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The Mythology and Folklore of the Celts: Science and Art

By Drew Timmons

Science and Art

Within the collecting of Irish folktales, a divide began to solidify between those interested in the artistic aspect and those interested in scientific accuracy. The divide between art and science was cemented by Douglas Hyde, who collected folktales in the countryside—,listening to elderly speakers and writing down their songs and stories. For Hyde, accuracy was the most important part of collecting folktales, and as he explains in Beside the Fire, the stories collected by others, though interesting and entertaining from a literary perspective, were not valuable from the sciencitifc perspective. Hyde also classified the stories of Ireland into two types: märchen, which were fairy legends, and tales about Finn MacCool and the Fianna. One of Hyde’s methods was to employ Ediphone recorders, which were particularly useful because the tales were being collected not by university scholars but by locals. Also valuable among Hyde’s books is Legends of Saints and Sinners.

Another folklorist concerned with the scientific accuracy of collecting was Seán Ó Súilleabháin [Sean O’Sullivan]. One of O’Sullivan’s greatest achievements was his Handbook of Irish Folklore, which listed Irish tales in accordance with the Aarne Thompson system of categorizing folktales, even adding a new typology: the Fenian tale. Another of O’Sullivan’s works was Legends from Ireland, which highlighted stories that showed Ireland connected to the world and stories that showed Ireland’s ancient traditions. Of course, there are Irish folktales that do not fall neatly into these categories, and O’Sullivan made sure to add others and to stress that not all tales fit into the Fenian tales or the Aarne Thompson indexes.

When it comes to those interested in the artistic aspects of folktales, the biggest name is William Butler Yeats. Yeats collected stories; examined pages of Irish folktale volumes at the British Museum, and compiled two anthologies—, Irish Fairy Tales and Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. One of Yeats’s close friends and fellow folklorists was Lady Gregory, discussed earlier in this essay. who was inspired to collect folktales after reading a book by Yeats and another by Hyde. She invited both men to her home, sparking friendships with them. Lady Gregory went out with Yeats to collect stories, and her focus was the “beautiful rhythmic sentences in which they were told” (as cited by Glassie). Lady Gregory’s commitment to language inspired how she translated the Irish epics and the publication of Gods and Fighting Men and Cuchulain of Muirthemme, both with a prefaces by Yeats. Her most impressive piece, however, is Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, which includes essays and notes by Yeats. This work was an inspiration for the Irish literary renaissance, and (as the preface says,) Lady Gregory’s learning of Irish and presence in the field provided unmatched an accuracy and integrity.

Yeats and Gregory are huge names in the field, but scholarship does not lack for equally valued—albeit obscure—folklorists. Among these is Lady Jane Francesca Wilde, mother of Oscar Wilde, also known by her pen name Speranza. Her most famous works involving folklore include Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland and Ancient Cures, Charms and Usages in Ireland. Before Ancient Legends was published, Yeats asked permission to use some of the tales that Lady Wilde collected in his anthologies, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry and Irish Fairy Tales.2 Many of the tales that Lady Jane Wilde included in her works were actually collected by her husband, Dr. William Wilde, who compiled his own work, Irish Popular Superstitions. Although Lady Wilde did not identify the sources of the tales she gathered (the individuals or the locations where she got the tales), Douglas Hyde still appreciated her “charms and usages as intimate disclosures of the Irish folk mind” (quoting Dorson, referenced above). Other less-known folklorists include Joseph Jacobs, who worked closely with English publisher Alfred Nutt (discussed below). Jacobs wrote a series of folktale books adapted for children, including Celtic Fairy Tales and More Celtic Fairy Tales, both enhanced by scholarly notes.

Europeans were not the only ones collecting Celtic myth and folklore. Born to Irish immigrant parents in the US, Jeremiah Curtin was a member of the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution and did fieldwork among the Native American tribes. Curtin lived all over the world and traveled to Ireland several times in search of Gaelic lore. Using skills influenced by the principles of anthropology, Curtin compiled Myths and Folk-Lore of Ireland and Hero Tales of Ireland. Stories that had shifted to a more modern tradition he compiled into Tales of the Fairies and of the Ghost World, Collected from Oral Tradition in South-West Munster. Another American folklorist interested in Celtic folklore was Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz, who had worked and collaborated with many of the Celtic folklorists, including Douglas Hyde, Alexander Carmichael, and Sir John Rhys. These folklorists and others wrote introductions to sections of Evans-Wentz’s book The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. This book is unique because it is a comparative study whereas most folklorists at the time focused on just one region. In Fairy Faith, Evans-Wentz focused primarily on folk philosophy and traditional beliefs, and he used as many sources as possible from archaeological sites, bardic and monastic literature, and anthropological reports to understand the fairy faith. Though Evans-Wentz ultimately turned from the study of folklore to religious mysticism, this book remains a staple of the literature on Celtic folklore.

It is appropriate to end this section by mentioning again publisher Alfred Nutt, who was president of the Folklore Society and focused primarily on Gaelic Ireland and Scotland. Without Nutt, many folklorists would not have had their works published.

2. Both Irish Fairy Tales and Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry were later included in Yeats’s posthumously published collection Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland (C. Smythe, 1973), which had a foreword by British poet and Yeats specialist Kathleen Raine.

Works Cited

Works Cited