(Irish Folklore) Shite that W.B. Yeats says!


When it comes to Irish Folklore, a useful rule of thumb to apply is to avoid anything ‘factual’ written by W.B. Yeats. Lovely man I’m sure, grand poet but, God, he was a complete flake when it came to his writing on Irish folklore.

Despite much of his ‘academic’ work being dismissed many years ago , he’s still revered as an authority in certain circles. His work on Irish ‘fairies’ in particular is constantly quoted on the internet continuing that great tradition of misinformation.

To understand WB’s limitations with respect to Irish culture though, you really have to take the man’s life into context. An important point of context is that WB was of Anglo-Irish descent and a member of a very privileged Protestant aristocracy. Nothing specifically wrong with that of course, but it’s important to consider as back in the day this would essentially have meant Yeats:

(a) was disconnected from the lives of the Irish peasantry (from who he mined much of his folklore and inspiration)

(b) couldn’t speak Irish (again, another significant barrier to accessing folklore)

Yeats also spent quite a substantial period of his life in England which, once again, would have restricted his connection to authentic sources of information on Irish culture and folklore.

Yeats introduction to Lady Gregory in 1986 was probably his most important break when it came to accessing genuine Irish culture and folklore. A strong nationalist, Lady Gregory encouraged him to focus on writing that was ‘identifiably Irish’ in content but, more importantly, she also introduced him to a new generation of up and coming Irish authors such as Synge and Sean O’Casey who were able to offer insights and personal experience on aspects of folklore he would not have known about.

Another important access point for Yeats was the output of academic scholars who were translating ancient Irish manuscripts at that time or doing their best to conserve the Irish language (e.g. Douglas Hyde, also a Protestant but a fluent Irish speaker). These translations introduced the whole country to previously unknown mythological sagas and Ossianic poetry from Ireland past’s and its probable that Yeats was more comfortable with this kind of source material than the more contemporary folklore.

The truth is that although Yeats managed to get a foot in the ‘Irish folklore door’ through his contacts, his background and his inability to speak (or apparently learn) Irish were something of a barrier. When dealing with the little people (the Irish peasantry as opposed to the ‘f-f-faeries!!), he was often dependent on others to translate for him or to provide abridged details. There’s a sad kind of humour to be found, for example, when reading his efforts to list and classify Irish fairies in Irish Fairy and Folk Tales. Not only did he completely misunderstand what ‘fairies’ were, one cant help getting the impression that his sources were either forelock-tugging peasants desperately making up any old shite to please him or local smartarses taking the mickey out of the ‘bigwig’ from the capital.

The biggest problem with Yeats however was not so much the barrier of his background as his fascination with spiritualism/mysticism and the occult (magic). This passion very much coloured his interpretation of Irish folklore, as it did with much of his writing throughout his life. Not only was he a member of occult groups such as ‘The Ghost Club’ (a kind of paranormal research organisation formed in 1862 but still going, apparently) and the ‘Golden Dawn’ (an organization devoted to the study and practice of the occult) he also studied and was influenced by many of the self-proclaimed ‘wizards’ and ‘magicians’ of his day.  In 1892, he wrote:

“If I had not made magic my constant study I could not have written a single word of my Blake book, nor would The Countess Kathleen ever have come to exist.”

Which explains a lot. Mind you, although Yeats based the play on a supposed Irish legend, later tracing of that legend identified it as a French work

In fairness, though, Irish Fairy and Folk Tales and other works by Yeats were very much a product of their time. Yeats, no doubt, had his own artistic and reputational agenda but there’s no denying his passion for his subject. In addition, with the rise of nationalism you can be sure that certain Irish elements were more than happy to have an internationally recognised poet and a sanitised national cultural history for them to wave about as a flag in support of their cause.

Are Irish Clans and Tribes Gone Forever: Part One?


In European countries, when people talk of ‘clan’ (from the medieval Gaelic word ‘clann’) they’re basically using a more localised word for ‘tribe’. Both relate to a community or social grouping established from a common kinship or family tie although, over time, as the grouping grows larger, that definition can change. Most people believe the concept of a tribe has pretty much had its day in Ireland but if you look carefully you’ll still see remnants of it around in certain parts of the country.

The first clue is the link between family names and homeland location. Most Irish genealogists and social researchers are more than aware how closely aligned the two are in Ireland, not only in terms of country but in terms of townland as well. In Beara, for example, the old adage is that “you can’t throw a stone in the bush without hitting an O’Sullivan” and anyone who’s ever studied the shop names in Catletownbere knows that to be true.

Needless to say, that holds just as well for the Harringtons and, of course, the Murphys who, judging from their numbers and geographical spread, seem to have single-handedly dominated reproduction in Ireland for several centuries.

‘nuff said!

Living in New Zealand, I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to compare the impact of colonization (the invasion of another country and the oppression of its native people/culture) on Maori tribal societies here with Gaelic tribal societies back home. This has been exceptionally useful when writing the Fionn series not only because Clan politics play an important part of the story but in terms of cultural authenticity – a key part of what I’m trying to do with Irish Imbas Books.

Unlike Ireland, where the undermining of Gaelic culture commenced in earnest from an early date (early 1600s), the colonization process in New Zealand didn’t truly kick in until the mid- to late-1800s. Even then, because of its relative isolation compared to the invading countries and its tough topography, the colonization process was never fully completed to the point that the Crown and associated business interests would probably have liked.

Although it was pretty much brought to the brink, Maori society has managed to retain/reclaim very strong elements of its culture as well as parts of its tribal structure. What’s fascinating to watch, though, is that with the legal power of the Treaty of Waitangi (the treaty signed between the English Crown and most tribes) and subsequent financial compensation (albeit minimal) for lands stolen and damage sustained, Maori communities are now, once again, re-establishing their tribal organisations. There are of course, major differences to the structures of 150-200 years ago but this is still something I’ve not seen anywhere else in the world (although I understand something similar may be occurring in Canada and the United States). I don’t think people here have truly understood the impact those changes are going to have (hopefully better –  but who knows?) in society over the next ten to twenty years.

By studying the tribal dynamics here, I find that I can extrapolate quite a lot of the cultural subtleties to the Gaelic context, to work out how Irish (or rather, ‘Gaelic’) clan/tribal structures worked long ago – and,  potentially – how they might work in the future.  I’ll be covering that in more detail in my next blog article.