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Folklore and Modern Irish Writing

Anne Markey and Anne O’ Connor (eds)
Irish Academic Press


Introduction: Folklore and Modern Irish Writing

This collection of essays examines the dynamic interrelationship between folklore and modern Irish writing. As some contributors note, the word 'folklore' was coined by William Thorns in 1846 to describe the oral, inherited, popular wisdom and customs of generations of people in a particular place or cultural community. The word, therefore, was originally an antiquarian's attempt to define a body of popular culture that was subsequently not easily recorded or analysed by strictly constrained disciplines in the arts and the social sciences. Folklore is oral, traditional, anonymous and variational: it is dynamic, and changes in transmission from one person, group and generation to another. While folklore is expressed by individuals, it comprises a substantive body of collective and shared belief and custom, as against singular creativity or personal experience on its own, and refers to an easily recognisable body of popular belief and tradition. In many ways, the Irish word, bealoideas, describes this concept admirably: oral wisdom or knowledge. Bo Almqvist provided the following comprehensive answer to the question, 'What do you mean by Irish folklore?':

Our definition is: 'All such things as are mentioned and enquired about in A Handbook of Irish Folklore.' And the section headings in that book, from Settlement and Dwelling, to Livelihood and Household Support, Communications and Trade, The Community, Human Life, Nature, Folk Medicine, Time, Principles and Rules of Popular Belief and Practice, Mythological Tradition, Historical Tradition, Religious Tradition, Popular Oral Literature and Sports and Pastimes, will make you understand that what is covered is the totality of folk culture, spiritual and material, including everything human and everything supernatural.

The concept of 'folklore' merits further contextualisation, because it also refers to an academic discipline with its own history and pedigree, as attested in international scholarship. Those of us who are academic folklorists describe it along the following lines: it is a dynamic, constantly-changing and multifaceted process; it embraces all aspects of the non-written cultural inheritance and exchanges of a group of people, and, most importantly, it is recognised as being alive and real in the present, contemporary world.

In Ireland, the separate disciplines of folklore and literary criticism have both evolved and changed over the last century of academic discourse and endeavour. In this collection, the aim is to bring together the necessarily different perspectives which each of these disciplines bring to the concept of ‘story,' in the widest sense of that word. As Peter Brooks has pointed out: 'our lives are ceaselessly intertwined with narrative, with the stories that we tell and hear told, those we dream or imagine or would like to tell...we live immersed in narrative'. The impulse to tell stories is universal and timeless, because stories help us to make sense of the world and our place within it. It is at the intersection of storytelling that folklore and Irish writing come together, and it is the dynamic tension that results from this encounter that is the focus of this interdisciplinary collection.

The interweaving of oral and literary expressions of storytelling is so much a core part of narrative that to remind ourselves of this reality is almost an extreme example of stating the obvious. Yet it is the very obviousness of this fact that is a central concern of some of the essays in this collection. The traffic between folklore and literature has never been one-directional. As Hans-Jorg Uther reminds us:

As we now know, many so-called oral narratives have a rich literary history. Some can be traced back to works of literature, in which the fantasy of homo narrans can be seen in new adaptations that are responses to the changes in the function of the tale.

There is, after all, nothing new under the sun, and similar motifs, the key building blocks of narrative, abound in both oral and literary tales.

In the Irish context, folklorists have always engaged with literary and oral analogues of motifs in various narrative genres. Therefore, folklorists are interested to explore the interstices between oral and literary forms of motif and narrative, aware that, through the telling of certain stories, people are consciously or unconsciously constructing meaning in their lives and societies. Folklore scholarship, in its exploration of oral and behavioural communications between people, especially through storytelling, ritual, practice and performance, seeks to investigate and interpret that meaning. The importance of folklore in early-Irish and medieval literature has been long and widely acknowledged. In 1991, for example, Bo Almqvist, pointed out:

Particularly in Iceland and Ireland, we have ancient literatures, rich in folklore motifs, which, thanks to the different character of the types and genres represented in them, complement each other excellently.

Inevitably, the influence of folkloric motifs, themes, and 'stories' continues in the creation of later literatures. This collection of essays, therefore, is timely in opening up a space where the meeting of folklore and literary criticism is possible in the context of examining modern Irish writing.

Folklore and writing exist in specific social and historical circumstances: it is not mere chance that certain stories arise and gain currency at certain times, and the tracing of such complex and interwoven interactions has long been the challenge of professional folklorists, both in Ireland and elsewhere. Written texts are also produced within particular cultural contexts but their interpretation is not necessarily dependent on a detailed knowledge of the circumstances of their production. Any analysis of oral narratives and belief complexes in Ireland reveals and raises inevitable questions of adaptation, attribution, contextualisation and interpretation, and these questions become even more apparent when analysing literary recourse to Irish folklore.

The complexity of the relationship between folklore and modern Irish writing is at least partly attributable to a lack of clarity on what the two constituent concepts encompass. Folklore, as already noted, refers both to a body of material and to the study of that material. As Diarmuid O Giollain pointed out in 2013, most folklorists see themselves either as cultural historians, documenting dying or vanished traditions, or as ethnographers, who 'develop a central relationship with living culture by redefining their terms of reference'. 'The ideal, of course,' O Giollain adds, 'should be to belong to both [groups]'. Literary scholars, meanwhile, differ on what constitutes the field of study known as modern Irish writing. Most would readily acknowledge the existence of at least two streams within Irish writing — one in Irish and one in English — and welcome the inclusion of both under the general rubric of Irish literature, an approach pioneered by Vivien Mercier in The Irish Comic Tradition (1962) and more recently exemplified by Declan Kiberd in Irish Classics (2000) and by Margaret Kelleher and Philip O'Leary, editors of the two-volume Cambridge History of Irish Literature (2006). However, that inclusive approach has not always been reflected in academic scholarship. One reason for this is that literary critics who lack fluency in Irish are often unable to consult primary and/or secondary sources in that language, consequently rendering their analyses partial, both in the sense of being incomplete and of privileging English-language texts at the expense of Irish-language ones. Linguistic barriers are not only problematic in themselves but are also exacerbated by academic specialisms within the humanities: English departments in third-level institutions in Ireland are primarily concerned with the study of literature in English, while Irish departments are primarily concerned with Irish-language literature and culture.

One consequence of this academic specialisation is that courses offered to students seldom cover both strands of Irish writing. Too often, those of us who are literary critics have little knowledge of folklore as an academic discipline or of developments within that discipline. And while those of us who are folklorists may pay attention to the ways in which the material we study is refracted through literary production, we do not purport to be literary critics. Given these confusions and limitations, it is understandable that the relationship between folklore and modern Irish writing awaits comprehensive examination and analysis. That is not to say that the topic has not previously been examined, often in insightful ways, or to claim that this book offers such a comprehensive analysis. Rather, the editors and contributors aim to complement and supplement the valuable work that has already been done on the nuanced, multifaceted, and continually evolving interconnections between folklore and Irish writing in both languages, and to stimulate further research into the topic.