Sacred Texts  Sagas and Legends  Celtic  Index  Previous  Next 


The preceding group of fairy tales are connected with the peninsula between the bays of Dingle and Tralee. The following tales were taken down west of the Killarney mountains, but between Dingle Bay and the Kenmare River, and relate to the southern half of Kerry.
In this mountainous region the Gaelic language is spoken generally by the older inhabitants, and in many places ancient ways of thinking are well preserved among people of fifty years and upward. Persons between thirty and fifty; though they know the old-time ideas, do not live in them altogether. As to people of the rising generation, their minds seem turned in another direction. They are not settled anywhere yet; some of them are seeking, others are drifting.
In general, the region is not one of rapid movement, and in many nooks and corners of it the past is well represented. The present tales touching fairies, ghosts, and various personages outside ordinary human life refer to actual beliefs. Some persons hold to these beliefs as firmly as possible; indeed, they are among the main articles of faith for a good number of the old people.
There are persons in the educated world who consider fairy tales as mere sources of amusement; there are others who look on them as too frivolous to be read by serious people. Both views are erroneous. Fairy tales contain the remnants of a religious system prior to Christianity. When these tales are collected and compared with each other and with that mass of Keltic literature extending from the twelfth to the present century, and which remains in manuscript in Dublin, London, Brussels, Rome, and elsewhere, we may expect to find a certain religious system, a certain philosophy of life and death, exhibited to us with a tolerable degree of distinctness.
In the fairy tales which I have collected so far, and in the conversation of the men who told them to me, I find a remarkable freedom of intercourse between the visible and the unseen worlds, between what we call the dead and the living--a certain intimate communion between what has been and what is. Unless in the case of old people, it can hardly be said that there is such a thing as death in the Keltic fairy philosophy. Children and young persons are removed; other bodies, apparently diseased or dying, are put in their places. The persons removed are taken to fairy mansions; if they eat they are lost to this life; if they refrain they have seven years in which return is possible.
This is only one item in the system of extra-human forces in Keltic belief. All that we find so far in Hero Tales or Fairy Tales in Ireland is in close connection with that pre-Christian religion which covered the earth and included all races of men, which, in its boundless variety, was essentially the same, whether we consider the Greeks and Hindoos or the Indians of North and South America. For this religion, raising the dead, travelling on the water, running through the air, are not exceptional or wonderful; they are of daily occurrence and common; they are not merely incidents in it, but part of its machinery. This old universal religion had many other ideas which acquired new associations after the Christian era and took on new names. It is most interesting to note how much of it survives yet, not only among the uninstructed but among the leaders of mankind.
I found two tales of St. Martin, which are given here. The first is curious as containing the man-eating ghost, which is common enough among the Slavs, but which I find now in Ireland for the first time.
The grey cows from the sea, in the second St. Martin story, seem of the same breed as Glas Gainach brought from Spain by Elin Gow and the Glas Gavlen stolen by Balor of Tory Island.
The sacredness of the plough chains is an interesting bit of agricultural lore in the story of John Reardon. The heated coulter of a plough is used in Ireland to force confession from a witch who prevents butter from appearing when milk is churned.
The ocular illusion by which one thing seems another, which causes Tom Connors to think that an old horse is his cow Cooby, is common among all peoples. I found some excellent illustrations of it in stories of the Modoc Indians of Oregon.

Next: St. Martin's Eve