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13.06.23, Ó Súilleabháin, ed. and Caulfield, trans., Miraculous Plenty

13.06.23, Ó Súilleabháin, ed. and Caulfield, trans., Miraculous Plenty

Religious folklore has been collected from all over Christian Europe and further afield, and is also studied as an important part of belief-systems in non-Christian communities. In its Christian manifestation it has perhaps been too easily identified as a medieval 'survival', as a result particularly of Protestant hostility to 'superstition' and the tendency to identify non-Biblical faith with the recalcitrant remains of the Catholic past. Seán Ó Súilleabhán in his 1952 introduction to the wonderful collection now translated as Miraculous Plenty, calls attention to the genuinely medieval, and international, hagiographic material contained in these 'Tales of piety' as the original title, Scéalta Cráibhtheacha, may be more literally rendered. As Ó Súilleabháin points out, there are also elements which are hardly Christian, and may, as he suggests, represent the persistence of earlier beliefs, though it might make as much sense to regard them simply as alternatives to orthodox positions. Whether their religious content is minimal, as in the account of St Patrick's quest for the oldest creature in Ireland, the one who can relate the 'marvel of Friday the first of May'; or essential but disturbing, as in the story of the women who cuts off her little toe because of the importance of shedding blood on or before St Martin's day, they certainly illustrate the gap between orthodox religious teaching and the genius of folk narrative.

Professor Bo Almquist's introduction to this new translation makes a number of worthwhile points about the collection's special virtues: its logical arrangement, the perceptive brief commentaries on the stories reproduced, and its significant use of stories collected or told by women. Seán Ó Súilleabháin's own approach shows a degree of nostalgic pride in the rich inheritance of the Irish-speaking peasantry who preserved and passed on the tales, and while such an approach is no longer fashionable, I find it hard not to share in the warmth of his appreciation. The stories are strange and marvellous if not always edifying, and the tone of the various tellers can vary from the wonder-struck to the ironically detached. The art, as such, of the oral narrator is not the main focus of the collection, but it is very evident in many of the tales.

Ó Súilleabháin's work exemplifies the development of the discipline of folklore in Ireland. Two collections by Douglas Hyde, Religious songs of Connaught (1905-06) and Legends of Saints and Sinners (1915), had begun the work of collecting and publishing the tradition of oral piety. Hyde included in his prose collection, alongside oral narratives he had written down from the tellers, poems and other illustrative material from manuscript sources, including for example a vision of Hell from a manuscript, which he relishes for its Dantesque overtones and thus perhaps upholds the 'medieval' view of the folktales. Hyde's close cooperation with the literary revival and the language movement mean that his collection reinforces a bias towards Irish-language sources and literary or quasi-literary narrative which continued to mark Irish folklore for several decades. It also ensures that Saints and Sinners is a fascinating and readable book.

Hyde's work was succeeded in the following century by that of the many collectors (amateur and professional) of the Irish Folklore Commission. In Locating Irish Folklore (2000), Diarmuid Ó Giolláin has sketched the mindset of the twentieth-century collectors with affection and some critical distance, in particular questioning the emphasis on the Gaelic, the rural and the Catholic which marked the approach to folklore in the newly independent State. Recent monographs such as Gearóid Ó Crualaoich's The Book of the Cailleach (2003) and Anne O'Connor's The Blessed And the Damned: Sinful Women And Unbaptised Children in Irish Folklore (2005) have synthesised the scholarship of their predecessors and made connections with adjacent fields such as the myth of the Old Woman; they have also contributed to correcting certain biases, including a possible reluctance to dwell on female sexuality, or indeed on any sexual themes. Whatever their bias or limitations, however, the vast manuscript collection which the early collectors assembled, especially through the involvement of schoolchildren in the 1930s, remains an unrivalled source.

Seán Ó Súilleabháin was a presiding figure; a Gaeltacht native and a collector himself in the 1920s, he became the archivist of the Folklore Commission in 1935; he was influential in promoting international standards in Irish research, producing the essential guides, A handbook of Irish folklore (1942) and (with Reidar Christensen) The Types of the Irish Folk-tale (1963). Scéalta Cráibhtheacha was succeeded by other collections and monographs on folk customs; it reflects his knowledge and mastery, of the archive and of the skills, of classification and comparison, which make a theoretical discussion of folktale possible.

These stories definitely come out of Catholic tradition and in that sense they all exhibit a continuity with the medieval world and its ways of thinking. Some of their free treatment of sex may be ascribed to this continuuity; as when Jesus and the Virgin Mary play the roles Chaucer ascribed to Pluto and Proserpina in 'The Merchant's Tale', in relation to a blind man and his adulterous wife; or in the motif of the cherry-tree bending down to offer its fruit to the pregnant Virgin when her suspicious old husband refuses to do so. (Collected in an Irish-speaking area, this tale also appears among English-speakers as the 'Cherry-tree carol' that infuriated the Irish bishops when it was printed in the 1930s.) Medieval concerns with hierarchy surface: the primacy of the See of Armagh is the subject of another legend of St Patrick. There are haunting tales of impossible penances, recalling the Tannhauser story, but also early Irish geis obligations; a man can only release his parents from Hell (interestingly, not Purgatory) by going 'seven years without shaving and not sleep[ing] two nights in the same house and... when he would go to sleep it would have to be on a handful of straw between the two outside doors.'

But many of the stories as definitely bear traces of the post-Reformation trauma suffered by Irish Catholics and indeed reflect the establishment after 1660 of a permanent Protestant 'ascendancy.' The Protestant minister, the hard landlord, the soldiery, figure as the opponents of a defenceless Catholic people. St Colmcille sets out to Scotland from Derry; he may not look back, but is told of 'a black crowd (sic: sluagh in the Irish) in the sky' over the place, and prophesies 'O, Derry will fall to the black faith yet.' Just as Hyde had published the oral tale which relates the awful penance necessary to avoid an even more awful fate in store in eternity, foretold by a holy apparition in a garden, for those who smoke tobacco without saying the traditional prayer afterwards, Ó Súilleabháin includes the punishment of the publican who doesn't fill the pint glass properly to the top. These features reflect recognisable preoccupations of early modern Ireland, and there are others. Literacy is highly valued in these oral entertainments; studying for the priesthood for example is frequently mentioned.

Priests often feature as figures of supernatural power, though the power can be strongest in unexpected places, in a young or an unfrocked priest. A number of tales include the laziness or greed of priests as typical vices. Monasticism, which had a sort of underground existence during the period of proscription of Catholic institutions by the colonial power (although there were Irish monasteries on the continent which were in constant touch with the home country), figures in many tales, and when a sinner goes to Rome in search of absolution all the bells in 'the Pope's monastery' ring. Unreconciled and irreconcileable sinners who return as horrific ghosts include 'Petticoat Loose', who was not a whore, but, in the Connemara tale given here, a hired murderer (referred to in the masculine; in the tales used by Anne O'Connor it is a woman, often one who has killed children), and who is banished by a priest using holy water, a circle and the sign of the Cross.

Some of the usual folktale patterns are inflected or altered by this religious outlook. For example death can often appear as a happy ending, especially if there are supernatural signs that the person is in Paradise, although some endings fit into the conventional fashion, with marriage and prosperity. The conversion of Protestants or Jews concludes a number of stories, and like the forgiveness of sins can be seen as affirming the harmony of the unanimous community, although in one such conclusion there is a realistic sense of what conversion might mean for the individual, expulsion from his own tribe: 'If I stayed here and became a Catholic, everyone in the place would be saying 'There's a turncoat!'... I'll go away to a foreign island, somewhere nobody ever saw me before, and I'll become a Catholic...'

The translation by William Caulfield is fluent and attractive. It is, he notes, into English as he heard it spoken in his grandmother's house in southeast Mayo, 'a place where Irish and English have sat side by side.' One cannot quarrel with this choice, which means that the sense of oral narration is preserved, although the variety of dialects found in the original is the source of some of its pleasures. A certain level of annotation of the translation process would have been worthwhile; I assume that the publishers did not want to overload, or to distract from the important comments made by Seán Ó Súilleabháin himself on the tales and their international analogues (there are three rewarding indices as well). For example, the word 'turncoat' in the passage quoted above, like the name 'Petticoat Loose' in the ghost story referred to earlier, appears in English. The literal meaning of the phrase rendered as 'become a Catholic' is 'convert to Gaelic.' The reader without Irish will not be aware of these details and the serious scholar of the tales will have to read them in the original. But anyone without Irish, and with an interest in the naïve, complex, learned, ignorant and fascinating world of folklore will find much enjoyment and a wealth of examples and information in this new publication.