By David Rinehart, Library Assistant, Special Collections & Archives, Maynooth University
Irish Wonders by David Russell McAnally, Jr. (Cambridge 1888) claims to be “Popular Tales as told by the people,” providing a brief overview of popular Irish Folklore accompanied by many illustrations penned by H.R. Heaton. The tales span from “Satan’s Cloven Hoof” to “Leprachawns” to the chapter titled, “About the Fairies.”
As fairies are a household favourite, I’ll be diving right into fairylore! This particular text follows a post-Christian influence on folklore in which the fairies are told to have once been angels.
When Satan sinned and drew throngs of the heavenly host with him into open rebellion, a large number of the less warlike spirits stood aloof from the contest that followed, fearing the consequences, and not caring to take sides till the issue of the conflict was determined. Upon the defeat and expulsion of the rebellious angels, those who had remained neutral were punished by banishment from heaven, but their offence being only one of omission, they were not consigned to the pit with Satan and his followers, but were sent to earth where they still remain, not without hope that on the last day they may be pardoned and readmitted to Paradise. (pg. 92)
Because the Fairies are still hoping to gain entry back into heaven, they have taken to being kind to humans (for the most part that is), and some say they actually ferry (pun absolutely intentional) the souls of the recently deceased to heaven’s gate without being permitted entry. Feuds, in fact, break out between factions who claim the souls of specific humans over who will take them to heaven’s gate. While this proclivity towards aiding humans has earned them the popular name “the Good People”, none-the-less, because of their great power, they are still greatly feared.
In Traces of the Elder Faith by William Gregory, Gregory states that,
Professor O’Curry in his Lectures on the Manuscript Materials of Ancient Irish History, gravely divides fairies into two distinct classes, i.e. the bona fide fairies or demons and the magic race of the Dedanann, who, after being conquered by the Milesians, transformed themselves into fairies… The peasantry have apparently tried to reconcile heathen and Christian imagination, and hold an ill-defined belief that fairies are fallen spirits, driven from heaven, and condemned to dwell on earth until the day of judgement.
While Irish Wonders is full of fascinating folklore and gripping fairy tales, it is not without criticism. As W.B. Yeats aptly states,
Mr. McAnally does not treat his material with sufficient respect; he is too eager to embroider everything with humor, to steep everything in a kind of stage Irish he has invented. There is not a dull chapter in the book. But no Irish peasant ever pronounced English as Mr. McAnally makes him. The very same dialect is put into the mouths of peasants from most different counties. Why, the children of one county laugh at the pronunciation of another! It is a foreigner’s idea of Ireland.
So, now I pose to you, dear reader, what is a fairy? What tales have you heard? Tweet us @SCA_MULibrary or comment below. We look forward to hearing your local folklore!