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.
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).
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". The term was first translated into Irish as béaloideas (lit. 'oral instruction') in 1927.
Tales have been traditionally recounted in fireside gatherings,[a] such social gatherings, in which traditional Irish music and dance are also performed, are labeled by some as the cèilidh, 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, or St. Patrick's Day. Irish folklore is closely tied with the pipe and fiddle, the traditional Irish music and folk dance.
Other than folktales and legends, the folkloristic genres is complemented by memorates, beliefs, and belief statements.
Also part of Irish folklore are the handed-down skills, such as basket-weaving or St. Bridget's crosses.
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. To put it succinctly, folklore is an important part of the national identity.Ó Giolláin (2000), p. 4
There are certain stock motifs, often stereotypes, in Irish folklore.
Another well-recognized Irish fairy is the leprechaun, which the poet Yeats identifies as the maker of shoes.[c][d] The cluricaune is a sprite many treat as synonymous to the lepreachaun, and Yeats muses on whether these and the far darrig (fear dearg, "red man") are the one and the same. Mackillop says these three are the three kinds solitary fairies, but Yeats goes on to say "there are other solitary fairies", naming the Dullahan (headless horsemen), Púca, and so forth.
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] 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]
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. 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.
For most of the 19th century, collection of Irish folklore was undertaken by English-speakers, and the material collected were recorded only in English.
Thomas Crofton Croker who compiled Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland (1825-28)is considered one of the earliest collectors. Croker is the first among the significant "antiquary-folklorists" (the label applied by Richard Dorson) to emerge from mere antiquarians.
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).
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. 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. 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). 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.
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".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".
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?
Moreover, in the last decades, capitalism has helped overcoming special spatial barriers 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, this has led to a loss of identity and historical continuity, in a similar nature to Durkheim's anomie.
Finnish folklorist Lauri Honko has referred to the re-contexted exploitation of folklore as its "second life". 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.