The speaking voice of Irish tradition comes to us from many sources and, together with its values of learning and entertainment, is of interest because it preserves traces of all these sources. Its richest base lief in the heritage of the Irish language, but all the peoples who settled in this island — Norsemen, Normans, Scots, and English — have made their own contributions. Furthermore, since striking narratives and curious ideas are transmitted easily from one culture to another, a great wealth of international folkloric materials has been borrowed into Ireland down through the centuries and has found a new creative context here.
In medieval Ireland, responsibility for preserving cultural data devolved upon a special learned caste. Such data included accounts of mythological heroes and of the important figures of ancient history, together with detailed genealogical and onomastic traditions. The range and scope of this learned lore is well represented in the older Irish literature, which abounds in descriptions of personages, septs, and locale and which had a marked reverence for antiquity and for rhetorical style. The literature originated in the 6th century ad and continued to flower until the suppression of native institutions a thousand years later. The period from the 17th to the 19th century witnessed a great weakening in the Gaelic culture, and this was accompanied by an increasing decline in the use of the language itself. Some of the old heroic tales were, however, preserved in readily available manuscripts and, through being read aloud in the peasant environment, were given a new lease of life in oral storytelling and have survived among speakers of Irish to our own time.
From time immemorial, the poet or file, was a leading personage in Irish culture and was accorded very high social status. The poets specialised in praise and satire, and their verses were thought by many to contain mystical knowledge and to have magical effect. Being the leading representative of the learned caste, they were professionals and enjoyed the lavish patronage of Gaelic, and later Norman-Gaelic, lords. The traditional poetry survived the demise of the Gaelic social order, it being — from the 17th century onwards — composed in the more popular stressed metres known as amhrán (‘song’). Living among the ordinary people and themselves often reduced to penury, the later Gaelic poets made a significant contribution to the sense of style and accuracy of expression which remains a distinctive trait of the Irish language.
This native stream of lore has left a considerable heritage of mythic and historical stories in contemporary Irish folklore. The adventures of the famous seerwarrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill are still known to, and related by, many Irish people. These include how he gained his wisdom as a boy by tasting the ‘salmon of knowledge’, how he triumphed over miscellaneous giants and magicians, and how he had the truths of life explained to him in a strange allegorical house. The champion Lugh, originally a god of the Continental Celts, is also remembered — especially how he slew his tyrant grandfather who had a horrific eye which destroyed all on which it gazed. The adventures of the super-warrior Cú Chulainn are spoken of and tales are also told or more true to life characters, such as the quasihistorical High-King Cormac Nac Airt and the historical though much romanticised Conall Gulban, son of the great king Niall and contemporary of St Patrick.
Much lore centres on the patron-saints of the various localities. These saints, historical personages from the early centuries of Irish Christianity, are portrayed in legend as miracle-workers who used their sacred power to banish monsters, cure illnesses, and provide food for the people in time of need. Holy wells, dedicated to individual saints, are still frequented on their feastdays in many areas, and people pray at these wells from relief from different kinds of physical and mental distress. Most celebrated were the national saint, Patrick; the great founder of monasteries, Colm Cille; and the ubiquitous Brighid who, as protectress of farming and livestock, preserves many of the attributes of the ancient earth-goddess.
Ireland is famous for its fairy-lore, which also contains vestiges of pre-Christian tradition. The fairies are known in Irish as the people of the sí, a word which originally designated a mound or tumulus, and the Irish fairies can be connected with early Celtic beliefs of how the dead live on as a dazzling community in their burial chambers. Through their identification in the medieval literature with the Tuatha Dé Danann (‘People of the Goddess Danu’) they may also be connected directly to the early pantheon of Celtic deities. In fold belief thousands of ‘raths’ — ancient earthenwork structures which dot the landscape — are claimed to be inhabited still be the sí-people, and many stories are told of humans being brought into these hidden palaces at night as guests at wondrous banquets.
Versions of numerous far-flung international folktales have been current in Ireland for many centuries. The simplest of these are fanciful little tales concerning the fauna, which deal with such matters as the fox and wolf, or the eagle and wren, pitting their wits against each other. Most popular of all are the ‘wonder tales’, which are long and lend themselves to very imaginative events and to highly stylised descriptions, and are therefore very suitable to storytelling in the Irish language. The plots of these stories are situated in a never-never land ‘long ago’, and they introduce the audience to impoverished young men on magical steeds who win the hands of beautiful princesses, to the overthrow of wizards and giants and dragons, and to many other kinds of wondrous and fantastic happenings. Of almost equal popularity are the ‘novelle – type tales based on other international plots concerning tricks and coincidences, but in a more true to life setting — many of these have, in fact, come to be told of leading Irish social figures such as Johathan Swift and Daniel O’Connell. There is, of course, a large variety of humorous stories in Ireland, of both native and foreign derivation.
Respect for the dead has always been a prominent feature of Irish culture. Indeed, a very special female spirit, the bean sí is often heard to announce by her wailing the impending death of a member of a family. A wide range of belief’s and practices were concerned with the issues of death and burial and, in former times, the waking of the dead was an important social occasion. People not only prayed, but also sang, told stories, and even played games at the wake of a departed relative or friend who had enjoyed a long and fulfilling life. This was considered the proper way to pay tribute to the deceased person. Although this tradition of wakes has now all but disappeared, the more inherently joyful stages in the life cycle, such as births and marriages, maintain their age-old importance as great communal occasions and are celebrated with feasting and conviviality.
The compositions of the early poets were sung or chanted to the accompaniment of the harp, and there were several indications that occasional songs, working-songs, and laments were cultivated by the ordinary people with simpler patters of rhythm and metre. In the later Middle Ages, colourful love-motifs gained currency, particularly of the type which attributes the sympathy of the natural environment to human emotions. It is clear that these motifs were borrowed from Continental troubadour poetry, through the medium of the French and English languages. They were soon assimilated into native verse-forms to produce the many plaintive and touching love-songs which are still very popular in Irish.
Songs in Irish focus on the expression of feeling and rarely tell a story, and because of this tradition of singing was influenced but little by the rapid spread of narrative ballads through other European countries in the post-medieval period. Such ballads were, however, introduced from England and Scotland in the course of the 18th and 19th centuries. They were often printed on broadsheets and sold at fairs and other gatherings, and thus formed the basis of the Irish folklore in the English language.
|The Irish peasant shown here may be considered rich in “native grace(s),” but potatoes were not one of them. Of South American origin, they were (according to one legend) first planted in Ireland in 1586 by Sir Walter Raleigh. Others contend that they came to Ireland from Flanders, or from the wreck of a Spanish ship on the coast.By the eighteenth century, potatoes had become indispensable in feeding the famine-prone Irish, failing only once, in 1845, when a blight ruined the crop and depleted the country through starvation and forced emigration. Though a life-giver in Ireland, the potato drew the scorn of sophisticated Europeans.(French gastronome Brillat-Savarin stated his opinion succinctly: “None for me.”)And the humble tuber seemed also to be associated with poverty and degradation by many English, who “deemed (it) only proper food for the meaner sort of persons,” while the 1708 Gardener’s Kalendar speculated that “it may prove good to swine.”Such a view of the Irish staple was not inconsistent with the nineteenth-century English view of the Irish, personified here not as a poet, or a warrior, or a landowner, or a patriot, or a missionary to the pagan Saxons, but as a poor woman content with her simple lot.|
Popular Irish songs were, and to an extent still are, sung without accompaniment, but music has long had an established context of its own. The earliest instruments were the harp and pipes, but in recent centuries violins and accordions were adopted and gained great vogue. The major division in Irish fold music is between melodious slow airs and lively dance-music. This latter is based on popular dances from England and Scotland, as well as on fashionable quadrilles taught by dance-masters who travelled the countryside. The populace developed the steps to their own more robust and vivacious taste, thereby giving rise to the traditional Irish set-dances which were performed outdoors in the summer and autumn, and in the dwellinghouse when the weather was more inclement.
In the days before television and commercialised entertainment, the most popular indoor pastime, apart from storytelling, was card-playing, to which many people were quite addicted. There was also a great taste for posing and solving riddles, for tongue-twisters, divination games, and of course for practical jokes. The indigenous festivals of the Irish calendar — such as St Brighid’s Feast (February 1), May Eve, the festival of Lughnasa (August), and Halloween, all had their own special forms of amusements and preserved vestiges of earlier rituals. Of the Christian festivals, most custom centred on Christmas, Easter, St John’s Night, and the Feast of St Martin.
The realm of folk-beliefs is well represented in Irish traditional culture, and provides a good illustration of how realistic knowledge, derived from observation and experience, combines with fanciful ideas which are born of curiosity and lively imagination. In Ireland, as elsewhere, popular lore testifies to the fusion of the practical and the poetic. The life experience, the passing of time, the home and the community, the different trades and skills, the natural environment, all have their own special beliefs attaching to them. Although these and some other aspects of traditional Irish folklore have lost much of their vigour in the contemporary world, they can still be met with. Many of the country’s modern writers and artists have made copious use of data from the folk culture, and Irish oral lore itself displays an impressive creative and aesthetic sense. A great deal of information can also be gleaned from Irish folklore concerning the social and cultural history of the country. The casual visitor, as well as the more serious investigator, may indeed by surprised at the strength with which old tradition has been preserved. Perhaps more than in any other European country, folk narratives, customs, and beliefs survive with striking immediacy and elaborate detail in Irish life, and this has led many researchers from abroad to come to this country for the opportunity to examine a living folklore at first hand.
The Claddagh Ring
The Claddagh Ring is a famous friendship ring originating from the Claddagh village. The Claddagh was once a fishing village located just outside the walls for Galway city where the Corrib River meets Galway Bay. Nowadays the city has expanded considerably, so the Claddagh is considered to be part of the city centre
The Claddagh design, an original symbol of the “Fisher Kings” of the Galway town of Claddagh, Ireland, was first fashioned into the traditional ring in the 17th Century during the reign of William III (1689-1702) and Mary II (1689-94).
The Hand Signifies Friendship,
The Crown Loyalty,
And the Heart Love
The ring’s distinctive design features two hands clasping a heart surmounted by a crown. The elements of this symbol are often said to correspond to the qualities of friendship (the hands), loyalty (the crown) and love (the heart) that are said to combine in a good marriage.
The way that a claddagh ring is worn on the hand is usually intended to convey some indication of the wearer’s romantic availability. It is generally true that if the ring is on the right hand with the heart facing towards the hand, indicates that the person wearing the ring is in a serious relationship (his/her heart is closed). A ring worn on the right hand, with the heart outward, away from the hand, the person wearing the ring is not in any serious relationship (the heart is open). A claddagh worn on the left hand with the heart toward the hand indicates marriage. The other orientation (heart outward) indicates nothing. Some local Irish folks say that when wearing the claddagh on the left hand, with the heart away from the hand means you’re married, but your heart is open.
There are many different stories that try to explain the origin of the ring.
One story is about Margareth Joyce, a woman of the Joyce clan. She married a Spanish merchant, called Domingo de Rona. She went with him to Spain, but he died and left her a lot of money, she returned to Ireland and in 1596, married Oliver Ogffrench, the mayor of Galway. with the money she inherited from her first marriage, she funded the construction of bridges of Connacht. All this out of charity, so one day an eagle dropped the Claddagh ring into her lap, as a reward.
Another story tells of a Prince who fell in love with a common maid. To convince her father his feelings were genuine and he had no intentions of “using” the girl, he designed a ring with hands representing friendship, a crown representing devotion, and a heart representing love. He proposed to the maid with this ring, and after the father heard the explaination of the symbolism of the ring, he gave his blessing.
A more historically correct story about the origin of the ring, tells about a man called Richard Joyce, another member of the Joyce-clan and a native of Galway. He left his town to work in the West-Indies, however his ship was captured by pirates and he was sold as a slave to a Moorish goldsmith. In Algiers, with his new master, he was trained in his craft. When William III became king, he demanded the release of all British from the Moors. As a result, Richard Joyce was set free. The goldsmith offered Joyce his daughter and half his wealth if Joyce stayed, but he returned home, where he started his own goldsmith shop. He brought with him the idea of the ring.
The Irish Famine of 1847-1849 caused many to emigrate from Ireland, and the Claddagh ring spread along with the emigrants to the United States and elsewhere. These rings are often considered heirlooms, and passed on from mother to daughter as well as between friends and lovers.
Although completely a part of ordinary life today and in fact truly unremarkable in Ireland in its ordinariness – it is also a strange symbol to have survived so long in Irish culture. Neither Republican nor Celtic (as the Irish like to think of ourselves), the Claddagh ring is curiously a ring of North African style, born out of the Atlantic slave trade, and designed in honour of the protestant British King William of Orange. Indeed, if it wasn’t for its romantic love story and friendship symbolism in popular culture we could never imagine such a symbol surviving in the Irish psyche.
Although at one stage a ring without the crown was in use – the “fenian” Claddagh – it has never caught on. And today’s Claddagh ring still properly wears its crown – whether that be for the honour of King William or more likely today as its symbol of loyalty.
However, perhaps it is all the more a fitting symbol for the Irish and the Irish diaspora, who despite over sentimental notions of a core Celtic heritage in the mists of half history, half storytelling, are actually inescapably at once gaelic Republican Irish, heirs to British colonial Ireland, and the descendents of the Celts, the Brits, the Spaniards, the Vikings, and on into the future as no doubt Asian and African.
In popular culture, the Claddagh Ring has appeared on Buffy the Vampire Slayer where the title character Buffy Summers is given the ring by her vampire lover Angel, a native of Ireland.