Session 86: Ystafell 2
Irish folklore and storytelling

Chair: Henar Velasco-López

'Ná cain a thuilleadh mé': Peig’s Mermaid

Gregory R. Darwin
Harvard University

The migratory legend known in Ireland as 'The Mermaid Legend' (ML 4080) recounts how a human man captures an aquatic female being (mermaid, selkie, etc) by stealing her magical garment or skin. She remains with him on land, often marrying and having children with him, until one day she recovers her skin and returns home to the sea. This story has been collected throughout Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, the Faeroe Islands, and continental Scandinavia from as early as the end of the eighteenth century, and continues to be told up until the present day. As part of my doctoral research, I have compiled a catalogue of over 400 individual versions of the story taken from oral tradition, the vast majority of which were collected in Ireland.

The first half of my presentation will give an overview of the distribution of the story, and its patterns of regional variation, with particular attention paid to forms from West Kerry, where this legend is particularly richly-attested. In the second half, I will focus on one well-documented folklore informant, Peig Sayers of Dún Chaoin, Co. Kerry, from whom this legend was collected multiple times. Drawing on Joan N. Radner and Susan S. Lanser’s influential discussion of ‘coding’ in oral traditions, I suggest that Peig Sayers’ performances of this legend are a covert autobiography, and that she uses this traditional material to explore feelings of isolation, maladjustment, and loneliness stemming from her status, like the titular mermaid, as a foreigner who married into the Blasket community.

The parish priest, curate and friar; form and function in Irish folk narratives

Kelly Fitzgerald
An Coláiste Ollscoile, Baile Átha Cliath (UCD)

The role of the Roman Catholic Church has had a lasting impact on Irish society and this has been captured through vernacular traditions. Religious narratives as collected by the Irish Folklore Commission offer glimpses into society beyond the pious nature conveyed through the story. The image of the priest, curate or friar as found in Irish oral tradition is as ubiquitous as fellow generic characters such as 'widow', 'farmer's daughter', and ‘the king's son'. There are a number of functions in which male religious figures fill throughout a variety of plots and narratives. Their position as antagonist or protagonist is decided by their fellow characters. In a variety of folktales and legends every aspect of human emotion may be expressed whereby the priest is playing the central role. Are his choices and decisions vindicated and he is a parishioner's hero or does he realise his actions have left him to be damned? Folklore does not offer any simplistic answers but does offer a more nuanced and deeper understanding of the social world. This paper will examine a number of Irish narratives in relation to this material.

Gender, disability, and infanticide: changelings in Irish storytelling

Laoighseach Ní Choistealbha
Ollscoil na hÉireann, Gaillimh

Changelings have haunted the folklore of many of the Celtic languages, but to this day, despite admirable work by researchers such as Susan Schoon Eberly, much uncertainty reigns about the true nature of the changeling. What does it represent, and what does the changeling child, or indeed, changeling adult, say about the pre-capitalist notions of humankind? What did the changeling folk tales hope to teach their listeners?

It seems to be generally understood that the changeling infant represents an ailing child, a child suffering from a severe illness, or a disability. In this paper, these ideas will be further developed; could the changeling child represent a parent's 'othering' of their own offspring in order to committ infanticide, either by violent or neglectful means? Irish historiography itself has recorded many instances, usually in the 19th century, of the killing of infants by parents or carers, under the guise, or belief, that the child had been taken. Was this a genuine reason, or a mere excuse?

The paper will touch briefly on the much-studied life and death of Bridget Cleary, a young woman who was murdered by reason of her husband's belief that she was a fairy, and that by killing her, his real wife would return. Is this a credible defence, or was it an exploitation of Irish folk belief in order to murder his wife? Such questions may never be properly answered. In this paper, however, these issues will be examined and developed with examples from Irish folk tales, many of which attempted to teach a sociological lesson to their listeners.

An anthropological slant will also be applied to the study, which shall root the folktales within the study of liminality. Through the examination of these folk tales, and through the lens of the changeling-tale, this paper endeavours to uncover some more of the folk understandings surrounding women, children, and those with disabilities - those liminal beings upon whom many Celtic folktales focused.