The text of this essay, which first appeared in the February 1889 Woman’s World, comes from David Price’s Project Gutenberg online version [eBook #30191] of A Critic in Pall Mall. In transcribing the following text I have reformatted it in accordance with the Victorian Web’s HTML style sheet and added links to material on this site. — George P. Landow

‘The various collectors of Irish folk-lore,’ says Mr. W. B. Yeats in his charming little book Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, ‘have, from our point of view, one great merit, and from the point of view of others, one great fault.’

They have made their work literature rather than science, and told us of the Irish peasantry rather than of the primitive religion of mankind, or whatever else the folk-lorists are on the gad after. To be considered scientists they should have tabulated all their tales in forms like grocers’ bills — item the fairy king, item the queen. Instead of this they have caught the very voice of the people, the very pulse of life, each giving what was most noticed in his day. Croker and Lover, full of the ideas of harum-scarum Irish gentility, saw everything humorized. The impulse of the Irish literature of their time came from a class that did not — mainly for political reasons — take the populace seriously, and imagined the country as a humorist’s Arcadia; its passion, its gloom, its tragedy, they knew nothing of. What they did was not wholly false; they merely magnified an irresponsible type, found oftenest among boatmen, carmen, and gentlemen’s servants, into the type of a whole nation, and created the stage Irishman. The writers of ’Forty-eight, and the famine combined, burst their bubble. Their work had the dash as well as the shallowness of an ascendant and idle class, and in Croker is touched everywhere with beauty — a gentle Arcadian beauty. Carleton, a peasant born, has in many of his stories, . . . more especially in his ghost stories, a much more serious way with him, for all his humour. Kennedy, an old bookseller in Dublin, who seems to have had a something of genuine belief in the fairies, comes next in time. He has far less literary faculty, but is wonderfully accurate, giving often the very words the stories were told in. But the best book since Croker is Lady Wilde’s Ancient Legends. The humour has all given way to pathos and tenderness. We have here the innermost heart of the Celt in the moments he has grown to love through years of persecution, when, cushioning himself about with dreams, and hearing fairy-songs in the twilight, he ponders on the soul and on the dead. Here is the Celt, only it is the Celt dreaming.

Into a volume of very moderate dimensions, and of extremely moderate price, Mr. Yeats has collected together the most characteristic of our Irish folklore stories, grouping them together according to subject. First come The Trooping Fairies. The peasants say that these are ‘fallen angels who were not good enough to be saved, nor bad enough to be lost’; but the Irish antiquarians see in them ‘the gods of pagan Ireland,’ who, ‘when no longer worshipped and fed with offerings, dwindled away in the popular imagination, and now are only a few spans high.’ Their chief occupations are feasting, fighting, making love, and playing the most beautiful music. ‘They have only one industrious person amongst them, the lepra-caun — the shoemaker.’ It is his duty to repair their shoes when they wear them out with dancing. Mr. Yeats tells us that ‘near the village of Ballisodare is a little woman who lived amongst them seven years. When she came home she had no toes — she had danced them off.’ On May Eve, every seventh year, they fight for the harvest, for the best ears of grain belong to them. An old man informed Mr. Yeats that he saw them fight once, and that they tore the thatch off a house. ‘Had any one else been near they would merely have seen a great wind whirling everything into the air as it passed.’ When the wind drives the leaves and straws before it, ‘that is the fairies, and the peasants take off their hats and say “God bless them.&c”’ When they are gay, they sing. Many of the most beautiful tunes of Ireland ‘are only their music, caught up by eavesdroppers.’ No prudent peasant would hum The Pretty Girl Milking the Cow near a fairy rath, ‘for they are jealous, and do not like to hear their songs on clumsy mortal lips.’ Blake once saw a fairy’s funeral. But this, as Mr. Yeats points out, must have been an English fairy, for the Irish fairies never die; they are immortal.

Then come The Solitary Fairies, amongst whom we find the little Lepracaun mentioned above. He has grown very rich, as he possesses all the treasure-crocks buried in war-time. In the early part of this century, according to Croker, they used to show in Tipperary a little shoe forgotten by the fairy shoemaker. Then there are two rather disreputable little fairies — the Cluricaun, who gets intoxicated in gentlemen’s cellars, and the Red Man, who plays unkind practical jokes. ‘The Fear-Gorta (Man of Hunger) is an emaciated phantom that goes through the land in famine time, begging an alms and bringing good luck to the giver.’ The Water-sheerie is ‘own brother to the English Jack-o’-Lantern.’ ‘The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress) seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth.’ The Pooka is essentially an animal spirit, and some have considered him the forefather of Shakespeare’s ‘Puck.’ He lives on solitary mountains, and among old ruins ‘grown monstrous with much solitude,’ and ‘is of the race of the nightmare.’ ‘He has many shapes — is now a horse, . . . now a goat, now an eagle. Like all spirits, he is only half in the world of form.’ The banshee does not care much for our democratic levelling tendencies; she loves only old families, and despises the parvenu or the nouveau riche. When more than one banshee is present, and they wail and sing in chorus, it is for the death of some holy or great one. An omen that sometimes accompanies the banshee is ‘. . . an immense black coach, mounted by a coffin, and drawn by headless horses driven by a Dullahan.’ A Dullahan is the most terrible thing in the world. In 1807 two of the sentries stationed outside St. James’s Park saw one climbing the railings, and died of fright. Mr. Yeats suggests that they are possibly ‘descended from that Irish giant who swam across the Channel with his head in his teeth.’

Then come the stories of ghosts, of saints and priests, and of giants. The ghosts live in a state intermediary between this world and the next. They are held there by some earthly longing or affection, or some duty unfulfilled, or anger against the living; they are those who are too good for hell, and too bad for heaven. Sometimes they ‘take the forms of insects, especially of butterflies.’ The author of the Parochial Survey of Ireland ‘heard a woman say to a child who was chasing a butterfly, “How do you know it is not the soul of your grandfather?&” On November eve they are abroad, and dance with the fairies.’ As for the saints and priests, ‘there are no martyrs in the stories.’ That ancient chronicler Giraldus Cambrensis ‘taunted the Archbishop of Cashel, because no one in Ireland had received the crown of martyrdom. “Our people may be barbarous,&c.” the prelate answered, “but they have never lifted their hands against God’s saints; but now that a people have come amongst us who know how to make them (it was just after the English invasion), we shall have martyrs plentifully.&”’ The giants were the old pagan heroes of Ireland, who grew bigger and bigger, just as the gods grew smaller and smaller. The fact is they did not wait for offerings; they took them vi et armis.

Some of the prettiest stories are those that cluster round Tír-na-n-Og. This is the Country of the Young, ‘for age and death have not found it; neither tears nor loud laughter have gone near it.’ ‘One man has gone there and returned. The bard, Oisen, who wandered away on a white horse, moving on the surface of the foam with his fairy Niamh, lived there three hundred years, and then returned looking for his comrades. The moment his foot touched the earth his three hundred years fell on him, and he was bowed double, and his beard swept the ground. He described his sojourn in the Land of Youth to Patrick before he died.’ Since then, according to Mr. Yeats, ‘many have seen it in many places; some in the depths of lakes, and have heard rising therefrom a vague sound of bells; more have seen it far off on the horizon, as they peered out from the western cliffs. Not three years ago a fisherman imagined that he saw it.’

Mr. Yeats has certainly done his work very well. He has shown great critical capacity in his selection of the stories, and his little introductions are charmingly written. It is delightful to come across a collection of purely imaginative work, and Mr. Yeats has a very quick instinct in finding out the best and the most beautiful things in Irish folklore.

I am also glad to see that he has not confined himself entirely to prose, but has included Allingham’s lovely poem on The Fairies:

Up the airy mountain,
Down the rushy glen,
We daren’t go a-hunting
For fear of little men;
Wee folk, good folk,
Trooping all together;
Green jacket, red cap,
And white owl’s feather!

Down along the rocky shore
Some make their home,
They live on crispy pancakes
Of yellow tide-foam;
Some in the reeds
Of the black mountain lake,
With frogs for their watch-dogs
All night awake.

High on the hill-top
The old King sits;
He is now so old and gray
He’s nigh lost his wits.
With a bridge of white mist
Columbkill he crosses,
On his stately journeys
From Slieveleague to Rosses;
Or going up with music,
On cold starry nights,
To sup with the Queen
Of the gay Northern Lights.

All lovers of fairy tales and folklore should get this little book. The Horned Women, The Priest’s Soul, and Teig O’Kane, are really marvellous in their way; and, indeed, there is hardly a single story that is not worth reading and thinking over.


Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. Edited and Selected by W. B. Yeats. (Walter Scott.)

Last modified 14 February 2019