For centuries, Irish folktales were unknown to the outside world. During the Protestant Ascendancy, the ruling class had nothing but disdain for the stories of Irish farmers. Not only were the stories in the barbaric Irish tongue, but also they were all about fantastic heroes and fairies, which the English dismissed as a bunch of superstitious nonsense.
In the early nineteenth century folklore suddenly became fashionable. The brothers Grimm in Germany started collecting and studying folktales (which you can read in
How does someone collect folktales?
The key step is to find the people who know the most stories, especially older folks. Good folklorists collect stories in the original language and record the exact words used by the storyteller. They cover a wide geographical area and try to get several versions of the same story.
The First Collections
The first volume of Irish folktales was
At the end of the nineteenth century, Irish folklore studies became respectable. Oscar Wilde's parents, Sir William and Speranza Wilde, were important figures in this field and eccentric luminaries on the Anglo-Irish scene. The intellectuals of the Celtic Renaissance drew their inspiration from the Irish language and its folklore. Douglas Hyde's
Yeats's story collections advanced the study of Irish folklore, but poetry was his most powerful tool for spreading awareness. Irish mythology and folklore influenced his poetic works, most noticeably “The Wanderings of Oisin” and “The Rose.” Through his poems, Yeats was able to share his love of Ireland's mystical past with the world.
The Irish Folklore Commission
Even as Yeats and Lady Gregory collected tales in the cottages of Sligo and Connemara, they recognized that the storytelling tradition was dying out. They knew that if the Irish language died, a vast literary heritage would die with it. To prevent that from happening, in 1935 the Irish government created the Irish Folklore Commission. In the following decades, Irish-speaking collectors scoured the countryside to record stories of saints, heroes, and spirits. Currently, more than a million and a half pages of folklore reside in the commission's collection. Since 1971, the work of the commission has been carried on by the Folklore Department at University College Dublin.