BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS: Irish Fairy & Folk Tales

In this series, I’ve talked a lot about books that are purely reference material, providing overviews and general information about their chosen topics. While these sorts of books are fine, if you really want to plumb the depths of folklore you need to read the actual folktales, and I’d like to introduce you to some good collections of them. I’ve talked about fairies a number of times on this blog, including in last week’s list of defenses against the supernatural, so let’s start with a book about them.

Ireland has a long, tragic history. After being conquered by the British the Irish endured centuries of oppression and persecution, with any attempts to win their independence put down brutally, and their native language banned. Things weren’t much better when they went abroad, where they were often treated as thieves, drunkards, and idiots. This kind of history can give any culture an inferiority complex, but in the late 19th century and early 20th century, Irish national pride had a sudden resurgence. One of the products of this period was the Irish Literary Revival. Ireland has a reputation for producing talented writers, and now many of them were taking a new interest in Ireland’s literary history—including its many myths and legends.

One of the notable Irish writers of the time was William Butler Yeats, and he was bitten by the fairy bug early on. He’d had a fascination with Irish folklore since childhood, and among his first publications were two slender volumes titled Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry and Irish Fairy Tales respectively. These two books introduced Irish fairy traditions to a national stage. I suspect it is no coincidence that the mythical beings who feature prominently in the book (like the banshee, leprechaun, and to a lesser extent the púca) are among the most well known in the world today, while those that get little mention (like the dullahan or the sluagh) remain largely unknown.

Yeats is also credited with creating the terminology trooping and solitary fairies, a distinction that has been used many times since by other writers, and will crop up on this blog from time to time. Trooping fairies is the most general term, referring to common fairies of a non-specific type. Their most important feature is that they live in communities, hidden from human eyes, interacting with each other in their own private ways. Yeats also groups the merrows, Irish mermaids and mermen, under this heading, as they also have their own communities beneath the sea. The solitary fairies are those that live by themselves, often haunting the wilderness, though some lurk amongst human settlements.

Nowadays the two books are often sold as one, named Irish Fairy & Folk Tales. About the first half of the book is all about fairies, divided between the trooping and solitary sections, and there is a third section about Tír na nÓg (“The Land of the Young”), better known as Fairyland. Yeats provides some general overview of his topics, and his initial summary of fairies and their nature is about as perfect and succinct a description as you could ask for, not just in the Irish fairy tradition but for the European tradition in general. Aside from this general information, the book consists of stories Yeats collected from either rural storytellers or other writers who also collected such tales. In addition, a few relevant poems and songs are scattered throughout, such as William Allingham’s famous poem “The Fairies.”  Yeats also covers several other topics from Irish folklore, such as ghosts, witches, the devil, legends about saints/priests, legends about historical figures, and a small section on Irish giants. All of them are shot through with references to fairies, or revolve around these sorts of characters interacting with fairies.

I’ve provided links above to Yeats’ original two publications, available for free at Project Gutenberg, but I highly recommend you buy the combined book. It is a fundamental building block of fairy scholarship, and an invaluable reference.

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