Irish folklore

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Due to its complexity folklore does not have a single definition. However, it can be considered as "the traditional art, literature, knowledge, and practices that are disseminated largely through oral communication and behavioural example".[1] It can also include traditions, beliefs, worldviews, knowledge and skills (how to build a house, how to treat an illness), and talents (story-telling, songs, plays). All in all, folklore is an important part of group and national identity. As it can be studied as an understanding of how people live, giving an insight into people's daily life, it can have an academic value.

Irish folklore, when mentioned to many people, conjures up images of banshees, fairy stories, leprechauns and people gathering around, sharing stories of a man as strong as 300 men put together. Many tales and legends were passed from generations to generations, so were the way to celebrate important moments such as marriages, deaths, birthday and holidays (Christmas, Halloween (Oíche Shamhna), St. Patrick's Day) or the way we hand down skills such as making weaved baskets or St. Bridget's crosses. All of the above can be considered as a part of folklore, as it is the study and appreciation of how people lived.[2]

Classic Irish folklore[edit]

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

Irish folklore consists of many classics that are repeated to this day. Popular Irish folkltales include the Otherworld (An Saol Eile), which revolves around the idea of supernatural manifestations and beings.[3] These beings appear in many of the folkloristic genres such as ballads, popular song, legends, memorates, belief statements and folkloric material.[3] Some famous examples from this include the Irish fairylore and restless souls and spirits around Halloween such as the Banshee.[3]

The Banshee is one of the most popular classics to this day, known by many different names (for example, Badh commonly used in the south of Ireland).[4] The Banshee is also rumoured to have a connection with certain families, and is said to follow the prominent male members of the family.[4] Popular opinion is also that she is seen as the ancestress of Irish families and is deeply concerned with the families' fortunes.[4] It is uncertain whether the Banshee is evil or good.

Other classics include leprechauns, fairies, rainbows, Cú Chulainn, Children of Lir, Dullahan (headless horsemen), Pookas, Changelings.

Title page of Irish Fairy Tales, illustrated by Arthur Rackham
Title page of Irish Fairy Tales, illustrated by Arthur Rackham


The word folklore in French means “picturesque but without importance or without deep significance”.[5] 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. In Ireland, folklore can be associated with the countryside, specifically the Irish speaking West, Aran Islands, oral stories, the fiddle, intimate settings. Folklore is also massively tied with traditional Irish music and dance for example the river dance can be tied to folklore in ways.[5]

Samhain and Beltane are two traditions that are rooted in folklore, and are still in practice today.

Samhain, (Celtic for “End of Summer") is an ancient Celtic tradition. It marks the end of the lighter half of the world (summer), and the beginning of the darker half (winter). It is here where it was believed that the division between life and the after life was thinnest. It was believed that this thinning allowed spirits to move between this world and the other. The widely practiced holiday of Halloween originates from Samhain.[6][7]

Another tradition rooted in folklore is Beltane. Beltane is held on the first day of May. This tradition is a celebration marking the beginning of summer. During this tradition rituals were performed to protect both crops and livestock. Large bonfires were lit serving as protection for grazing cattle. Today Beltane festivals can be found in both Ireland and Scotland.[8]

Fairy lore[edit]

Fairy lore is a body of stories, anecdotes, beliefs and the likes of these that are relating to fairies.[9] It usually contains superstitions and stories that were passed down throughout the generations.

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.

There are different famous superstitions involving fairy lore. These superstitions mention that 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.[10] When tampered with, it could be seen an act of provocation towards these supernatural beings which would result in unexplainable consequences such as sickness, bad luck or even death.[11] These encounters are recorded in Irish fairy tales as well as passed down by word of mouth. The effects of these stories and superstitions are evident, even up to the present day, where even government infrastructure are planned in a way that preserves these sites.[12]

Fairy stories include "The Field of Boliauns", "The Children Of Lir", "Finn MacCool", "The Fairy Well of Lagnanay" and many others.[13]

There are different types of fairies in Irish fairy lore with different abilities and characteristics. These include the famous few such as the leprechaun, banshees, changelings and many others.[14] The origin of these Irish fairies could be dated back to the ancient Celtic beliefs of pagan Gods and supernatural beings.[14] However, there is no linear path that traces the development of fairy lore in Ireland from its origin.[15]

Irish fairy lore has influenced many Anglo-Irish authors, such as Jonathan Swift, whose celebrated book Gulliver's Travels contains creatures akin to Irish fairies. [16]

Seán Ó Súilleabháin (1903–1996) and the Irish Folklore Commission[edit]

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 (published 1947). 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.[17] 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).[17] 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.[17]

Effects of Christianity on Irish folklore[edit]

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”.[18] 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”.[18]

The evolution of Irish folklore[edit]

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?[5]

Moreover, in the last decades, capitalism has helped overcoming special spatial barriers[19] 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,[20] this has led to a loss of identity and historical continuity, in a similar nature to Durkheim's anomie.[5]

Honko describes the current state of the Irish folklore as its “second life”.[5] Even though there is still a natural existence of folklore within its natural community, folklore material is now being used in other environments, such as 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[edit]


  1. ^ "What Is Folklore? - American Folklore Society". Retrieved 2018-03-08.
  2. ^ "Irish Folklore: Myth and Reality". Retrieved 2018-03-08.
  3. ^ a b c 1958-, O'Connor, Anne, (2005). The blessed and the damned : sinful women and unbaptised children in Irish folklore. Oxford: Peter Lang. ISBN 3039105418. OCLC 62533994.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  4. ^ a b c The concept of the goddess. Billington, Sandra., Aldhouse-Green, Miranda J. (Miranda Jane). London: Routledge. 1996. ISBN 0415197899. OCLC 51912602.CS1 maint: others (link)
  5. ^ a b c d e 1955-, Ó Giolláin, Diarmuid, (2000). Locating Irish folklore: tradition, modernity, identity. Sterling, VA: Cork University Press. ISBN 1859181694. OCLC 43615310.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  6. ^ Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Samhain.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 21 Oct. 2016,
  7. ^ Gilroy, John. Tlachtga: Celtic Fire Festival. Pikefield Publications, 2000.
  8. ^ Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Beltane.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 11 Oct. 2011,
  9. ^ "fairy lore | Definition of fairy lore in English by Oxford Dictionaries". Oxford Dictionaries | English. Retrieved 2018-03-13.
  10. ^ "Irish Folklore: Traditional Beliefs and Superstitions". Owlcation. Retrieved 2018-03-13.
  11. ^ Donnelly, Dave (2016-10-04). "Superstitions & Fairy trees in Ireland". Your Irish Culture. Retrieved 2018-03-13.
  12. ^ "The Fairy tree that delayed a motorway. Ennis Co Clare". Retrieved 2018-03-13.
  13. ^ Yeats, William Butler (1998-03-02). Fairy Folk Tales of Ireland. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9780684829524.
  14. ^ a b Monaghan, Patricia (2014-05-14). The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore. Infobase Publishing. ISBN 9781438110370.
  15. ^ "Irish Fairies". Retrieved 2018-09-19.
  16. ^ "Forgotten Fairies of Irish Folklore". Owlcation. Retrieved 2018-09-19.
  17. ^ 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.
  18. ^ a b "Changelings, Fairies, Deities, and Saints: The Integration of Irish Christianity and Fairy Tale Belief | Transceltic - Home of the Celtic nations". Retrieved 2018-04-03.
  19. ^ 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: extra punctuation (link)
  20. ^ "A Guide to Irish Folk Tales". Owlcation. Retrieved 2018-03-13.

Primary sources[edit]

Secondary sources[edit]

Tertiary Sources[edit]