Irish Folklore Term Paper

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Irish Folklore





Irish culture is centered upon the folklore and myths that have been a significant part of Irish traditions and history. When it comes to folklore and Gaelic culture, the Irish are proud of their history and often distinguish themselves from the rest of the European culture. This paper will explore traditional Irish folklore and its significance on contemporary Irish culture customs and beliefs. It will also outline factors that have contributed to the development and reservation of the Irish folklore.


In order to understand how Irish folklore has shaped the cultural beliefs, traditions and customs of the Irish people, it is important to understand how Ireland is culturally unique from the rest of Europe and how it differs in geography, history and tradition. The Irish people are known as some of the best storytellers in the world and their folklore is considered to be the strongest reflection of the Irish culture. In Sean O'Sullivan's work, The Folklore of Ireland, he describes Irish folklore as "the oldest vernacular literature in Western Europe" (11). From O'Sullivan, we learn that the Irish are extremely protective of their folklore and the literature associated with it and that the written records of these tales date back to the 12th Century. O'Sullivan outlines three reasons why Irish folklore differs from that of other ethnic folklore in Europe. Firstly, the geographical placement of Ireland in relation to the rest of Europe allowed the Irish to draw on ideas from other countries while their isolation created an environment where their own stories and traditions could be preserved and kept as their own.

The second reason, as outlined by O'Sullivan is that was able to maintain no occupation from Rome and therefore never had the merging of cultures that occurred in many other Western European nations, therefore allowing the Irish to maintain their own folklore without the Roman influence. It was also said that the Irish "shook all empires but founded none ... They were not capable of making Celtia into an empire, but they had enough feeling for wide organization and social culture to recognize these in the Roman Empire and to give that empire their support" (Colum 44).

And Finally, the Irish people and government have been very active in preserving not only the written literature but also the oral traditions of its folklore (O'Sullivan, 12). The Department of Folklore at the University of Dublin has a recorded over one million pages of written folklore in its collection. A significant part of this preservation is also through the oral tradition of the Irish which has been a cultural trait for centuries. These three factors have contributed greatly to the development and preservation of Irish folklore.

Irish folklore holds many characteristics absent from traditional folklore of other European cultures. Curtain explains Irish folklore details the names and places of the characters as well as their living conditions and how they acted. Characters in Irish folklore also transcend time barriers as "the heroes and their fields of action are brought to us with as much definitiveness as if they were persons of to-day or yesterday. This characteristic is much less frequently met in the middle and Eastern Europe" (11). As Curtain points out, this characteristic allows for the involvement of not only the character in the folklore but also Ireland as a whole, including a description of the "the whole region which it belongs: the hills, rivers, mountains, plains, villages, trees, rocks, springs, and plants are all made sacred. The country of the mythology becomes, in the fullest sense, a 'holy land'" (12). This individuality and national pride is reflected in the folklore and is largely responsible for it's current cultural traditions.


The role of the hero has a strong presence in Irish folklore and literature. The tales of Irish heroes have influenced the perception of the Irish people throughout the world as they are often referred to as the "fighting Irish." When reading the tales of Irish heroes in folklore, we are told of warriors of great courage and bravery. Irish war folklore have been influenced by history, drawing again on the fact that they were not conquered by the Roman Empire when the rest of Europe was in continuous danger of it. To understand this reputation, Column tells us that the Irish " ... were looked upon as barbarians by the Romans and Greeks, but barbarians of a superior kind; they were ranked above the Germans, Ligurians, Iberians. On contemporaries who observed them or reflected on their polity and on their leaders, they left an impression of remarkableness for their military prowess and their individuality" (Colum 44-45). Often, folktales consist of the hero avenging love and honor. It is also epic in nature, similar to that of Greek mythology and heroes.


The role of Fairies in Irish folklore is very different from those of other country's folklore. In Irish folklore, fairies who have powers also have very distinct names and personalities. This distinction is one of the reasons why fairies play such a significant role in Irish folklore as well as why the stories of fairies have been historically preserved. In Irish folklore, fairies are divided into two classes, sociable and solitary. The sociable fairies are for the most part considered good and kind, having only few faults. The solitary fairies on the other hand are considered "gloomy and terrible in some way ... But there are, however, among them who have light hearts and brave attire" (Yeats, 384). The sociable fairies are divided into the Sheoques or land fairies and the Merrows or water fairies.

According to the folktales, fairies can cast spells and steal mortal children. They live in with great wealth and love dancing and singing. They create fairy money, which is an illusion and returns to soil or moss after the spell wears off. Sociable fairies are said to be responsible for the green lands of Ireland, and they are responsible for Ireland's well-known dozens of shades of green.

One of the most well-known type of fairy is the Leprechaun. The Leprechaun is a solitary fairy and is said to be a shoemaker. The Leprechaun is well-known for his mischievous behavior and practical jokes. They are also known for being very wealthy due to their continuous shoemaking. The Leprechaun has acquired "many treasure-crocks, buried of old in war-time" (Yeats, 75) and is very clever in keeping this treasure hidden from humans. According to the legend, if you catch a leprechaun and try to get the location of the hidden gold from him, he will outwit and distract you with his fast-talking nature. Because the leprechaun was once a member of a community outside of the shoe-makers, he is significant by demonstrating once again the Irish national pride.


There are many symbols of folklore that present themselves on a consistent basis in Irish folklore. These symbols have become part of contemporary Irish culture and are know today around the world as symbols representative of Irish history. The symbols discussed here are the harp, the shamrock and the shillelagh.

The Harp has historically been an Irish symbol. Among the Irish, the harp is considered not only the principal instrument of folklore, but also Irish in origin. When referring to ancient folklore, the harp holds cosmic significance. This is pronounced in the tale of Dagda, the senior among the Divine Folk. In this tale, the harp was taken from Dagda by the Tuatha de Danaan "the powers of cold and darkness" (Colum 389) while the two are at war. The harp is returned to Dagda by two divinities, Laugh representing Light and Ogma, representing Art. The significance of the harp is that the divine powers returned it to Dagda and he continued to enchant the Divine Folk with the sound. According to Colum, "the harp with its secret or magical names is the purveyor of Sorrow, Gladness and Repose" (398). In contemporary Ireland, the harp is seen on coins and in the green flag, a tribute to its history and tradition in Irish folklore.

The shamrock clover represents to the Irish another example of individuality and the fortune of calling a "trefoil" their own. In Ireland, the shamrock is revered for "its abundance of this succulent material for making fat mutton. In winter as well as in summer, it is found to spread its green carpet over our limestone hills, drawing its verdure from the mists that sweep from the Atlantic" (Colum, 393). As folklore tells it, St. Patrick drove all things that had venom from Croagh Patrick except the shamrock, which is still thriving in Ireland today. According to this tale, the shamrock specifically was spared by St. Patrick and therefore if a cultural icon.

The four-leaved shamrock has been associated with good luck for centuries. The story of the four-leaved clover is an example of how a man…

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