A few years ago in a second-hand bookshop I came across a small volume called “Irish Fairy and Folktales”, edited by none other than WB Yeats (1865-1939). Published in 1888, this collection, carefully selected by the famous poet, is alive with the rich and imaginative folklore that only peasants – and this goes for any country – seem capable of producing.
The preservation of these poems and stories was, for Yeats, a kind of civic duty. For in them, as in Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim, the vibrant soul of a great literary people is revealed. And for Yeats, no less than Buber, keeping these stories alive was more than just a passing side project: their death, or, more likely, the slow passage of this literary tradition meant the death of Irish identity.
Heavy stuff, of course. But Yeats’ project is not the substance of the book, which is sometimes lively, hilarious, dark, frightening, but above all mischievous. He divides his edition into the following parts: The Trooping Fairies, Changelings, The Merrow, The Solitary Fairies, Ghosts, Witches and Fairy Doctors, T’yeer-na-oge, Saints and Priests, The Devil, Giants, and Kings, Queens , Princesses, Counts, Thieves.
There is, as they say, something here for everyone. And even if I haven’t studied the text enough to account for its structure – why start with fairies and end with thieves? of the book does not harm.
The more one reads into the collection, the more one gets the impression that Yeats is aiming for a bigger game than the simple, albeit important, task of preserving the national literary heritage. He is here, as in some of his poems, worried about the deleterious effects of modern science on the nobility of the soul. “Irish Fairy and Folktales” is therefore a kind of tonic to the Laputa of England:
“The world is, I believe, more meaningful to the Irish peasant than to the English. The fairy people of the hills, lakes and woods helped keep it that way. It gives a whimsical life to the dead hillsides, and surrounds the peasant, while he plows and digs, with tender shadows of poetry. No wonder he’s gay, and can take on man and his destiny without sadness and invent proverbs like this old Gaelic one: “The lake is not burdened by its swan, the steed by its bridle, or a man by the sold that is in him.’”
Now, that might be laughable to modern readers whose sensibilities have been so invaded by the latest bits and bytes that they’ve ceased to feel the land around them as alive. They can no longer, under the dizzying lights of our new science, believe in otherworldly things or that every once in a while the supernatural finds a way to interfere in human affairs. Their – ours? – is a life devoid of magic. But not the Irish peasant.
As Yeats says:
“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 arisen unchanged for centuries: who has impregnated everything with the heart: for whom everything is a symbol. They have the spade on which man has relied from the beginning. The people of the cities have the machine, which is prose and reached. They have few events. They can recount the incidents of a long life sitting by the fire. With us, nothing has time to make sense, and too many things happen for even a big heart to hold them.
So whether you start with The Legend of Knockgrafton and The Piper and the Puca or prefer The Witches Excursion and The Demon Cat, Yeats and the inexhaustible well of Irish folk wisdom have something everyone can learn from… if only we still have eyes to see and ears to listen.