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Irish Fairy Tales and Story-Telling

Happy St Patrick’s Day to all our Irish and Irish-identifying friends! For the day that’s in it, we thought we’d have a look at Irish fairy tales, folklore and William Butler Yeats.

St Patrick and his snake charming ways got us thinking about Gaelic story-telling traditions and the folklore of Ireland, and how they have inspired generation after generation of Irish literary talent. The traditions of story-telling go back well before St. Patrick made his way to this small island that sits on the Atlantic ocean, staring in at the European mainland.  Story-telling was the absolute favourite pre-Christian past-time and was a dignified profession in Ireland for many years. Story-tellers were divided and ranked into Ollaimh, Baird, Filí and Seanchaithe. Their job was to educate and entertain. They learned stories, poems and tales by heart, recounting them to the masses before passing them on to the next generation. The emphasis was primarily on the oral quality of expression and this tradition has certainly been passed down from age to age and still inspires Irish writers today.

One poet who was certainly inspired by Irish folklore and mysticism was William Butler Yeats, one of Ireland’s greatest and most lauded poets and Nobel Laureates. Yeats was born into an upper class Anglo-Irish family in Sandymount in Dublin. He was at the forefront of the Irish Literary Revival along with Lady Gregory and was very much involved in Irish politics throughout his life. While his earlier work was wrapped in Irish mysticism, spiritualism and transcendentalism, his later work focused on ideas of nationalism, patriotism and history while remaining true to the symbolism that defines it.

So to familiarise yourself with W.B. Yeats, Irish mysticism and folklore, why not have a read of these beautiful fairy tales, which are edited by W.B. Yeats and illustrated by his extremely talented and renowned brother, the artist, Jack B. Yeats. Read the intro (and poem below!) by W.B. Yeats to learn more about the tradition of story telling in Ireland.

irish FT


All the words that I gather,
And all the words that I write,
Must spread out their wings untiring,
And never rest in their flight,
Till they come where your sad, sad heart is,
And sing to you in the night,
Beyond where the waters are moving,
Storm darkened or starry bright.

W. B. Yeats.

On a side-note, 2015 marks 150 years since the birth of  W.B. Yeats. Yeats Day will take place in and around Sligo City and county on June 13. This is the third year of the festival which celebrates the Nobel Laureate’s birthday. For more information on these events, visit the Yeatsday website.

And on a side-side note, have a look at Visual Verse, as this month’s issue focuses on contemporary Irish writing and features four lead Irish writers.




Kate Nic Dhomhnaill

Author Kate Nic Dhomhnaill

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