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Sunday, February 14, 2021

Darn It Yeats, You Had One Job: A Look at the Popular Rewriting of Irish Folklore

 This title is taken from something I often say when talking about the Echtra Nera: "Darn it Nera you had one job". Its a reference to the fact that in the story Nera is given the job of watching his son's cow by his wife and when he falls asleep the cow is 'borrowed' by the Morrigan, resulting in not only the Táin Bó Regamna immediately but ultimately the Táin Bó Cuiligne as well. In other words one small failure on his part of a given duty causes untold misery and bloodshed. 

Yeats grave in Sligo

How does this relate to WB Yeats? As much as I like Yeats poetry, and I do, the blunt fact is his versions of Irish folklore are often more fiction than folklore, and so his 'one job' of accurately relaying folk beliefs in his books about Irish folk beliefs failed as miserably as Nera's assignment watching fairy cows. The result is a popular strain of fairy belief based largely or entirely on Yeats works that do not in fact bare any resemblance to the actual folk beliefs they purport to reflect. I'll give two examples here to illustrate:

The Leannán Sidhe - Leannán sidhe literally means 'Otherworldly lover' referring to one of the aos sidhe that takes a human lover. Yeats wrote about this being in his 1888 'Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry' where he said this: "The Leanhaun Shee (fairy mistress) seeks the love of mortals. If they refuse, she must be their slave; if they consent, they are hers, and can only escape by finding another to take their place. The fairy lives on their life, and they waste away. Death is no escape from her. She is the Gaelic muse, for she gives inspiration to those she persecutes. The Gaelic poets die young, for she is restless, and will not let them remain long on earth—this malignant phantom." This short description has formed the foundation for the wider modern understanding of this being and is how many people conceptualize them. 
    The problem is, Yeats' characterization is almost entirely his own ideas of the poet's dark muse, popular at the time he was writing, rather than any native Irish idea of what a Leannán Sidhe was. His clear gendering of the being as female is one sign of this, as the term leannán isn't and has never been applied only to women. In point of fact the term can be found going back about a thousand years or so used for any of the aos sidhe who took a human lover - one example is Aoibheall, a queen of the people of the sidhe in Munster. Aoibheall is seen as the protector of the Ó'Brien clan because it is said in stories that she was either the lover of king Brian Boru or possibly his son Murchadh.  Gearóid Ó Crualaoich in his 'Book of the Cailleach' relates an more recent example of a leannán sidhe (male) who was seen gathering herbs with a bean feasa [wise woman] on several occasions. 
    Now we can find both concepts of the leannán sidhe in belief, as illustrated by the definition of leannán in the Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla which encompasses both the straightforward 'fairy lover' (1 e, i) as well as a 'baleful influence' (e, ii) and 'a chronic sickness' (2). 

The Geancánach - probably meaning 'love talker', the Geancánach is most well known from Yeats writing, where he is characterized in 'Fairy and Folktales of the Irish Peasantry' as a solitary being who haunts lonely places smoking his pipe and seducing women who then fade away and die, apparently having lost the will to live. Yeats account which was said to be quoting a direct source, claimed that the Geancánach was 'of the same tribe as the leprechaun' but unlike the leprechaun was the embodiment of 'love and idleness'. This idea of the Geancánach as a seductive and dangerous solitary being has become common, even finding print in Katherine Briggs' book ' A Dictionary of Fairies'.
   What we find in accounts from Irish folklore however, such as those in are a very different being. In these accounts the Geancánach is described synonymously with the Leprechaun, wearing red and green, smoking a clay pipe, and offering gold or wishes to those who capture him; the term is also used interchangeably with the English word fairy. They have no inherent connection to seduction or the deaths of women, and the dictionary definition of the word to this day means 'a fairy cobbler'. 

Why does this matter anyway? I think its important to understand the various threads of folk belief out there. Yeats stories have been circulating for well over a hundred years and there are many people now who entirely believe them, despite their lack of historicity or deeper cultural veracity. There are also still extant beliefs about the same things Yeats talks about which are entirely different in nature and description and that must be respected rather than argued against based on Yeats. I do think its important to understand the variety and difference and to appreciate that Yeats writing was more his own ideas than actual folk beliefs of the people around him. That doesn't mean to entirely dismiss these versions, as I said they've been around now for over a hundred years and have a lot of modern belief behind them, but we must be clear that those popular versions aren't reflective of older or even necessarily modern Irish folk beliefs. There are complexities and nuances here rooted in Yeats place in his society, his passion for poetry and story, and his willingness to use the bones of Irish folklore for his own purposes that all must be considered as factors for why he is not a reliable source for folklore (and I say that as someone who has used his work as a source previously) and for understanding his writing within its own context. 


  1. I love Yeats, but his interpretation of "Oengus Dream" drove me nuts for a couple of reasons. 1. The prevalence of fiction over fact as stated in the lore. 2. My kid was studying Yeats at school, this very same poem. I had to work with him extra to get him understand the difference between a story preserved as lore and poetic license to alter facts to suit a purpose. My kid's first remark was "If Yeats doesn't tell the truth, then he's a liar; if he's a lier why do we have to study his lies at school instead of the true story?" It took a whole lot more explaining to make head and tail out of this... So, yeah, "Darn it Yeats, you had just one job..."