Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry,
edited by William Butler Yeats

pub 1888
Review by Jenn

"Even a newspaper man, if you entice him into a cemetery at midnight, will believe in phantoms, for every one is a visionary, if you scratch him deep enough. But the Celt is a visionary without scratching."
- WB Yeats, from the Introduction
Cover of Dover Edition This particular book I've added to the list as a wink and a nod to the webmasters' Irish background (which is undiluted on our father's side).

The Dover Thrift Editions (found grouped together in many good bookstores) series is an inexpensive way to add classics old and new from a wide variety of authors and genres to one's library - my current collection includes Selected Poems by Byron, The Canterbury Tales, Complete Songs From the Plays and Complete Sonnets (Shakespeare), Rilke's Possibility of Being, and Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. This last was the first of my Dover collection, a gift to me during my college years and one I have greatly enjoyed as a thoroughly fun and readable book. It contains a fine collection of some familiar (and some not) tales told in the grand old Irish (peasant) style.

The short stories are grouped under nine headings, including those of Ghosts, Saints and Priests, Kings, Queens, Princesses, Earls, and Robbers, Witches and Fairy Doctors, the Devil, and, of course, the Fairies. There are actually two headings which cover stories about they the Irish call "the good people:" the Solitary Fairies and The Trooping Fairies (which last contains two subheadings on Changelings and the Merrow). It is plain to see that there is much more to Irish fairy legends than the conventional and stereotypical leprechaun.

Each part is preceded with a short description of the origin of the particular group of stories, and is then followed by a series of stories and a few poems (see Yeat's poem "The Stolen Child" under the Changelings category of the part chronicling the Trooping Fairies - it was my favorite poem as a child). Many of the stories I had never heard of before, but I did find a few versions of tales I had read in my Hans Christian Andersen collection as a child and with a distinctly Celtic flavor (in particular "TheTwelve Wild Geese," which in other cultures depicted twelve swans, but always a mute princess struggling to free her twelve brothers from a curse).

Quite a number of the stories are thick with the dialect of the story's origin in terms of the narrative style, a fact that at first turned me away from those stories with distaste (including "The White Trout" and "A Donegal Fairy") - if you don't really appreciate reading a dialect or seeing words spelled phonetically to reflect a peasant brogue thick enough to be cut with a knife, as the saying goes, you might be more inclined to start with stories having a "cleaner" text (such as "Flory Cantillon's Funeral" or "The Legend of Knockgrafton" - a personal favorite!), as I was. But I later grew more tolerant of the odd spelling and even odder Gaelic words thrown in here and there, finally finding them amusing and charming - even endearing - and wondering that my ancestors spoke with ease a language that is now all but dead.

I'm reminded of a line from Gone With the Wind, when Rhett, seeking to annoy Scarlett, told her that "the O'Hara's may have been the kings of Ireland once, but your father was really nothing more than a smart Mick on the make." Irish legend is of course not without its gentry, but Erin was for a long time a poor country, and there is a school of thought that the poorest countries/cultures have the most faith or superstitions - the former because they need it, the latter because they haven't the education to counteract it. Be that as it may, these are stories "of the peasantry," and one of the most fascinating and interesting features of the tales is the way they merge two distinct cultures into one - Christianity and the Celtic folk religions. In "The White Trout," an enchanted princess urges a soldier to "go to his duty" (attend confession) regularly, while in "The Soul Cages" (you'll never listen to the song by Sting in the same way again!), Jack Dogherty's grandfather was "so thick with a merrow" (mer-man) "that, only for fear of vexing the priest, he would have had him stand for one of his children." While many of the stories, of course, contain very pious themes, the Irish do not abandon their traditional legends of the fairy folk, who are "not saved, nor yet lost."

And while the stories are often pious, the piety is not, in most cases, so heavy-handed as to be unenjoyable. One of my favorite stories in the book is "The Three Wishes," a highly amusing tale whose portrayal of St. Moroky as a bad-tempered old man had me in stitches by throwing a most un-saintly tantrum when Billy Dawson, the story's dubious protagonist, proved himself once and for all an irredeemable rogue and made a deal with the devil.

I give this one a very strong recommendation over all. Give it a read - for education, for laughs, and most of all, for luck. Top o' the day!

Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild,
With a fairy hand in hand,
For the world's more full of weeping than
you can understand.
- W.B. Yeats, "The Stolen Child"

Fairy & Folk Tales at Project Gutenberg