Curtin's Myths and Folk-Lore of Ireland

SINCE the days when Castrén made his arduous journeys of linguistic exploration in Siberia, or when the brothers Grimm collected their rich treasures of folk-lore from the lips of German peasants, an active quest of vocables and myths has been conducted with much zeal and energy in nearly all parts of the world. We have tales, proverbs, fragments of verse, superstitious beliefs and usages, from Greenland, from the southern Pacific, from the mountaineers of Thibet and the freedmen upon Georgia plantations. We follow astute Reynard to the land of the Hottentots, and find the ubiquitous Jack planting his beanstalk among the Dog-Rib Indians. At the same time, the nooks and corners of Europe have been ransacked with bountiful results; so that whereas our grandfathers, in speculating about the opinions and mental habits of people in low stages of culture, were dealing with a subject about which they knew almost nothing, on the other hand, our chief difficulty to-day is in shaping and managing the enormous mass of data which keen and patient inquirers have collected. It is well that this work has been carried so far in our time, for modern habits of thought are fast exterminating the Old World fancies. Railroad, newspaper, and telegraphic bulletin of prices are carrying everything before them. The peasant’s quaint dialect and his fascinating myth tales are disappearing along with his picturesque dress ; and savages, such of them as do not succumb to fire-water, are fast taking on the airs and manners of civilized folk. It is high time to be gathering in all the primitive lore we can find before the men and women in whose minds it is still a living reality have all passed from the scene.

The collection of Irish myth stories lately published by Mr. Jeremiah Curtin 1 is the result of a myth-hunting visit which the author made in Ireland in 1887, and is one of the most interesting and valuable contributions to the study of folk-lore that have been made for many years. " All the tales in my collection,” says Mr. Curtin, “of which those printed in this volume form but a part, were taken down from the mouths of men who, with one or two exceptions, spoke only Gaelic, or but little English, and that imperfectly. These men belong to a group of persons all of whom are well advanced in years, and some very old ; with them will pass away the majority of the story-tellers of Ireland, unless new interest in the ancient language and lore of the country is roused.

“ For years previous to my visit of 1887 I was not without hope of finding some myth tales in a good state of preservation. I was led to entertain this hope by indications in the few Irish stories already published, and by certain tales and beliefs that I had taken down myself from old Irish persons in the United States. Still, during the earlier part of my visit in Ireland, I was greatly afraid that the best myth materials had perished. Inquiries as to who might be in possession of these old stories seemed fruitless for a considerable time. The persons whom I met that were capable of reading the Gaelic language had never collected stories, and could refer only in a general way to the districts in which the ancient language was still living. All that was left was to seek out the old people for whom Gaelic is the every-day speech, and trust to fortune to find the story-tellers.”

Thus Mr. Curtin was led to explore the counties of Kerry, Galway, and Donegal. “ Comforting myself with the Russian proverb that ' game runs to meet the hunter,’ I set out on my pilgrimage, giving more prominence to the study and investigation of Gaelic, which, though one of the two objects of my visit, was not the first. In this way I thought to come more surely upon men who had myth tales in their minds than if I went directly seeking for them. I was not disappointed, for in all my journeyings I did not meet a single person who knew a myth tale or an old story who was not fond of Gaelic, and specially expert in the use of it, while I found very few story-tellers from whom a myth tale could be obtained unless in the Gaelic language; and in no case have I found a story in the possession of a man or woman who knew only English.”

There is something so interesting in this fact, and so pathetic in the explanation of it, that we are tempted to quote further: “Since all mental training in Ireland is directed by powers both foreign and hostile to everything Gaelic, the moment a man leaves the sphere of that class which uses Gaelic as an everyday language, and which clings to the ancient ideas of the people, everything which he left behind seems to him valueless, senseless, and vulgar ; consequently he takes no care to retain it either in whole or in part. Hence the clean sweep of myth tales in one part of the country, — the greater part, occupied by a majority of the people ; while they are still preserved in other and remoter districts, inhabited by men who, for the scholar and the student of mankind, are by far the most interesting in Ireland.”

The fate of the Gaelic language has, indeed, been peculiarly sad. In various parts of Europe, and especially among the western Slavs, the native tongues have been to some extent displaced by the speech of conquering peoples ; yet it is only in Erin that, within modern times, a “ language of Aryan stock has been driven first from public use, and then dropped from the worship of God and the life of the fireside.” Hence, while in many parts of Europe the ancient tales live on, often with their incidents more or less dislocated and their significance quite blurred, on the other hand, in English-speaking Ireland they have been cleared away “ as a forest is felled by the axe.”

Nevertheless, in the regions where Irish myths have been preserved, they have been remarkably well preserved, and bear unmistakable marks of their vast antiquity. One very noticeable feature in these myths is the definiteness and precision of detail with which the personages and their fields of action are brought before us. This is a characteristic of mythologies which are, comparatively speaking, intact; and, as Mr. Curtin observes, it is to be seen in the myths of the American Indians. As long as a mythology remains intact it “ puts its imprint on the whole region to which it belongs.” Every rock, every spring, is the scene of some definite incident ; every hill has its mythical people, who are as real to the narrators as the flesh-and-blood population which one finds there. In this whole world of belief and sentiment there is the vigor of fresh life, and the country is literally enchanted ground. But when, through the invasion of alien peoples, there is a mingling and conflict of sacred stories, and new groups of ideas and associations have partly displaced the old ones, so that only the argument or general statement of the ancient myth is retained. and perhaps even that hut partially, then “ all precision and details with reference to persons and places vanish ; they become indefinite; are in some kingdom, some place, — nowhere in particular.” There is this vagueness in the folk-tales of eastern and central Europe as contrasted with those of Ireland. “ Where there was or where there was not,” says the Magyar, “ there was in the world; ” or, if the Russian hero goes anywhere, it is simply across fortynine kingdoms, etc.; “but in the Irish tales he is always a person of known condition in a specified place ” (for example, " There was a blacksmith in Dunkenealy, beyond Killybegs,” etc., page 244).

As to the antiquity and the primitive character of Mr. Curtin’s stories an experienced observer can entertain no doubt. His book is certainly the most considerable achievement in the field of Gaelic mythology since the publication, thirty years ago, of Campbell’s Tales of the West Highlands; and it does for the folk-lore of Ireland what Asbjörnsen and Moe’s collection (the English translation of which is commonly, and with some injustice, known by the name of the translator as Daaent’s Norse Tales) did for the folk-lore of Norway. This is, of course, very high praise, but we do not believe it will be called extravagant by any competent scholar who reads Mr. Curtin’s book. The stories have evidently been reduced to writing with most scrupulous and loving fidelity. In turning the Gaelic into English, some of the characteristic Hibernian phrases and constructions of our language have been employed, and this has been done with such perfect good taste that the effect upon the ear is like that of a refined and delicate brogue.

The mythical material in the stories is largely that with which the student of Aryan folk-lore is familiar. We have variants of Cinderella, the swanmaidens, the giant who had no heart in his body, the cloak of darkness, the sword of light, the magic steed which overtakes the wind before and outstrips the wind behind ; the pot of plenty, from which one may eat forever, and the cup that is never drained ; the hero who performs impossible tasks, and wooes maidens whose beauty hardly relieves their treacherous cruelty: “ I must tell you now that three hundred king’s sons, lacking one, have come to ask for my daughter, and in the garden behind my castle are three hundred iron spikes, and every spike of them but one is covered with the head of a king’s son who could n’t do what my daughter wanted of him, and I’m greatly in dread that your own head will be put on the one spike that is left uncovered.” The princess in this story —“ ShakingHead ” — is such a wretch, not a whit better than Queen Labe in the Arabian Nights, that one marvels at the hero for marrying her at last, instead of slicing off her head with his two-handed sword of darkness, and placing it on the three-hundredth spike. But moral as well as physical probabilities are often overstrained in this deliciously riotous realm of folk-lore.

Along with much material that is common to the Aryan world, there is some that is peculiar to Ireland, while the Irish atmosphere is over everything. The stories of Fin MacCumbail (pronounced MacCool) and the Fenians of Erin are full of grotesque incident and inimitable drollery. Fin and his redoubtable dog Bran, the one-eyed Gruagach, the hero Diarmuid, the old hag with the life-giving ointment, the weird hand of Mal MacMulcan, and the cowherd that was son of the king of Alban make a charming series of pictures. Among Fin’s followers there is a certain Conán Maol, “ who never had a good word in his mouth for any man,” and for whom no man had a good word. This counterpart of Thersites, as Mr. Curtin tells us, figures as conspicuously in North American as in Aryan myths. Conán was always at Fin’s side, and advising him to mischief. Once it had like to have gone hard with Conán. The Fenians had been inveigled into an enchanted castle, and could not rise from their chairs till two of Fin’s sons had gone and beheaded three kings in the north of Erin, and put their blood into three goblets, and come back and rubbed the blood on the chairs. Conàn had no chair, but was sitting on the floor, with his back to the wall, and just before they came to him the last drop of blood gave out. The Fenians were hurrying past without minding the mischiefmaker, when, upon his earnest appeal, Diarmuid “ took him by one hand, and Goll MacMornee by the other, and, pulling with all their might, tore him from the wall and the floor. But if they did, he left all the skin of Ins back, from his head to his heels, on the floor and the wall behind him. But when they were going home through the hills of Tralee, they found a sheep on the way, killed it, and clapped the skin on Conàn. The sheepskin grew to his body; and he was so well and strong that they sheared him every year, and got wool enough from his back to make flannel and frieze for the Fenians of Erin ever after.” This is a favorite ncident, and recurs in the story of the laughing Gruagach. In most of the Fenian stories the fighting is brisk and incessant. It is quite a Donnybrook fair. Everybody kills everybody else, and then some toothless old woman comes along, and rubs a magic salve on them, when, all in a minute, up they pop, and go at it again.

One of the quaintest conceits, and a pretty one withal, is that of Tir na n-Og, the Land of Youth, the life-giving region just beneath the ground, whence mysteriously spring the sturdy trees, the soft green grass, and the bright flowers. The journey thither is not long; sometimes the hero just pulls up a root and dives down through the hole into the blessed Tir na n-Og, — as primitive a bit of folk-lore as one could wish to find ! A lovely country, of course, was that land of sprouting life, and some queer customs did they have there. The mode of “ running for office ” was especially worthy of mention. Once in seven years all the champions and best men " met at the front of the palace, and ran to the top of a hill two miles distant. On the top of that hill was a chair, and the man that sat first in the chair was king of Tir na n-Og for the next seven years.” This method enabled them to dispense with nominating conventions and campaign lies, but not with intrigue and sorcery, as we find in the droll story of Oisin (or Ossian), which concludes the Fenian series.

The story of the Fisherman’s Son and the Gruagach of Tricks is substantially the same with the famous story of Farmer Weathersky, in the Norse collection translated by Sir George Dasent. Gruagach (accented on the first syllable) means “ the hairy one,” and, as Mr. Curtin cautiously observes, “ we are more likely to be justified in finding a solar agent concealed in the person of the laughing Gruagach or the Gruagach of tricks than in many of the sun-myths put forth by some modern writers.” He reminds one of Hermes and of Proteus, and in the wonderful changes at the end of the story we have, as in Farmer Weathersky, a variant of the catastrophe in the story of the Second Royal Mendicant in the Arabian Nights, but the Irishman gives us a touch of humor that is quite his own. The Gruagach and his eleven artful sons are chasing the fisherman’s son through water and air, and various forms of fish and bird are assumed, until at length the fisherman’s son, in the shape of a swallow, hovers over the summer-house where the daughter of the king of Erin is sitting. Weary with the chase, the swallow becomes a ring, and falls into the girl’s lap; it takes her fancy, and she puts it on her finger. Then the twelve pursuers change from hawks into handsome men, and entertain the king in his castle with music and games, until he asks them what in the world he can give them. All they want, says the old Gruagach, is the ring which he once lost, and which is now on the princess’s finger. Of course, says the king, if his daughter has got the ring, she must give it to its owner. But the ring, overhearing all this, speaks to the princess, and tells her what to do. She gets a gallon of wheat-grains and three gallons of the strongest potheen that was ever brewed in Ireland, and she mixes them together in an open barrel before the fire. Then her father calls her and asks for the ring, and when she finds that her protests are of no avail, and she must give it up, she throws it into the fire. “ That moment, the eleven brothers made eleven pairs of tongs of themselves; their father, the old Gruagach, was the twelfth pair. The twelve jumped into the fire to know in what spark of it would they find the old fisherman’s son ; and they were a long time working and searching through the fire, when out flew a spark, and into the barrel. The twelve made themselves men, turned over the barrel, and spilled the wheat on the floor. Then in a twinkling they were twelve cocks strutting around. They fell to, and picked away at the wheat, to know which one would find the fisherman’s Son. Soon one dropped on one side, and a second on the opposite side, until all twelve were lying drunk from the wheat.”

One seems to see the gleam in the corner of the eye and the pucker in the Celtic visage of the old narrator. To be sure, it was the wheat. It could n’t have been the mountain dew ; it never is. Well, when things had come to this pass, the spark that was the fisherman’s son just turned into a fox, and with one smart bite he took the head off the old Gruagach, and the eleven other boozy cocks he finished with eleven other bites. Then he made himself the handsomest man in Erin, and married the princess and succeeded to the crown.

There is a breezy freshness about these tales, which will make the book a welcome addition to young people’s libraries. It is safe to predict for it an enviable success. In the next edition there ought to be an index, and we wish the author need not feel it necessary to be so sparing with his own notes and comments. His brief Introduction is so charming, from its weight of sense and beauty of expression, that one would gladly hear more from the author himself. It is to be hoped that the book lately published is the forerunner of many.

  1. 2Myths and Folk-Lore of Ireland. By JEREMIAH CURTIN. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1890.