Irish and Scotch Gaelic folk-stories are, as a living form of literature, by this time pretty nearly a thing of the past. They have been trampled in the common ruin under the feet of the Zeitgeist, happily not before a large harvest has been reaped in Scotland, but, unfortunately, before anything worth mentioning has been done in Ireland to gather in the crop which grew luxuriantly a few years ago. Until quite recently there existed in our midst millions of men and women who, when their day’s work was over, sought and found mental recreation in a domain to which few indeed of us who read books are permitted to enter. Man, all the world over, when he is tired of the actualities of life, seeks to unbend his mind with the creations of fancy. We who can read betake ourselves to our favourite novelist, and as we peruse his fictions, we can almost see our author erasing this, heightening that, and laying on such-and-such a touch for effect. His book is the product of his individual brain, and some of us or of our contemporaries have been present at its genesis.
But no one can tell us with certainty of the genesis of the folk-tale, no one has been consciously present at its inception, and no one has marked its growth. It is in many ways a mystery, part of the flotsam and jetsam of the ages, still beating feebly against the shore of the nineteenth century, swallowed up at last in England by the waves of materialism and civilization combined; but still surviving unengulfed on the western coasts of Ireland, where I gathered together some bundles of it, of which the present volume is one.
The folk-lore of Ireland, like its folk-songs and native literature, remains practically unexploited and ungathered. Attempts have been made from time to time during the present century to collect Irish folk-lore, but these attempts, though interesting from a literary point of view, are not always successes from a scientific one. Crofton Croker’s delightful book, “Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland,” first published anonymously in 1825, led the way. All the other books which have been published on the subject have but followed in the footsteps of his; but all have not had the merit of his light style, his pleasant parallels from classic and foreign literature, and his delightful annotations, which touch, after a fascinating manner peculiarly his own, upon all that is of interest in his text. I have written the word “text,” but that word conveys the idea of an original to be annotated upon; and Crofton Croker is, alas! too often his own original. There lies his weak point, and there, too, is the defect of all who have followed him. The form in which the stories are told is, of course, Croker’s own; but no one who knows anything of fairy lore will suppose, that his manipulation of the originals is confined to the form merely. The fact is that he learned the ground-work of his tales from conversations with the Southern peasantry, whom he knew well, and then elaborated this over the midnight oil with great skill and delicacy of touch, in order to give a saleable book, thus spiced, to the English public.
Setting aside the novelists Carleton and Lover, who only published some incidental and largely-manipulated Irish stories, the next person to collect Irish folk-lore in a volume was Patrick Kennedy, a native of the County Wexford, who published “Legendary Fictions of the Irish Celts,” and in 1870 a good book, entitled, “The Fireside Stories of Ireland,” which he had himself heard in Wexford when a boy. Many of the stories which he gives appear to be the detritus of genuine Gaelic folk-stories, filtered through an English idiom and much impaired and stunted in the process. He appears, however, not to have adulterated them very much. Two of the best stories in the book, “Jack, the Cunning Thief,” and “Shawn an Omadawn,” I heard myself in the adjoining county Wicklow, and the versions of them that I heard did not differ very widely from Kennedy’s. It is interesting to note that these counties, close to the Pale as they are, and under English influence for so long, nevertheless seem to have preserved a considerable share of the old Gaelic folk-tales in English dress, while in Leitrim, Longford, Meath, and those counties where Irish died out only a generation or two ago, there has been made as clean a sweep of folk-lore and Gaelic traditions as the most uncompromising “West Briton” could desire. The reason why some of the folk-stories survive in the eastern counties is probably because the Irish language was there exchanged for English at a time when, for want of education and printed books, folk-stories (the only mental recreation of the people) had to transfer themselves rightly or wrongly into English. When this first took place I cannot tell, but I have heard from old people in Waterford, that when some of their fathers or grandfathers marched north to join the Wexford Irish in ’98, they were astonished to find English nearly universally used amongst them. Kennedy says of his stories: “I have endeavoured to present them in a form suitable for the perusal of both sexes and of all ages”; and “such as they are, they may be received by our readers as obtained from local sources.” Unfortunately, the sources are not given by him any more than by Croker, and we cannot be sure how much belongs to Kennedy the bookseller, and how much to the Wexford peasant.