History of Irish Folkore
There are many similarities in the folklore of different cultures. All folklore traditions have stories that explain the creation of the world and their people, though these stories may be very different across the globe. There are also common themes among different cultures with similar themes and types of characters.
One element that Irish folklore shares with many other folklore traditions is the trickster tale. These tales are often about, or at least feature, animals and are defined by having a main character who tricks the other characters in the story for their own benefit. The trickster can serve as an example of cleverness prevailing or as a warning for others to not fall victim to this type of trick. The story of The King of All Birds is an example of the prevailing trickster. The birds of Ireland decide to have a contest to see who should be the king of all birds, they decide the most fair thing to do is to declare that the bird who can fly the highest the king. In the story, the Eagle thinks he has won the contest when the Wren hops off his back and flies above his head becoming the king of the birds. The wren is rewarded for his cleverness and the story explains how he became to be regarded as king of all birds. Alternatively, the story The Coldest Night serves as a warning about tricksters. In this story, the eagle Leithin is tricked by the Crow of Achill. The crow imitates one of Leithin’s hatchlings and sends him on a journey to discover weather last night was the coldest night in history. He first goes to the oldest stag who cannot remember a colder night, next the hatchling sends him to ask the oldest blackbird, and finally the oldest salmon. It is Goll the salmon who not only remembers a colder night, but also knows of the trickery of the Crow of Achill. He asks Leithin how a new hatchling could know of all these old beasts and warns him that the crow is sending him off so that he can steal food from the true nestlings, when Leithin returns to the nest he finds that he is too late and the crow and his nestlings are gone.
There are also stories in Irish folktales that tell the history of the Irish people. These stories may still have some commonality with the folklore of other cultures, but tell the unique history of the Irish. These stories can be divided into cycles. There are four cycles: the Mythological Cycle, the Fenien Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, and the Historical Cycle. These cycles overlap at times, but have distinct characteristics. These cycles were not used by traditional storytellers, but were later defined by historians in their studies of the stories.
The Mythological Cycle is the first cycle. This cycle is defined by the magical characters. While they often have human qualities and characteristics, they also have larger than life magical qualities. These characters do interact with mortals, but remain superior to them. These are the old Irish Gods. Additionally, these stories depict the earliest parts of Irish history and tell the tales of the Tuatha De Danann as well as the Partholonians, Nemedians, Fir Bolg, and Milesians. One of the most famous tales from this period is The Children of Lir, which tells the tale of an evil stepmother who turns her four stepchildren into swans.
The Fenien Cycle is also known as the Fionn cycle, after the main hero of this period, Fionn Mac Cumhail and his warriors the Fianna Eireann. It is also known as the Ossianic cycle after Fionn’s son Oisin, who is believed to have written many of the poems found in this cycle. This cycle had the greatest popularity around the 1200s and there are many written accounts from before this time. Fionn Mac Cumhail is regarded as a decedent of the Druids and is a heroic or kingly figure.
The Ulster Cycle tells the tales of the Uliad of Eastern Ulster and Northern Leinster. This period is supposed to have taken place around the time of Christ and many of the writings from this time come from the early period of the Christian Church in Ireland. Historians have mixed views on this period and some believe that this period is purely mythical. The stories often have elements of pre-Christian aristocracy and legendary elements with some authenticity from that time combined with purely mythological elements.
The Historical Cycle is regarded as having more historical accuracy than the previous periods. It takes place in the medieval period when monks and other educated people were recording stories as they occurred. These stories are a combination of historical elements that can be confirmed than legends that are less clear in origin, because of this it is often hard to tell which aspects of stories from this period are based in truth and which are purely fiction. It is clear however, that many of the characters from this period are actual historical figures.
These stories come together to show the changing history of Ireland, but share many elements. Stories throughout these periods feature the same type of personification of animals, with some animals like the salmon and eagle cast as wise leaders, while others like the crow are seen as swindlers. They also feature many of the mythical creatures that are common in multiple stories and periods like leprechauns and banshees. The mythology of Ireland may share many common features with different cultures, but it also has many distinguishing features as well.
Works Cited in this Section
Cross, T., & Slover, C. (1936). Ancient Irish Tales. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble.
Four Cycles Of Irish Mythology – Myths & Folklore From Ireland. (2012, August 1). Retrieved October 20, 2015, from http://www.yourirish.com/folklore/four-cycles-of-irish-mythology
Matthews, J., & Matthews, C. (2008). Trick of the tale: A collection of trickster tales. Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press.
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (n.d.). Fenian cycle | Irish literature. Retrieved November 5, 2015, from http://www.britannica.com/art/Fenian-cycle
The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. (n.d.). Ulster cycle | Irish Gaelic literature. Retrieved November 5, 2015, from http://www.britannica.com/art/Ulster-cycle
Storytellers of the Past
Complete Works Cited