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Tales of magic and mischief wrought by fairies, leprechauns, ghosts, and giants enchant and entertain in William Butler Yeats’ Irish Fairy and Folktales. Comprised of two previously published books, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888) and Irish Fairy Tales (1892), this compilation remains an influential and beloved anthology of Irish folklore. Many of its tales were recorded by the earliest collectors of Irish folklore and have been told around the hearth for hundreds of years. The cast includes familiar characters such as the Fairy Shoemaker, the Banshee and Finn Mac Cool, as well as lesser-known figures such as the Pooka and the Merrow. Ghost stories, outlandish adventures, poems, and traditional fairy tales carefully selected and edited by William Butler Yeats both amuse and educate, providing a glimpse into the world of Irish folk life and belief at the dawn of modern Irish civilization.
William Butler Yeats won the 1923 Nobel Prize in Literature and remains one of Ireland’s most influential poets and playwrights. Born in 1865 in Sandymount, County Dublin, Ireland, to Susan Pollexfen and the painter John Butler Yeats, he spent his childhood in the rugged countryside of County Sligo, Ireland, as well as in the cities of Dublin and London. He was educated mainly at home until the age of ten, when he was admitted into the Godolphin Day School in London. He later attended Erasmus High School and the Metropolitan Art School in Dublin. Deeply intrigued by the occult as well as by ancient Irish folklore, myth, and legend, Yeats belonged to the esoteric groups the Golden Dawn and the Theosophical Society, as well as to intellectual groups such as the Irish Literary Society, the Rhymer’s Club, and the Socialist League. His deep and unrequited love for the activist Maud Gonne (1866–1953) defined much of his life and his poetry, but his marriage to Georgie Hyde Lees (1892–1968) served to heal and inspire him in his later years. Together with the philanthropist and folklore collector Lady Augusta Gregory, Yeats founded the first Irish national theater in 1899 and ignited the Irish Literary Revival. Yeats was elected to the first Irish Senate in 1922 and was awarded the Gothenburg Prize for Poetry in 1937. He had two children, Anne Butler Yeats and William Michael Yeats. He died in Roquebrune, France, in 1939.
Yeats’ fascination with Irish folklore began in childhood, as did his love for the Irish countryside and its people. His mother instilled in him a deep pride in his Sligo roots by retelling stories from the local fishing people as well as folk and fairy tales she recalled from her own childhood. Through visits to his Great Uncle William Middleton’s lands around Rosses Point in Sligo, Yeats recalls that he got his “interest in country stories, and certainly the first faery stories that I heard were in the cottages about their houses.”[i]
The telling of stories was an ancient art and tradition Yeats appreciated as much as, if not more, than the reading of heroic myths and legends that survived in manuscript form because they were told by people who lived close to the land and were a potential source of esoteric knowledge. Esotericism and the occult were lifelong interests of Yeats, as was study of Hinduism, theosophy, and the writings of the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg. Although his mother came from a Protestant family, Yeats’ father was an atheist who eschewed religion, which caused Yeats much distress as a youth. He recalls that he “weighed the matter perpetually with great anxiety, for I did not think I could live without religion.”[ii]
Yeats’ journey toward an understanding of the world and his place in it was not an easy one. Despite a loving and kind family, he recounts a childhood marked by loneliness and melancholy, remembering “little of childhood but its pain.”[iii] He did not fit in well with his Roman Catholic neighbors in Sligo, and life in London and Dublin was not much easier; he got into fights with other schoolboys and despite being well read, did not do well in school. Foreign languages were difficult for him, and he never became proficient in the Irish language. As a young adult, Yeats was plagued by ill health and financial struggles. Modern scholars suspect that he suffered from dyslexia and may even have been tone-deaf.[iv] Yeats was also extremely shy and experienced periods of deep homesickness for Ireland, as well as anguish over his rejection by the Anglo-Irish political activist and actress Maud Gonne, a woman whose beauty and shared interest in the occult haunted him for much of his life.
Yeats met Maud in 1889 after she read his poetry collection The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889) and was so moved that she arranged to be introduced to him. It was love at first sight for Yeats but his passion was not returned with the same fervor; within one year of their meeting, Maud gave birth to the first of two out-of-wedlock children by the French anarchist Lucien Millevoye, and by 1903 she had married the Irish revolutionary John MacBride. Yeats and Maud maintained a correspondence and friendship over the years, which fueled his misery and inspired numerous poems. Yeats was close to Maud’s equally beautiful daughter by Millevoye, Iseult Gonne, acting as her poetry tutor and serving as a quasi-father figure. When she was fourteen, Iseult proposed marriage to Yeats. Although he refused her affections at that time, Yeats later developed an ardor for her, and after a final failed and half-hearted proposal to Maud in 1916, with Maud’s permission and at the age of fifty-two, he finally turned to Iseult to ask for her hand in marriage in 1917.
Iseult’s refusal left him devastated, but his responsemarriage two months later to the twenty-five year old Georgie Hyde-Lees (a fellow Theosophist and Golden Dawn member whom he had known since 1911)changed his life dramatically. Upon their marriage, Georgie suddenly developed an aptitude for the esoteric art of automatic writing (writing said to be controlled by a spirit or the unconscious), which she used to comfort, encourage, and inspire Yeats over the years, especially just after they were married when Yeats sank into a depression, wondering if he should have married Iseult instead of her. Georgie’s first automatic writing message to him was, as she recalls, something to the effect of, “What you have done is right for both the cat [Georgie] and the hare [Iseult].”[v]
As the eminent Yeats scholar and biographer Richard Ellmann argues in his acclaimed book, Yeats: The Man and the Masks (1948):
Marriage to Georgie Hyde-Lees released his energies like a spring. He fell deeply in love with his wife and knew for the first time the happiness of a relatively uncomplicated relationship with another person . . . A great serenity came over Yeats as he emerged from the isolation and eccentricity of bachelorhood into peace and harmony . . . For his part, Yeats kept no more diaries of his mental difficulties, wept no more over a barren passion, and no longer thought of himself as shut out from common experience . . . Nothing that had happened to him before was more dramatically exciting than the automatic writing of his wife, which he felt put wisdom at last within his reach.[vi]
Yeats’ lifelong search for meaning gained tremendous momentum with his wife’s automatic writing, leading to the expansion of an elaborate esoteric system he designed to explain human experience and the role of reincarnation, published in the book titled A Vision (1925). This work was met with mixed reviews, and some critics complained that Yeats’ later poetry suffered as a result of these messages from the spiritual world via his wife’s hand that were said to have come specifically to give him “metaphors for poetry.”[vii] Others argue that Yeats’ poetry continued to improve and mature well into his twilight years, noting that some of his most famous poems and plays were published in the later part of his life.
Yeats’ talents as a poet were recognized very early on, and his first poem, “The Isle of Statues,” was published in 1885 by the Dublin University Review when he was just twenty years old. Around this time, Yeats met John O’Leary, a staunch Irish patriot who advised him to utilize Ireland’s rich history and landscape for inspiration. Yeats did just that, publishing acclaimed poetry collectionsThe Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems (1889), In the Seven Woods (1904), and The Wild Swans at Coole (1917)that drew upon his lifelong love of the Irish landscape and the folktales, myths, and legends of its inhabitants. Yeats is now considered one of the world’s most accomplished poets, with poems such as “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (an expression of his desire to live like Thoreau at Walden Pond), “No Second Troy” (a lament for Maud Gonne), and “Under Ben Bulben” (which includes his famous epitaph, “Cast a cold eye / on life, on death / Horseman pass by!”), known the world over. Yeats was greatly admired by the American poet Ezra Pound, and the two became friends, with Pound serving as Yeats’ secretary during the winters of 1913–1916, and helping Yeats modernize his style as well as introducing him to the Japanese Noh style of musical drama.[viii]
In his lifetime, Yeats developed many deep and lasting friendships with individuals of great talent and influence during the tumultuous turn of the twentieth century as Ireland underwent great civil strife while evolving into a modern independent nation. These relationships helped heal Yeats’ inner strife and nourished the transformation of his anguished nation. Lady Gregory, a wealthy Irish Protestant widow who herself became a playwright, was one such friend. She hosted Yeats in her large manor home during the difficult years of his young adulthood, nursing him when he was depressed and ill, supporting him financially, and actively encouraging his poetry and playwriting
Lady Gregory’s home, Coole Park, near Galway, included extensive grounds that were themselves a source of inspiration for Yeats’ poetry and served as a venue for collecting folk stories. Yeats recalls that together they roamed her lands, “cottage to cottage to gather folk-belief, tales of the fairies, and the like.”[ix] The stories they collected also provided inspiration for Yeats’ poetry and plays, and Lady Gregory published some in The Kiltartan Wonder Book (1910).
Lady Gregory was of special assistance to Yeats in the process of developing the appropriate syntax for the presentation of folktales, especially for those he published in a collection titled Stories of Red Hanrahan (1897). Folklore collectors faced challenges in presenting stories told in an English dialect by a native Irish speaker: Should they utilize phonetic spelling (which might imply that the original storyteller was illiterate), or reword the story so that it could be more readily understood by native English speakers? Another choice to be made, as modern folklorist Henry Glassie points out, is whether or not to describe the storyteller as part of the retelling of the story, or to let the story stand alone. Yeats points out how easy it was for folklore collectors to create “the stage Irishman” through their description of individual storytellers and their presentation of the language used by the storyteller.[x] As Glassie explains, “Every writer of Irish folktales has had to decide whether to honor literary convention through reinvention or folk art through transcription.”[xi]
Yeats discovered that collecting stories was not always easy:
. . . If you are a stranger, you will not readily get ghost and fairy legends, even in a western village. You must go adroitly to work, and make friends with the children, and the old men . . . The old women are most learned, but will not so readily be got to talk, for the fairies are very secretive, and much resent being talked of; and are there not many stories of old women who were nearly pinched into their graves or numbed with fairy blasts?[xii]
In addition to being an avid collector of folklore, Yeats was also a scholar who edited and reformed stories collected by earlier folklorists such as T. Crofton Croker (1778–1854), William Carleton (1794–1869), Samuel Lover (1797–1868), Lady Jane Wilde (1826–1896, Oscar Wilde’s mother), and Douglas Hyde (1860–1949). Yeats wrote and published numerous articles on Irish folklore, over four hundred pages of which have been gathered together and published in the book W.B. Yeats: Writings on Irish Folklore, Legend and Myth (1993), edited by Roger Welch.
This Barnes & Noble collection contains nearly one hundred short stories and poems culled mainly from previously printed works by such folklorists that are housed in the British Museum. Yeats took great care in selecting the works for the two books included here, aiming to provide an even sampling of the types of stories and characters one might hear about while traveling around Ireland.
Each book is broken into sections that group together stories of a similar nature, with categories such as Trooping Fairies, Changelings, Ghosts, Witches and Fairy Doctors, Saints and Priests, the Devil, Giants, Kings, Queens, Earls, and Robbers, Evil Spirits, Cats, and Kings and Warriors. Yeats put together the first book, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888), with help from his friends George Russell (1867–1935), a writer and painter who shared Yeats’ fascination with theosophy, and Douglas Hyde, a talented folklorist and Irish language scholar who would go on to become the first president of Ireland. Yeats recalls with some fondness what his life was like at this time:
I spent my days at the British Museum, and must, I think, have been delicate, for I remember often putting off hour after hour consulting some necessary book because I shrank from lifting the heavy volumes of the catalogue; and yet to save money for my afternoon coffee and roll I often walked the whole way home to Bedford Park. I was compiling, for a series of shilling books, an anthology of Irish fairy stories, and, for an American publisher, a two-volume selection from the Irish novelists that would be somewhat dearer. I was not well paid, for each book cost me more than three months’ reading; and I was paid for the first some twelve pounds . . . and for the second twenty, but I did not think myself badly paid, for I had chosen the work for my own purposes.[xiii]
His “purposes” are likely the intertwined subjects of spiritualism and Irish folklore described by distinguished literary scholar Mary Helen Thuente, who explains that Yeats was especially drawn to Irish folklore because it promised the possibility of “finding universal patterns and proof of the existence of spiritual beings.”[xiv] This “interest in the occult and his activities as a literary nationalist were reciprocal in many respects,” she explains, with Irish folk stories supplying “the link between the two activities.”[xv]
For the modern reader, Irish folk tales provide a link with past beliefs and traditions. Story themes range from the lighthearted to the haunting, and from the terrifying to the outrageously funny. In this collection, we meet familiar beloved characters such as the giant Finn MacCool and the humpbacked Lusmore, and bizarre creatures such as the talking corpse in “Teig O’Kane and the Corpse” and a pair of yellow pants that a priest encounters running along a hedgerow in “A Queen’s County Witch.” Good humor abounds even in the macabre tales; when Teig O’Kane asks the corpse that he has been forced to carry around half of Ireland if he can indeed talk, the corpse responds with a flippant, “Now and again.” And when the priest in “A Queen’s County Witch” demands to know the name of the bodiless and footless yellow pants and to where they are traveling, the pants reply with repeated loud “Umphs!” When the priest strikes the yellow pants with a whip, they burst open and flood the road with milk, revealing his neighbor, one Sarah Kennedy, to be a witch who has stolen the milk from the village cows.
Stories of milk stolen at night by witches in disguise and of children stolen or replaced with a double by fairies reflect fears and superstitions of old Ireland. Yeats’ own poem “The Stolen Child” is perhaps one of the most popularly known such pieces in this collection, although other tales with continental cognates in the well-known Brothers Grimm collection may also be familiar. These more traditional fairy tales include “The Twelve Wild Geese,” which bears some resemblance to “Snow White,” and “The Lazy Beauty and her Aunts,” which shares motifs with “Rumpelstiltskin.” And Douglas Hyde’s translation of “Munachar and Manachar,” Yeats explains, is quite similar to tales told in Scotland, England (“The House that Jack Built”), and Germany. So many motifs (such as the cruel stepmother, the fairy godmother, and various animal transformations) repeat in folktales from around the world that folklorists have catalogued at least forty thousand different motifs, many of which appear in Irish stories.
Although Yeats does not delve into an extensive exploration of these motifs, he does endeavor to aid the reader’s understanding of the manifold supernatural creatures one might meet in an Irish fairy or folktale by providing a “Classification of Irish Fairies” at the end of Irish Fairy Tales. These he divides into two categories: “The Social Fairies” and “The Solitary Fairies.” Many of these creatures are not at all what one today might consider a fairy, such as Merrows, which are like mermen, the Pooka, who appears in animal form and plagues drunkards, and the Dullahan, a “gruesome thing” who “has no head, or carries it under his arm.”[xvi] The Banshee, an apparition whose hideous cry portends death, is also considered a fairy, and readers may be pleased to find that Yeats includes two musical representations of her cry.
The telling of folk and fairy tales was and remains an appreciated art in Ireland. Yeats recalls that his friend the writer Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) made him “tell him long Irish stories and compared my art of story-telling to Homer.”[xvii] Yeats also recounts with some humor the time that Wilde’s young son ran screaming out of the room after Yeats began telling a story with the simple introduction, “Once upon a time, there was a giant.”[xviii] Modern shanachies or storytellers continue to keep folktales alive in Ireland, and folklorists have recorded many of their stories; the Audio and Video Archive of the National Folklore Collection housed at University College Dublin maintains thousands of hours of recordings of folk narratives dating from as early as 1897.[xix]
Perhaps one of Yeats’ greatest successes was the birthing of the Irish Literary Revival, a time of great literary productivity inspired by renewed pride and interest in ancient and heroic Irish myths and legends recorded in manuscripts, as well as in the country, folk, and fairy tales kept alive in the oral tradition of the Irish peasantry. Together with close friends George Russell, John Millington Synge, Douglas Hyde, Edward Martyn, and Lady Augusta Gregory, Yeats generated tremendous enthusiasm and pride in ancient and contemporary Irish literary arts. His collaboration with Lady Gregory and John Millington Synge led to the founding of the first Irish national theater in 1899, supported by Lady Gregory’s friend and neighbor Edward Martyn. Their theater, called the Irish Literary Theatre, evolved into the world famous Abbey Theater in Dublin. It was the first to showcase Irish playwrights and actors and boldly presented plays with politically provocative topics, drawing upon a wealth of Irish themes, including Yeats’ own plays, Cathleen Ní Houlihan (1902), The Hour Glass (1904), The Land of Heart’s Desire (1904), and Deirdre (1907). Yeats went on to become one of the foremost playwrights of the twentieth century, with luminaries such as Bertold Brecht and Samuel Becket among the many who point to him as a major influence.
Yeats’ obituary from the New York Times underscores the significance of Irish folktales in the creation of the first Irish national theatre:
While yet in his twenties the Irish poet dwelt on the possibility of rejuvenating the intellectual life of his native land. Its energies had been sapped by politics. An Irish drama was the farthest from the thoughts of living Irishmen. But Yeats dreamed on, faithfully holding to the hope of writing Irish plays in verse with Irish folklore as subject-material and natives of Ireland sharing as actors and audience.[xx]
And as Yeats explained in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the language used by Irish storytellers was of great significance to the development of this national theater:
All about her [Lady Gregory] lived a peasantry who told stories in a form of English which has much of its syntax from Gaelic, much of its vocabulary from Tudor English, but it was very slowly that we discovered in that speech of theirs our most powerful dramatic instrument, not indeed until she began to write. Though my plays were written without dialect and in English blank verse, I think she was attracted to our movement because their subject matter differed but little from the subject matter of the country stories.[xxi]
Yeats’ tremendous appreciation for the speech of Irish country folk and for the stories also led to the creation of some of the world’s most beloved poetry, and Yeats himself remains an icon, best known as a poet whose inspiration spans genres such as modern filmmaking, folk and rock music, fiction, playwriting, and poetry.[xxii] His collections of Irish fairy and folktales are still in demand over one hundred years after their first publication. Yeats himself suggests why these stories remain so popular:
These folk tales are full of simplicity and musical occurrences, for they are the literature of a class for whom every incident in the old rut of birth, love, pain, and death has cropped up unchanged for centuries: who have steeped everything in the heart: to whom everything is a symbol. They have the space over which man has leant from the beginning. The people of the cities have the machine, which is prose and a parvenu. They have few events. They can turn over the incidents of a long life as they sit by the fire. With us nothing has time to gather meaning, and too many things are occurring for even a big heart to hold.[xxiii]
Allison Carroll holds a Master of Letters degree with first class honors in Medieval History from the University of St. Andrews and studied at the National University of Ireland, Galway, and the University of California, San Diego. She is a teacher and writer in California.
[i] W. B. Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. 1935. New York: Macmillan, 1965, p. 9.
[ii] W. B. Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. 1935. New York: Macmillan, 1965, p.15.
[iii] W. B. Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. 1935. New York: Macmillan, 1965, p. 5.
[iv] Terence Brown. The Life of W. B. Yeats: A Critical Biography. USA: Blackwell Publishers, 1999, excerpt from chapter 1 published at: irishside.com/tis/content/nyt/121.htm
[v] Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks. 1948. New York and London: Norton, 1979, p. xii.
[vi] Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks. 1948. New York and London: Norton, 1979, p. 224.
[vii] Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks. 1948. New York and London: Norton, 1979, p. 225.
[viii] Richard Ellmann, Yeats: The Man and the Masks. 1948. New York and London: Norton, 1979, p. 215.
[ix] W. B. Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. 1935. New York: Macmillan, 1965, p. 251.
[x] W. B. Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888) in Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland. New York: Macmillan, 1983, p. 7.
[xi] Henry Glassie, Irish Folk Tales. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985, p. 15.
[xii] Henry Glassie, Irish Folk Tales. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985, p. 4.
[xiii] The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats, p. 100.
[xiv] The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats, p. 35.
[xv] The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats, p. 34.
[xvi] W. B. Yeats, Irish Fairy Tales (1892) in Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland. New York: Macmillan, 1983, p. 383.
[xvii] W. B. Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. 1935. New York: Macmillan, 1965, p. 91.
[xviii] W. B. Yeats, The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats. 1935. New York: Macmillan, 1965, p. 91.
[xx] New York Times, January 30, 1939, published at: nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0613.html
[xxi] W. B. Yeats, Speech given at the Nobel Banquet at Grand Hôtel, Stockholm, December 10, 1923. Published at: nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1923/yeats-speech.html
[xxii] His poem, “The Stolen Child” appeared prominently in Stephen Speilberg’s film, A.I., and other poems of his have been put to music by Van Morrison, Christy Moore, The Cranberries, The Waterboys, and Loreena McKennitt.
[xxiii] W. B. Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888) in Fairy and Folk Tales of Ireland. New York: Macmillan, 1983, p. 5.