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From time immemorial, the poet or file, was a leading personage in Irish culture and was accorded very high social status. The poets specialised in praise and satire, and their verses were thought by many to contain mystical knowledge and to have magical effect. Being the leading representatives of the learned caste, they were professionals and enjoyed the lavish patronage of Gaelic, and later Norman-Gaelic, lords. The traditional poetry survived the démise of the Gaelic social order, it being - from the 17th century onwards - composed in the more popular stressed metres known as amhrán (‘song’). Living among the ordinary people and themselves often reduced to penury, the later Gaelic poets made a significant contribution to the sense of style and accuracy of expression which remains a distinctive trait of the Irish language.
This native stream of lore has left a considerable heritage of mythic and historical stories in contemporary Irish folklore. The adventures of the famous seer-warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill are still known to, and related by, many Irish people. These include how he gained his wisdom as a boy by tasting the ‘salmon of knowledge’, how he triumphed over miscellaneous giants and magicians, and how he had the truths of life explained to him in a strange allegorical house. The champion Lugh, originally a god of the Continental Celts, is also remembered - especially how he slew his tyrant-grandfather who had a horrific eye which destroyed all on which it gazed. The adventures of the super-warrior Cú Chulainn are spoken of and tales are also told of more true to life characters, such as the quasi-historical High-King Cormac Mac Airt and the historical though much romanticised Conall Gulban, son of the great king Niall and contemporary of St Patrick.
Much lore centres on the patron-saints of the various localities. These saints, historical personages from the early centuries of Irish Christianity, are portrayed in legend as miracle-workers who used their sacred power to banish monsters, cure illnesses, and provide food for the people in time of need. Holy wells, dedicated to individual saints, are still frequented on their feastdays in many areas, and people pray at these wells for relief from different kinds of physical and mental distress. Most celebrated were the national saint, Patrick; the great founder of monasteries, Colm Cille; and the ubiquitous Brighid who, as protectress of farming and livestock, preserves many of the attributes of the ancient earth-goddess.
Ireland is famous for its fairy-lore , which also contains vestiges of pre-Christian tradition. The fairies are known in Irish as the people of the sí, a word which originally designated a mound or tumulus, and the Irish fairies can be connected with early Celtic beliefs of how the dead live on as a dazzling community in their burial chambers. Through their identification in the medieval literature with the Tuatha Dé Danann (‘People of the Goddess Danu’) they may also be connected directly to the early pantheon of Celtic deities. In folk belief thousands of ‘raths’ - ancient earthenwork structures which dot the landscape - are claimed to be inhabited still be the sí-people, and many stories are told of humans being brought into these hidden palaces at night as guests at wondrous banquets.
Versions of numerous far-flung international folktales have been current in Ireland for many centuries. The simplest of these are fanciful little tales concerning the fauna, which deal with such matters as the fox and wolf, or the eagle and wren, pitting their wits against each other. Most popular of all are the ‘wonder tales’, which are long and lend themselves to very imaginative events and to highly stylised descriptions, and are therefore very suitable to storytelling in the Irish language. The plots of these stories are situated in a never-never land ‘long ago’, and they introduce the audience to impoverished young men on magical steeds who win the hands of beautiful princesses, to the overthrow of wizards and giants and dragons, and to many other kinds of wondrous and phantastic happenings. Of almost equal popularity are the ‘novelle’-type tales based on other international plots concerning tricks and coincidences, but in a more true to life setting - many of these have, in fact, come to be told of leading Irish social figures such as Jonathan Swift and Daniel O’Connell. There is, of course, a large variety of humorous stories in Ireland, of both native and foreign derivation.
Respect for the dead has always been a prominent feature of Irish culture. Indeed, a very special female spirit, the bean sí is often heard to announce by her wailing the impending death of a member of a family. A wide range of beliefs and practices were concerned with the issues of death and burial and, in former times, the waking of the dead was an important social occasion. People not only prayed, but also sang, told stories, and even played games at the wake of a departed relative or friend who had enjoyed a long and fulfilling life. This was considered the proper way to pay tribute to the deceased person. Although this tradition of wakes has now all but disappeared, the more inherently joyful stages in the life cycle, such as births and marriages, maintain their age-old importance as great communal occasions and are celebrated with feasting and conviviality.
The compositions of the early poets were sung or chanted to the accompaniment of the harp, and there are several indications that occasional songs, working-songs, and laments were cultivated by the ordinary people with simpler patters of rhythm and metre. In the later Middle Ages, colourful love-motifs gained currency, particularly of the type which attributes the sympathy of the natural environment to human emotions. It is clear that these motifs were borrowed from Continental troubadour poetry, through the medium of the French and English languages. They were soon assimilated into native verse-forms to produce the many plaintive and touching love-songs which are still very popular in Irish.
Songs in Irish focus on the expression of feeling and rarely tell a story, and because of this the tradition of singing was influenced but little by the rapid spread of narrative ballads through other European countries in the post-medieval period. Such ballads were, however, introduced from England and Scotland in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. They were often printed on broadsheets and sold at fairs and other gatherings, and thus formed the basis of Irish folklore in the English language.
Popular Irish songs were, and to an extent still are, sung without accompaniment, but music has long had an established context of its own. The earliest instruments were the harp and pipes, but in recent centuries violins and accordions were adopted and gained great vogue. The major division in Irish folk music is between melodious slow airs and lively dance-music. This latter is based on popular dances from England and Scotland, as well as on fashionable quadrilles taught by dance-masters who travelled the countryside. The populace developed the steps to their own more robust and vivacious taste, thereby giving rise to the traditional Irish set-dances which were performed outdoors in the summer and autumn, and in the dwelling-house when the weather was more inclement.
In the days before TV and commercialised entertainment, the most popular indoor pastime, apart from storytelling, was card-playing, to which many people were quite addicted. There was also a great taste for posing and solving riddles, for tongue-twisters, divination games, and of course for practical jokes. The indigenous festivals of the Irish calendar - such as St Brighid’s Feast (February 1), May Eve, the festival of Lughnasa (August), and Halloween, all had their own special forms of amusements and preserved vestiges of earlier rituals. Of the Christian festivals, most custom centred on Christmas, Easter, St John’s Night, and the Feast of St Martin.
The realm of folk-belief is well represented in Irish traditional culture, and provides a good illustration of how realistic knowledge, derived from observation and experience, combines with fanciful ideas which are born of curiosity and lively imagination. In Ireland, as elsewhere, popular lore testifies to the fusion of the practical and the poetic. The life experience, the passing of time, the home and community, the different trades and skills, the natural environment, all have their own special beliefs attaching to them.
The Irish Folklore Commission was established in 1935, and has down through the years collected a vast amount of lore and ethnological data. It now functions as the Department of Irish Folklore at University College Dublin.