Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Introduction: New Perspectives on Irish Folklore

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

Introduction: New Perspectives on Irish Folklore

Article excerpt

According to folk beliefs, people say that the fairies are out on the night of Samhain: "Deireann na daoine go mbionn sidheogai amuigh oidhche Shamhna", in the words of an informant for the Schools' Collection (NFCS 249). And so is this special issue of Estudios Irlandeses entitled "New Perspectives on Irish Folklore"! Far less risky than venturing out on the festival night, but equally audacious, this volume explores the rich traditions of Irish folklore and the various ways it is being/has been reused, repurposed and reinvented. The contributions to this issue explore multiple aspects of folklore today: from the tribulations of the folklore collectors to the reimagining of folklore for the stage, and its reuse in literature and musical compositions.

Marina Warner asserts that "Every telling of a myth is a part of that myth: there is no Ur-version, no authentic prototype, no true account" (8). The same could be said of folklore, which is intertwined with mythology on many levels, for that matter. There are multiple variants of a tale type, many interpretations of a folk tune, and numerous versions of a rhyme, which all depend on the circumstances of the transmission, the informant, their locations, and so on. Folklore is a living, multi-faceted process that has as many shapes and forms as there are individuals who engage with it. It has therefore proved quite challenging to define. The Irish word for it, bealoideas, which literally means "oral instruction" (see O hOgain), embodies the orality which appears to be a common feature of the many attempted definitions. Sean O Suilleabhain explains it thus:

Folklore is a very comprehensive term to connote the complex of oral
traditions of all peoples. It embraces not only their popular beliefs
and customs, but also their traditional tales, legends, songs,
proverbs, prayers, charms and riddles--in fact, any type of oral
literature which has a more or less set form. It also includes local
social history or seanchas,... (Irish Folk 8)

He further stresses that it represents the "continuation and survival of a very ancient way of thinking" (8). From a socio-historical perspective, folklore is a chain of very diverse links from the past into the present. It is a chain of transmission that connects generations, through a set of beliefs known to a particular community, or a shared store of narratives, or a common musical tradition for example. The variety that is intrinsic to folklore is visible also in its uses and reuses as indicated by Diarmuid O Giollain:

'Folklore' is both subject matter and critical discourse, amateur
enthusiasm and academic discipline, residual agrarian culture and the
popular urban culture of the present; it is both conservative
anti-modernist and radical counter-culture; the sphere of dilettantish
provincial intellectuals and of committed nation-builders, transmitted
by word of mouth in intimate settings and negotiated electronically in
the public domain. (1)

Diarmuid O Giollain echoes Mairtin O Cadhain's view about folklore "being born before our eyes here in Dublin, in London, in New York" and adds that "new versions of old things are always appearing" (O Giollain 151). A good part of the research presented in this special issue rests on the concept of the "second life" of folklore, based on Lauri Honko's definition. The Finnish folklorist argued that the various forms that folklore takes are to be explained by its ability to spring back to life in different contexts. The "folklore process", beginning with the first life in which folklore is an "organic part" of a community, develops into its second life, which appears as a "recycling of material in an environment that differs from its original cultural context" after having been documented and preserved in archives (Honko 39; 48). O Giollain corroborates this idea:

The 'second life' of folklore is everywhere around us. It is in
vernacular references in architecture or interior design, in personal
adornment, in marketing strategies for goods (a folkloric reference
suggesting tradition, authenticity and naturalness), in staged
performances of song and dance, in the display cases of museums, in
the plots of cartoons, novels and films. … 
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