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Irish Folklore

Ollie's personal concept of Irish Folklore

From a very young age I have had an awareness of Folklore, that sense of the heritage, place and identity of my people. It was only as I grew up with the knowledge passed on from my parents, that I realised the profound meaning and significance of these words. I was fortunate to grow up in the Irish countryside in Co. Kilkenny surrounded by lush green fields, towering trees, majestic mountains and a beautiful winding river.

 

On the farm where I lived, many of the fields had their own distinct names in the Irish language. My father passed on the history of these names to me. The name and history of one such field, called the Ros, meaning wood or forest, has endured through time even though the actual forest has long since disappeared. My parents often talked of the Sí Gaoithe, which was a gentle swirling summer wind and which translates as “the fairy wind”.

There was one particularly fine tree which stood in the middle of a field on our farm. Once, a neighbour asked my father why he wouldn’t cut the tree down to facilitate harvesting. My father replied: “That is a fairy tree and it would bring bad luck to touch it”. The Irish always understood that you should never annoy the fairies unless you wished to receive serious supernatural retribution!

 

As a small boy if I ever annoyed my mother- a frequent occurrence alas! - she would call me a Clúrachán, which I later learned was a nasty and sneaky fairy! So, from an early age my parents revealed this Hidden Ireland to me with its strange beliefs in another world. A world of mythical creatures called Fairies, a world of legends, ancient tales, stories and songs from an earlier culturally rich Gaelic-speaking past.

The Irish have been a “hidden people” for much of our history. The Folklore of the Hidden Ireland contains an abundance of cultural riches, both spiritual and material. Topics such as, the different types of houses people lived in, (including the importance of the fireplace as the centre of their homes), the use of sustainable building materials such as stone, straw and mud, the food they ate, their use of herbal cures, the stories they told and their songs, dances, curses and superstitions – all of which reveal the rich heritage of the Irish. 

 

The Irish were largely a poor people, facing many economic and political challenges. We were part of the British Empire for most of our recent history, even though most of us never felt British. Historically we spoke the Irish language, not the English language. The Romans never conquered Ireland, which meant we evolved at our own distinct pace and retained our own strong cultural identity longer than most of mainland Europe.

The Celtic notion of the “other world” was never far from our people’s consciousness. That “world below the ground” which was inhabited by the Fairies who were thought to be the descendants of a godlike race of people who conquered Ireland thousands of years ago was part of our local and national identity. The fairies were said to be extremely beautiful and were completely in tune with nature, while other solitary fairies were likened to devils playing tricks on people and casting spells on them. Another important aspect of Irish Folklore which we feature in the show is that of our heroic sagas or Celtic legends such as the tales of Fionn Mac Cumhail and the Fianna, a race of magical superhuman warriors. 

 

Our evening of Irish folklore has at its very heart the role of the Seannchaí or story-teller. The story-teller provides words to stimulate the imagination and to take you back to a simpler past of story, myth, history and legend. Songs and music are another essential part of the evening. It is through song that we Irish – said by some to be a reticent people - have often expressed our deepest feelings of love, loss, joy and sorrows. It has been said that we sing “all our cares away.” Also, paradoxically in our songs, we sometimes use black humour. Our ability to find lightness and fun in the midst of a cruel, unforgiving and harsh world helped us cope with the serious and painful aspects of life. 

 

When I think of all the people that lived on the Island of Ireland down through the years - both the mythical and the real - I am drawn to the words of W.B. Yeats when he exhorts us to treasure those that have gone before us:

 “These people lived in places where today we go to market….and sometimes they have met

each other on the hills that still cast shadows on our doors at evening time”