In celebration of St. Patrick's day I am going to review one of my favorite genres of literature (as if I needed an excuse): Celtic folklore.
Finn McCoul: The Legendary Irish Folk Hero by Brian Gleeson; illustrated by Peter de Seve
First is Finn McCoul. There are many varying stories about this legendary giant who supposedly helped make the Causeway between Ireland and Scotland but my favorite is a children's picture book that depicts Finn as loveable if a bit bumbling but, thanks to a clever wife, makes out all right in the end. This story, retold by Brian Gleeson and illustrated by Peter de Seve, is my favorite version. The illustrations are so dramatic and humorous. In this particular retelling, we have the origins of Finn- rejected by his father but saved by his grandmother who raises him in secret. He grows up to be a famous giant hero but he has one fear: an even bigger giant CuCullen. CuCullen has whipped every other giant except Finn. The reason for this being that Finn has the power to foresee the future when he chews on his thumb. This has enabled him to know when CuCullen was coming and escape.
Finally, Finn realizes there has to be a show down. He rushes home and laments his dilemma to his wife, the beautiful Oonagh. Oonagh calms Finn and tells him to leave everything to her. The rest of the story is how Oonagh, with Finn's cooperation, out wit the dreaded CuCullen in such a way that they never have to fear him again. I've read this story countless times to my music students and we've even put the story to music by inserting a simple poem refrain (created by the kids) to be sung at various intervals throughout the narration of the story.
The following books are a part of a huge collection of Celtic fairy tales and lore that I've accumulated over the years. Most of my books are out of print so I've only selected a few that might still be attainable.
Irish Fairy Tales and Legends by Una Leavy and Susan Field
I bought this book mainly for the beautiful illustrations that are rich in color and detail. A lot of gold, blue and red is used inspired, perhaps, by Medieval paintings. This book is a collection of ten stories including How Cuchulainn got His Name; The Magic Shoes; the Children of Lir, and The Giant's Causeway. Leavy gives background descriptions of each story in the back of the book and also a pronunciation guide since, frankly, none of the names sound like they are spelled.
Irish Fairy Tales by Jeremiah Curtin
This is a non illustrated collection that includes stories more about the supernatural and their dealings with ordinary folk rather than about legendary people. Stories include: John Connors and the Fairies; The Cattle Jobber of Awnascawil; The Midwife of Listowel; Daniel Crowley and the Ghosts, and Tom Connors and the Dead Girl -to name a few.
The Story of the Irish Race by Seumas MacManus
Seumas MacManus originally wrote this book, with the help of several Irish scholars in 1921. The book I have is a revised edition. MacManus gives a chronology of all the peoples who came to Ireland, conquered only to became absorbed by succeeding conquerors until we arrive at the Irish race as we know it today. I found this book particularly interesting for the descriptions of the different tribes and nations such as the Firbolg, Tuatha De Danaan, Milesians, Picts, of course, the Gallic tribes and later even the Danes who all contributed their culture and genes to the people of Eire.
This book also includes many famous legends and fairy tales as well as invasions of Britain ,stories about the Saints, Education and Irish Missionaries who went abroad. MacManus delves into customs and social mores of ancient Ireland and describes this history of Ireland from ancient times up to the 20th century. The book is written in a way that is fluid and interesting as if he were retelling a fairy tale even when he's recounting history.
Finally, I must leave you with a poem by one of my favorite Irish poets, William Butler Yeats.
Born in Dublin in 1865, Yeats grew up in the turbulent times of Irish resistance to English rule. As an adult he became actively involved in the struggle for Irish independence. His real contribution to Ireland, however, was his poetry which won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1923. He is Ireland's greatest poet and many believe that no other modern English or American poet can match his vision and versatility. (From the Introduction of William Butler Yeats: Selected Poems)
The following is one of his earlier poems:
The Fiddler of Dooney
When I play on my fiddle in Dooney
Folk dance like a wave of the sea,
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Moharabuiee.
I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of song
I bought at the Sligo fair.
When we come at the end of time,
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits,
But call me first through the gate;
For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle
And the merry love to dance:
And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With “Here is the fiddler of Dooney!”
And dance like a wave of the sea.