Irish Folklore
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Irish Folklore

Irish folklore (Irish: béaloideas) refers to the folktales, balladry, music, dance, and so forth, ultimately, all of folk culture.

Irish folklore, when mentioned to many people, conjures up images of banshees, fairy stories, leprechauns and people gathering around, sharing stories. Many tales and legends were passed from generations to generations, so were the dances and song in the observing of important occasions such as weddings, wakes, birthday and holidays or, or handcraft traditions. All of the above can be considered as a part of folklore, as it is the study and appreciation of how people lived.


What constitutes Irish folklore may be rather fuzzy to those unfamiliar with Irish literature.[1] Diarmuid Ó Giolláin, for one, declared that folklore was elusive to define clearly.[2]

Bo Almqvist (c. 1977) gave an all-encompassing definition that folklore covered "the totality of folk culture, spiritual and material", and included anything mentioned in Seán Ó Súilleabháin's A Handbook of Irish Folklore (1942).[3][4]

It was not until 1846 that the word "folklore" was coined, by English writer William Thoms, to designate "the manners, customs, observances, superstitions, ballads, proverbs, &c of the olden time".[1][5] The term was first translated into Irish as béaloideas (lit. 'oral instruction') in 1927.[6]

Folktales and songs

Tales have been traditionally recounted in fireside gatherings,[a][7] such social gatherings, in which traditional Irish music and dance are also performed, are labeled by some as the cèilidh,[8] though this is a term borrowed from Scottish Gaelic. The story-telling, songs and dance were also part of how special occasions were commemorated, on such days as Christmas, Halloween (Oíche Shamhna, eve of Samhain), Beltane, held on the first day of May,[4] or St. Patrick's Day. Irish folklore is closely tied with the pipe and fiddle, the traditional Irish music and folk dance.[9]

The keening Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire composed by Eileen Dubh Ní Chonaill in her husband's wake is a piece of poetry passed down by folk tradition.[10]

Other than folktales and legends, the folkloristic genres is complemented by memorates, beliefs, and belief statements.[11]

Handcraft and herb lore

Also part of Irish folklore are the handed-down skills, such as basket-weaving or St. Bridget's crosses.


The Irish Folklore Commission has accumulated a collection of St. Bridget's crosses, and various craft objects made of plaited straw, etc., gathered from across the county.[13]

Folklore can also include knowledge and skills such as how to build a house[], or to treat an illness, i.e., herb lore.[14]

Irish identity

In Ireland the word Folk Lore has deep meaning to its people and brings societies together, it is a word that has ideological significance in this country.[15] To put it succinctly, folklore is an important part of the national identity.[16]Ó Giolláin (2000), p. 4

Common themes

Bunworth Banshee, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825
Bunworth Banshee, Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland by Thomas Crofton Croker, 1825

There are certain stock motifs, often stereotypes, in Irish folklore.


Two green "fairy" trees next to each other in a lush pasture.
Fairy Trees near Greenan. According to fairy lore, the hawthorn tree, also known as a fairy tree, is said to mark the territory of the fairies.

One commentator attributes to Andrew Lang the sweeping definition that Irish folklore is all about fairies.[17] The belief in fairies (sidhe) has been widespread.[17]

One type of Irish fairy is the female banshee, the death-messenger with her keening, or baleful crying over someone's death,[18] and known by many different names[19][b]

Another well-recognized Irish fairy is the leprechaun, which the poet Yeats identifies as the maker of shoes.[c][17][21][d] The cluricaune is a sprite many treat as synonymous to the lepreachaun,[24][26] and Yeats muses on whether these and the far darrig (fear dearg, "red man") are the one and the same.[21] Mackillop says these three are the three kinds solitary fairies,[27] but Yeats goes on to say "there are other solitary fairies", naming the Dullahan (headless horsemen), Púca, and so forth.[21]

The changeling is often ascribed to being perpetrated by fairies.[28] The theme is assigned its own migratory legend type, "The Changeling" (ML 5085).[29]

Fairy land

Supernatural beings such as these fairies named is also connected with the Irish traditional belief in the Otherworld (An Saol Eile).[30]

Fairy forts and hawthorn trees, also known as fairy trees, are the places of residency of fairies. To tamper with these sites is seen as hugely disrespectful to the fairies.[31]

Hawthorn tree

There are several trees sacred to Ireland, but the lone hawthorn (aka the "may" tree) is particularly considered a fairy haunt, and patches underneath where the grass have worn down are reputed to be due to fairies dancing.[e][32] Though literary fiction more than folklore, two consecutive poems by Samuel Ferguson, "The Fairy Thorn" and "The Fairy Well of Lagnanay" describes the lone Fairy Hawthorn (The Whitethorn).[f][34]

Fairy mounds

The notion that Irish fairies live in fairy mounds (fairy forts, fairy hills) give rise to the names aos sí or daoine sídhe ('people of the sidhe [fairy mound] ').[35]

In the instance of "The Legend of Knockgrafton" (name of a hill), the protagonist named Lusmore is carried inside the fairy "moat" or rath by the fairy wind (Irish: sidhe gaoithe).[g][37]

Heroic sagas

Other classic themes in Irish folktale literature include Cú Chulainn, Children of Lir, Finn MacCool, from medieval heroic and tragic sagas.

Folklore material in the 'Pre-Croker period', according to Bo Almqvist's reckoning, do tentatively include various Medieval written texts (the heroic tales in the Ulster Cycle, Finn Cycle, the Cycle of the Kings, and the hagiography of St. Patrick and other saints, etc.), with the proviso that these works can no longer be considered intact folk legends, given the accrued literary layers of the "fanciful and fantastic". However they are an excellent well-source of comparative study, as collected folktales are sometimes traceable to these medieval sagas.[38] An example is the tale of Cú Chulainn's horse[h] remnant in the legend type of "The Waterhorse as Workhorse" (MLSIT 4086),[i] or so argued by Carl Wilhelm von Sydow [de].[39]

History of collecting

Early collectors

For most of the 19th century, collection of Irish folklore was undertaken by English-speakers, and the material collected were recorded only in English.[40]

Thomas Crofton Croker who compiled Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825-28)is considered one of the earliest collectors.[41] Croker is the first among the significant "antiquary-folklorists" (the label applied by Richard Dorson) to emerge from mere antiquarians.[42]

Tales in the Irish language

The Irish-speaking West, the Gaeltacht included for example the Aran Islands, where some folklore collecting was performed by Danish linguist Holger Pedersen back in 1896, though they did not see publication until a century later, and playwright J. M. Synge included a couple of folktales in his The Aran Islands (1907).[43]

Seán Ó Súilleabháin (1903-1996) and the Irish Folklore Commission

Ó Súilleabháin was part of the Irish Folklore Commission, Béaloideas. Not long after the foundation of the commission he created two books for the collectors. The first, in 1937, a shorter volume in the Irish Language, Láimh-Leabhar Béaloideasa, mainly used by collectors in the Irish speaking areas. In 1942 he wrote his more well-known volume A Handbook of Irish Folklore.[44] To this day his work serves as a great resource to collectors of Irish folklore and provides a wide outline of the traditions of Irish Folklore.[45] He also wrote a booklet of topics, in both Irish and English, in 1937 to be used by teachers and school children in primary schools in the South of Ireland as part of the Schools' Scheme for the collection of folklore (1937-1938).[45] He focused on the native Gaelic tradition and the tradition of story-tellying. He played particular attention to the stories of Fionn Mac Cumhail and the Fianna, and looked into how stories were told in Irish and in other languages across Europe. His work was and still is very important in the study of Irish Folklore for the masses.[45]

Effects of Christianity on Irish folklore

When Christianity was first brought in Ireland during the 5th century by missionaries, they were not able to totally wipe out the pre-existing folklore and beliefs in God-like fairies. But folklore did not remain untouched, and the myths and Christian beliefs were combined such that Irish folklore would "enforce Christian ideals but still remain as a concession to early fairy belief systems".[46]Christianity altered the importance of some beliefs and define a new place for them in folklore. For example, fairies, who were previously perceived as God, became merely magical, and of much lesser importance. Along with it, a fusion of folklore legends and Christianity was witnessed. One of the major example of this is the existence of legends featuring both Saint Patrick, a central figure in the Irish church, and fairies (for example, "The Colloquy of the Ancients" is a dialogue between Saint Patrick and the ghost of Caeilte of the Fianna, an ancient clan of Celtic warriors).

All in all, the current Irish folklore shows a strong absorption of Christianity, including its lesson of morality and spiritual beliefs, creating a "singular brand of fairy tale tradition".[46]

Sociological trends

Folklore is a part of national identity, and is evolving through time. During the 16th century, the English conquest overthrew the traditional political and religious autonomy of the country. The Great famine of the 1840s, and the deaths and emigration it brought, weakened a still powerful Gaelic culture, especially within the rural proletariat, which was at the time the most traditional social grouping. At the time, intellectuals such as Sir William Wilde expressed concerns on the decay of traditional beliefs:

In the state of things, with depopulation the most terrific which any country ever experienced, on the one hand, and the spread of education, and the introduction of railroads, colleges, industrial and other educational schools, on the other - together with the rapid decay of our Irish bardic annals, the vestige of Pagan rites, and the relics of fairy charms were preserved, - can superstition, or if superstitious belief, can superstitious practices continue to exist?[47]

Moreover, in the last decades, capitalism has helped overcoming special spatial barriers[48] making it easier for cultures to merge into one another (such as the amalgam between Samhain and Halloween).

All those events have led to a massive decline of native learned Gaelic traditions and Irish language, and with Irish tradition being mainly an oral tradition,[49] this has led to a loss of identity and historical continuity, in a similar nature to Durkheim's anomie.[50]

In popular culture

Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko has referred to the re-contexted exploitation of folklore as its "second life".[51] Irish folklore material is now being used in marketing (with strategies suggesting tradition and authenticity for goods), movies and TV-shows (The Secret of Kells, mention of the Banshee are found in TV-shows such as Supernatural, Teen Wolf or Charmed), books (the book series The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, the novel American Gods...), contributing to the creation of a new body of Irish folklore.

See also

Explanatory notes

  1. ^ Such actual gatherings being reconstructed in Patrick Kennedy's works.
  2. ^ For example badhbh (meaning 'scaldcrow') us commonly used in the south-east of Ireland, though the crow represents the war-goddess Badb (conflated with Mór-Ríoghain) in early Irish literature.[20]
  3. ^ The notion is based on Douglas Hydes's etymology of leprechaun, derived from leith brog or leith brogan 'one-shoemaker',[21] however, others point out the word can be traced to Old Irish luchorpán meaning some sort of a dwarf(-like being).[22] But not only Yeats but Bo Almqvist refers to the leprechaun as "fairy shoemaker".[23]
  4. ^ Diarmuid Ó Giolláin (1984 paper, etc.) is prominent in the study of Leprechauns.[23]
  5. ^ Though George Henry Kinahan, a naturalist and archaeologist, reckons they are just as well caused by wayfarers taking refuge.
  6. ^ In the first poem, a fairy abduction takes place,[33] and in the second, a girl fades away after wishing to be taken to Fairy land, and drinking from the well.[34]
  7. ^ Or fairy blast.[36]
  8. ^ The lore of Cú Chulainn's horse, the Grey of Macha, or perhaps the underlying story of the woman Macha in the narrative The Debility of the Ulstermen.
  9. ^ Migratory Legend index of Reidar Thoralf Christiansen.


  1. ^ a b Markey (2006), p. 21.
  2. ^ Ó Giolláin (2000), p. 2.
  3. ^ Almqvist (1977-1979), p. 11, cited by Markey (2006), p. 22
  4. ^ a b "Irish Folklore: Myth and Reality". Archived from the original on 2019-11-21. Retrieved .
  5. ^ Vejvoda (2004), p. 43.
  6. ^ Markey (2006), p. 22.
  7. ^ Delaney, James G. (1988). "At the Foot of Mount Leinster: Collecting Folklore in the Kennedy Country in 1954". The Past (16): 55, 64. JSTOR 25519976.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  8. ^ Read (1916).
  9. ^ Ó Giolláin (2000), pp. 2-3.
  10. ^ Cullen, L. M. (1993). "The Contemporary and Later Politics of 'Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoire'". Eighteenth-Century Ireland / Iris an dá chultúr. 8: 8. JSTOR 30070942.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  11. ^ O'Connor (2005), p. 24, back cover}}
  12. ^ Kennedy (1866) "The Long Spoon", Legendary fictions of the Irish Celts, pp. 147-148
  13. ^ Ó Súilleabháin, Seán (31 December 1944). "Irish Folklore Commission: Collection of Folk". The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Seventh Series. 14 (4): 225-226. JSTOR 25510467.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  14. ^ Read (1916), pp. 255-256.
  15. ^ Ó Giolláin (2000), pp. 1-2.
  16. ^ Markey (2006), p. 34, quoting Lady Wilde, Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland, p. xii: "the legends have a peculiar and special value as coming direct from the national heart".
  17. ^ a b c Read (1916), p. 250.
  18. ^ Read (1916), pp. 250-251.
  19. ^ Lysaght, Patricia (1996). Billington, Sandra; Green, Miranda (eds.). Aspects of the Earth-Goddess in the Traditions of the Banshee in Ireland. The Concept of the Goddess. London: Routledge. pp. 152-153. ISBN 0415197899. OCLC 51912602.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  20. ^ Lysaght (1996), p. 156.
  21. ^ a b c d Yeats (1888), p. 80.
  22. ^ a b Ó Giolláin, Diarmuid (1988). "The Leipreachán and Fairies, Dwarfs and the Household Familiar: A Comparative Study". Béaloideas. 52 (16): 75-78. JSTOR 20522237.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  23. ^ a b Almqvist (1991), p. 25.
  24. ^ T. Crofton Croker (1824), Researches, p. and Thomas Keightley (1860) [1828] The Fairy Mythology, pp. 371-383, cited by Ó Giolláin (1984).[22]
  25. ^ Jacobs (1892), pp. 245, 26-29.
  26. ^ Croker's "The Field of Boliauns" featured the cluricaune, but when Joseph Jacobs included the tale he altered the spirit to the leprechaun.[25]
  27. ^ (MacKillop 1998) Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, s. v. "cluricaune".
  28. ^ (MacKillop 1998) Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, s. v. "changeling".
  29. ^ Earls (1992-1993), pp. 111, 133.
  30. ^ O'Connor (2005), pp. 31ff.
  31. ^ "Irish Folklore: Traditional Beliefs and Superstitions". Owlcation. Retrieved .
  32. ^ Kinahan, G. H. (1888). "Irish Plant-Lore Notes". The Folk-Lore Journal. 6 (4): 266. JSTOR 1252608.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  33. ^ Hodder, William (Spring-Summer 1991). "Ferguson's 'The Fairy Thorn': A Critique". Irish University Review. 21 (1 (Special Issue: Contexts of Irish Writing)): 118-129. JSTOR 25484407.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  34. ^ a b Denman, Peter. "Ferguson and 'Blackwood's': The Formative Years". Irish University Review. JSTOR 25477633.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  35. ^ Monaghan (2004) Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, s. v., "fairy" and "fairy mound".
  36. ^ Monaghan (2004) Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, s. v., "fairy blast", s. v., "fairy blast"
  37. ^ Giraudon, Daniel (2007), "Supernatural Whirlwinds in the Folklore of Celtic Countries", Béaloideas, 75: 8, JSTOR 20520921
  38. ^ Almqvist (1991), pp. 5-6.
  39. ^ Almqvist (1991), p. 6.
  40. ^ Hillers (2011), pp. 138-139.
  41. ^ Alspach (1946), p. 404, though the criterion of the authors and names listed here is not so much important earlier folklore as early works "contributing .. to the folklore background of the [Celtic] revival".
  42. ^ Dorson (1999), p. 44.
  43. ^ Ó Giolláin (2000), pp. 125, 112.
  44. ^ Ó Súilleabháin (1942).
  45. ^ a b c Lysaght, Patricia (1998). "Seán Ó Súilleabháin (1903-1996) and the Irish Folklore Commission". Western Folklore. 57 (2/3): 137-151. doi:10.2307/1500217. JSTOR 1500217.
  46. ^ a b "Changelings, Fairies, Deities, and Saints: The Integration of Irish Christianity and Fairy Tale Belief | Transceltic - Home of the Celtic nations". Retrieved .
  47. ^ Ó Giolláin (2000), p. 17.
  48. ^ 1935-, Harvey, David (1990). The condition of postmodernity: an enquiry into the origins of cultural change. Oxford [England]: Blackwell. ISBN 0631162941. OCLC 18747380.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  49. ^ "A Guide to Irish Folk Tales". Owlcation. Retrieved .
  50. ^ Ó Giolláin (2000), pp. 14-17.
  51. ^ Ó Giolláin (2000), p. 174.

Primary sources

Early modern sources
  • Hyde, Douglas (1890). Beside the Fire: A Collection of Irish Gaelic Folk Stories. London: David Nutt Retrieved via 9 November 2017
  • Hyde, Douglas (1896). Five Irish Stories: Translated from the Irish of the "Sgeuluidhe Gaodhalach". Dublin: Gill & Son Retrieved from University of California Library via 9 November 2017
  • Hyde, Douglas (1915). Legends of Saints and Sinners (Every Irishman's Library). London: T. Fisher Unwin Retrieved via 9 November 2017

Secondary sources

  • Almqvist, Bo (1977-1979). "The Irish Folklore Commission: Achievement and Legacy". Béaloideas. 45/47: 6-26. JSTOR 20521388.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Hillers, Barbara (2011). "'The Knight of the Green Cloak' and Other Irish Folklore Marvels in Harvard Libraries". Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium. 31: 137-157. JSTOR 41759259.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • O'Connor, Anne (2005). The blessed and the damned : sinful women and unbaptised children in Irish folklore. Oxford: Peter Lang. ISBN 3039105418. OCLC 62533994.
  • Ó Súilleabháin, Seán (1942). A Handbook of Irish Folklore. Dublin: Educational Company of Ireland Limited. ISBN 9780810335615.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
  • Ó Súilleabháin, Seán & Christiansen, Reidar Th.(1963). The Types of the Irish Folktale. Folklore Fellows' Communications No. 188. Helsinki 1963.
  • Vejvoda, Kathleen (2004), ""Too Much Knowledge of the Other World": Women and Nineteenth-Century Irish", Victorian Literature and Culture, 32 (1): 41-61, JSTOR 25058651

Tertiary Sources

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