The Wail of the Banshee: Vampire Ghosts, Man-Eating Ghosts, and Other Malevolent Spirits in Irish Fairy Tales
Maureen T. Krause
Whenever the ghost came near, James had a drive at her with the steel sword, for there is great virtue in steel made by an Irish blacksmith.
Jeremiah Curtin, 141
Irish fairy tales were popular at wakes, which is not surprising given the Irish affinity for the uncanny. Irish tales are in fact synonymous with the supernatural. As William Butler Yeats indicates, they "are the literature of a class . . . to whom everything is a symbol" (v-vi). This universal symbolization and the preeminence of the supernatural are due to Ireland's Celtic-Druidic past and unique Christianization that tolerated a degree of paganism, Druidism, and animism, according to which spirits dwelt in all things. The roaring of the sea augured a king's death or boded the advent of important news; the wind was a living being with dreaded power; and a shaking tree was the embodiment of the ghost of the person buried beneath it. Even today in Celtic areas, the Irish revere trees flourishing in cemeteries, just as the Celts venerated trees thriving by burial mounds and megalithic monuments. 1
Remarkably, with St. Patrick's arrival in 432 AD, Ireland's Christianization was not discord but concord between paganism and the new doctrines, since the saint did not attempt to dispel paganism entirely but to overlay it with Catholicism, allowing the Irish to retain certain pagan and Druidic creeds. Moreover, St. Patrick tolerated animism, which he himself perpetuated with his miracles ( Campbell462). He was in fact suspected of holding unorthodox Christian views, and his prayer "The Guardsman's Cry"--with its invocations of the powers of the sky, the sun, fire, and lightning--proves that he had not completely relinquished pagan beliefs ( Bonwick 2 80)). This likely accounts for St. Patrick's unusual method of introducing the Catholic faith to the Irish. Similarly some Irish monks continued to hold Druidic beliefs, as expressed in disguised form in their writings ( Bonwick69).
Druidism and Catholicism were actually rather similar, having combined as early