Curtin. He has collected some twenty tales, which are told very well, and with much less cooking and flavouring than his


 predecessors employed. Mr. Curtin tells us that he has taken his tales from the old Gaelic-speaking men; but he must have done so through the awkward medium of an interpreter, for his ignorance of the commonest Irish words is as startling as Lady Wilde’s.[2] He follows Lady Wilde in this, too, that he keeps us in profound ignorance of his authorities. He mentions not one name, and except that he speaks in a general way of old Gaelic speakers in nooks where the language is still spoken, he leaves us in complete darkness as to where and from whom, and how he collected these stories. In this he does not do himself justice, for, from my own knowledge of Irish folk-lore, such as it is, I can easily recognize that Mr. Curtin has approached the fountain-head more nearly than any other. Unfortunately, like his predecessors, he has a literary style of his own, for


 which, to say the least of it, there is no counterpart in the Gaelic from which he has translated.[3]

We have as yet had no folk-lorist in Ireland who could compare for a moment with such a man as Iain Campbell, of Islay, in investigative powers, thoroughness of treatment, and acquaintance with the people, combined with a powerful national sentiment, and, above all, a knowledge of Gaelic. It is on this last rock that all our workers-up of Irish folk-lore split. In most circles in Ireland it is a disgrace to be known to talk Irish; and in the capital, if one makes use of an Irish word to express one’s meaning, as one sometimes does of a French or German word, one would be looked upon as positively outside the pale of decency; hence we need not be surprised at the ignorance of Gaelic Ireland displayed by littérateurs who write for the English public, and foist upon us modes of speech which we have not got, and idioms which they never learned from us.

This being the case, the chief interest in too many of our folk-tale writers lies in their individual treatment of the skeletons of the various Gaelic stories obtained through English mediums, and it is not devoid of interest


 to watch the various garbs in which the sophisticated minds of the ladies and gentlemen who trifled in such matters, clothed the dry bones. But when the skeletons were thus padded round and clad, although built upon folk-lore, they were no longer folk-lore themselves, for folk-lore can only find a fitting garment in the language that comes from the mouths of those whose minds are so primitive that they retain with pleasure those tales which the more sophisticated invariably forget. For this reason folk-lore is presented in an uncertain and unsuitable medium, whenever the contents of the stories are divorced from their original expression in language. Seeing how Irish writers have managed it hitherto, it is hardly to be wondered at that the writer of the article on folk-lore in the “Encyclopedia Britanica,” though he gives the names of some fifty authorities on the subject, has not mentioned a single Irish collection. In the present book, as well as in my Leabhar Sgeuluigheachta, I have attempted—if nothing else—to be a little more accurate than my predecessors, and to give the exact language of my informants, together with their names and various localities—information which must always be the very first requisite of any work upon which a future scientist may rely when he proceeds to draw honey (is it always honey?) from the flowers which we collectors have culled for him.


It is difficult to say whether there still exist in Ireland many stories of the sort given in this volume. That is a question which cannot be answered without further investigation. In any other country the great body of Gaelic folk-lore in the four provinces would have been collected long ago, but the “Hiberni incuriosi suorum” appear at the present day to care little for anything that is Gaelic; and so their folk-lore has remained practically uncollected.

Anyone who reads this volume as a representative one of Irish folk-tales might, at first sight, imagine that there is a broad difference between the Gaelic tales of the Highlands and those of Ireland, because very few of the stories given here have parallels in the volumes of Campbell and MacInnes. I have, however, particularly chosen the tales in the present volume on account of their dissimilarity to any published Highland tales, for, as a general rule, the main body of tales in Ireland and Scotland bear a very near relation to each other. Most of Mr. Curtin’s stories, for instance, have Scotch Gaelic parallels. It would be only natural, however, that many stories should exist in Ireland which are now forgotten in Scotland, or which possibly were never carried there by that section of the Irish which colonized it; and some of the most modern—especially of the kind whose genesis I have called conscious—must have arisen amongst the Irish since then, while on the other


 hand some of the Scotch stories may have been bequeathed to the Gaelic language by those races who were displaced by the Milesian Conquest in the fifth century.

Many of the incidents of the Highland stories have parallels in Irish MSS., even incidents of which I have met no trace in the folk-lore of the people. This is curious, because these Irish MSS. used to circulate widely, and be constantly read at the firesides of the peasantry, while there is no trace of MSS. being in use historical times amongst the Highland cabins. Of such stories as were most popular, a very imperfect list of about forty is given in Mr. Standish O’Grady’s excellent preface to the third volume of the Ossianic Society’s publications. After reading most of these in MSS. of various dates, and comparing them with such folk-lore as I had collected orally, I was surprised to find how few points of contact existed between the two. The men who committed stories to paper seem to have chiefly confined themselves to the inventions of the bards or professional story-tellers—often founded, however, on folk-lore incidents—while the taste of the people was more conservative, and willingly forgot the bardic inventions to perpetuate their old Aryan traditions, of which this volume gives some specimens. The discrepancy in style and contents between the MS. stories and those of the people leads me to believe that the


 stories in the MSS. are not so much old Aryan folk-tales written down by scholars as the inventions of individual brains, consciously inventing, as modern novelists do. This theory, however, must be somewhat modified before it can be applied, for, as I have said, there are incidents in Scotch Gaelic folk-tales which resemble those of some of the MS. stories rather nearly. Let us glance at a single instance—one only out of many—where Highland tradition preserves a trait which, were it not for such preservation, would assuredly be ascribed to the imaginative brain of an inventive Irish writer.

The extraordinary creature of which Campbell found traces in the Highlands, the Fáchan, of which he has drawn a whimsical engraving,[4] is met with in an Irish MS. called Iollann Arm-dearg. Old MacPhie, Campbell’s informant, called him the “Desert creature of Glen Eite, the son of Colin,” and described him as having “one hand out of his chest, one leg out of his haunch, and one eye out of the front of his face;” and again, “ugly was the make of the Fáchan, there was one hand out of the ridge of his chest, and one tuft out of the top of his head, and it were easier to take a mountain from the root than to bend that tuft.” This one-legged, one-handed, one-eyed creature, unknown, as Campbell remarks, to German or Norse mythology, is thus described


 in the Irish manuscript: “And he (Iollann) was not long at this, until he saw the devilish misformed element, and the fierce and horrible spectre, and the gloomy disgusting enemy, and the morose unlovely churl (moga); and this is how he was: he held a very thick iron flail-club in his skinny hand, and twenty chains out of it, and fifty apples on each chain of them, and a venomous spell on each great apple of them, and a girdle of the skins of deer and roebuck around the thing that was his body, and one eye in the forehead of his black-faced countenance, and one bare, hard, very hairy hand coming out of his chest, and one veiny, thick-soled leg supporting him and a close, firm, dark blue mantle of twisted hard-thick feathers, protecting his body, and surely he was more like unto devil than to man.” This creature inhabited a desert, as the Highlander said, and were it not for this corroborating Scotch tradition, I should not have hesitated to put down the whole incident as the whimsical invention of some Irish writer, the more so as I had never heard any accounts of this wonderful creature in local tradition. This discovery of his counterpart in the Highlands puts a new complexion on the matter. Is the Highland spectre derived from the Irish manuscript story, or does the writer of the Irish story only embody in his tale a piece of folk-lore common at one time to all branches of the Gaelic race, and now all but extinct. This last supposition is certainly the true one, for it is


 borne out by the fact that the Irish writer ascribes no name to this monster, while the Highlander calls him a Fáchan,[5] a word, as far as I know, not to be found elsewhere.

But we have further ground for pausing before we ascribe the Irish manuscript story to the invention of some single bard or writer. If we read it closely we shall see that it is largely the embodiment of other folk-tales. Many of the incidents of which it is composed can be paralleled from Scotch Gaelic sources, and one of the most remarkable, that of the prince becoming a journeyman fuller, I have found in a Connacht folk-tale. This diffusion of incidents in various tales collected all over the Gaelic-speaking world, would point to the fact that the story, as far as many of the incidents go, is not the invention of the writer, but is genuine folk-lore thrown by him into a new form, with, perhaps, added incidents of his own, and a brand new dress.

But now in tracing this typical story, we come across another remarkable fact—the fresh start the story took on its being thus recast and made up new. Once the order and progress of the incidents were thus stereotyped, as it were, the tale seems to have taken a new


 lease of its life, and gone forth to conquer; for while it continued to be constantly copied in Irish manuscripts, thus proving its popularity as a written tale, it continued to be recited verbally in Scotland in something like the same bardic and inflated language made use of by the Irish writer, and with pretty nearly the same sequence of incidents, the three adventurers, whose Irish names are Ur, Artuir, and Iollann, having become transmogrified into Ur, Athairt, and Iullar, in the mouth of the Highland reciter. I think it highly improbable, however, that at the time of this story being composed—largely out of folk-tale incidents—it was also committed to paper. I think it much more likely that the story was committed to writing by some Irish scribe, only after it had gained so great a vogue as to spread through both Ireland and Scotland. This would account for the fact that all the existing MSS. of this story, and of many others like it, are, as far as I am aware, comparatively modern.[6] Another argument in favour of this


 supposition, that bardic tales were only committed to writing when they had become popular, may be drawn from the fact that both in Ireland and the Highlands we find in many folk-lore stories traces of bardic compositions easily known by their poetical, alliterative, and inflated language, of which no MSS. are found in either country. It may, of course, be said, that the MSS. have perished; and we know how grotesquely indifferent the modern Irish are about their literary and antiquarian remains; yet, had they ever existed, I cannot help thinking that some trace of them, or allusion to them, would be found in our surviving literature.

There is also the greatest discrepancy in the poetical passages which occur in the Highland oral version and the Irish manuscript version of such tales as in incident are nearly identical. Now, if the story had been propagated from a manuscript written out once for all, and then copied, I feel pretty sure that the resemblance between the alliterative passages in the two would be much closer. The dissimilarity between them seems to show that the incidents and not the language were the things to be remembered, and that every wandering bard who picked up a new story from a colleague, stereotyped the incidents in his mind, but uttered them whenever he recited


 the story, in his own language; and whenever he came to the description of a storm at sea, or a battle, or anything else which the original poet had seen fit to describe poetically, he did so too, but not in the same way or the same language, for to remember the language of his predecessor on these occasions, from merely hearing it, would be well-nigh impossible. It is likely, then, that each bard or story-teller observed the places where the poetical runs should come in, but trusted to his own cultivated eloquence for supplying them.

Fiction & Literature
10 December
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