Friday, 17 March 2017

An Old Irish Miscellany: From Artistic Dress to Fairy Tales

Portrait of Lady Lavery as Kathleen Ni Houlihan, by
Sir John Lavery
Lady Wilde:  "The everything that is artistic-the fascinations of life, beauty of form, music, poetry, song, splendour, and noble pleasures.  Their kings in ancient times were elected for their personal beauty as much as for their chivalrous qualities. No man with a blemish or deformity was allowed to reign.  Then, their appreciation of intellect proved the value they set on the spiritual and ideal above the material and the brutal.  The poet ranked next to the princes of the land. His person was sacred in battle; he was endowed with an estate, so that his soul might be free from sordid cares; and his robe of many colours, and the golden circlet on his brow at the festivals, showed his claim and right to rank next to royalty, and to sit at the right hand of the king.  Poetry, learning, music oratory, heroism, and splendour of achievement-these were the true objects of homage and admiration amongst the ancient Irish.
There was nothing brutal in their ideal of life; no hideous images or revolting cruelties; and the beautiful and graceful Sidhe race, with their plaintive music and soft melancholy, and aspirations for a lost heaven, is the expression in a graceful and beautiful symbol of the instinctive tendencies of the Irish nature to all that is most divine in human intellect, and soft and tender in human emotion.

Ireland is a land of mists and mystic shadows; of cloud-wraiths on the purple mountains; of weird silences in the lonely hills, and fitful skies of deepest gloom alternating with gorgeous sunset splendours.  All the fantastic caprice of an ever-varying atmosphere stirs the imagination, and makes the Irish people strangely sensitive to spiritual influences.  They see visions and dream dreams, and are haunted at all times by an ever-present sense of the supernatural...They are made for worshippers, poets, artists, musicians, orators; to move the world by passion, not by logic. Scepticism will never take root in Ireland; infidelity is impossible to the people.  To believe fanatically, trust implicitly, hope infinitely, and perhaps to revenge implacably-these are the unchanging and ineradicable characteristics of Irish nature, of Celtic nature, we may say; for it has been the same throughout all history and all ages.  And it is these passionate qualities the make the Celt the great motive force of the world, ever striving against limitations towards some vision of ideal splendour; the restless centrifugal force of life, as opposed the centripetal, which is ever seeking a calm quiescent rest within its appointed sphere.
The very tendency to superstition, so marked in Irish nature, arises from an instinctive dislike to the narrow limitations of common sense.  It is characterized by a passionate yearning towards the vague, the mystic, the invisible, and the boundless infinite of the realms of imagination. ...the Irish love youth, beauty, splendour, lavish generosity, music and song, the feast and the dance. "

Riders of the Sidhe

The mid/late Victorian era was an extremely creative time in the artistic world.  There were many forms created and revived, from Medievalism to the Pre-Raphaelites, the Aesthetic Movement, etc...  One important movement in Ireland and Scotland that was related to the Arts & Crafts Movement was the Celtic Revival.  Suddenly artists and craftsmen were looking back to traditional, regional design and reviving and reworking them in a blaze of rich creativity, after so many years of the culture being repressed in every way.  From traditional crafts, to painting, literature, music, and theatre-this movement kept growing in the years that followed.

In 'The Oxford Book of Ireland', there is a delightful story recounted by Mary Colum in her book 'Life and the Dream', from 1928, of herself and her friends who adopted the theatrical artistic Irish dress, which went unappreciated by some of the locals...they just didn't understand these girls with their lovely noble tendencies!  I give them full credit for trying: 

"In decorating themselves in a traditional Irish manner, the female sex were not behindhand, especially the youthful members thereof.  It may be doubted, however, if the women's garment which really had been concocted from pictures was especially Irish:  it was probably simply the costume of the Medieval European lady with a few fancy Celtic fixtures attached.  A girl poet, friend of mine, Moirin Fox, never wore any other garb. She would appear in the Abbey in gorgeous purple and gold, a torc on her forehead, a Tara brooch fastening her brath, and various other accoutrements of the ancient Irish, including the inevitable amber.  The rest of us only occasionally appeared in Gaelic costume, which, of course, had to be Irish manufactured material.  For dressy wear I had a white garment with blue and green embroidery, a blue brath, copper brooches, and other archaeological adornments.  For more ordinary wear I had the Irish costume in blue green, a brath of the same colour with embroideries out of The Book Of Kells.  These, as I remember, were chiefly of snakes eating one another's tales.  With this went a blue stone necklace, a little silver harp fastening the brath, a silver Claddagh ring, and a silver snake bracelet which I'm afraid was early Victorian rather than early Celtic.  This getup was alright for the Abbey Theatre of Gaelic League dances, but once when myself and a friend, Siav Trench, in a similar getup and a more striking colour scheme, walked down a street where the fishwomen were selling their fish, we were openly derided.  The fishmongers called out, 'Will yez look at the Irishers trying to look like stained glass windows?  What is the country coming to at all, at all?  Them Irishers are going daft!'  We were not too sensitive to ridicule, but we did not again wear such garments in parts of the city where anything out of the ordinary was mocked at so vociferously." 

Illustration by Katherine Cameron, from 'Celtic Tales' by Louey Chisholm

Some centuries-old Irish verses, very lovely and expressing complete delight in nature:

The Hill of Howth
Delightful to be on the Hill of Howth, very sweet to be above its white sea; the perfect fertile hill, home of ships, the vine-grown pleasant warlike peak.
The peak where Finn and Fianna used to be, the peak where were drinking horns and cups, the peak where bold O'Duinn brought Grainne one day in stress of pursuit.
The peak bright-knolled beyond all hills, with its hill-top round and green and rugged; the hill full of swordsmen, full of wild garlic and trees, the many-coloured peak, full of beasts, wooded.
The peak that is loveliest throughout the land of Ireland, the bright peak above the sea of gulls, it is a hard step for me to leave it, lovely Hill of delightful Howth.      Irish 14th century

The Wayside Fountain
Cenn Escrach of the orchards, a dwelling for the meadow bees, there is a shining thicket in its midst, with a drinking-cup of wooden laths.

The Blackbird's Song
The little bird has given a whistle from the tip of its bright yellow beak; the blackbird from the yellow-tufted bough sends forth its call over Loch Loigh.

The Hermit Blackbird
Ah, blackbird, it is well for you where your nest is in the bushes; a hermit that clangs no bell, sweet, soft, and peaceful is your call.

The Spring
Spring of Traigh Dha Bhan, lovely is your pure-topped cress; since your crop has become neglected your brook-lime is not allowed to grow.
Your trout out from your banks, your wild swine in your wilderness; the stags of your fine hunting crag, your dappled red-breasted fawns.
Your nuts on the crest of your trees, your fish in the waters of your stream; lovely is the colour of our springs of arum lily, green brook in the wooded hollow...

Sliabh gCua
Sliabh gCua, haunt of wolves, rugged and dark, the wind wails about its glens, wolves howl around its chasms' the fierce brown deer bells in autumn around it, the crane screams over its crags.

The Storm
Cold is the night in the Great Moor, the rain pours down, no trifle; a roar in which the clean wind rejoices howls over the sheltering wood.

Look before you to the north-east at the glorious sea, home of creatures, dwelling of seals; wanton and splendid, it has taken on flood-tide.

There is a great wealth and treasure of folk legends and fairy tales from Ireland.  W.B. Yeats and Lady Gregory laboured intensely at gathering material in this area and re-telling these imaginative tales; and so did Lady Francesca Speranza Wilde, Oscar Wilde's equally eccentric mother, of whom I relayed some of her observations of the Irish at the beginning of this blog.

In Irish fairy tales, the fairies were not pretty little creatures of a generally kindly disposition, they were tricky and easily offended, and having a darker and more sinister nature, and were not to be crossed.

'A Donegal Fairy' by Leticia Maclintock:
"Ay, it's a bad thing to displeasure the gentry, sure enough-they can be unfriendly if they're angered, an' they can be the very best o' gude neighbours if they're treated kindly.  My mother's sisterwas her lone in the house one day, wi' a big pot o' water boiling on the fire, and ane o' the wee folk fell down the chimney, and slipped wi' his leg in the hot water.  He let a terrible squeal out o' him, an; in a minute the house was full o' wee crathurs pulling him out o' the pot, an' carrying him across the floor.  "Did she scald you?" my aunt heard them saying to him.  "Na, na, it was mysel' scalded my ainsel', quoth the wee fellow. "A weel, a weel," says they, "If it was your ainsel' scalded yoursel', we'll say nothing, but if she has scalded you, we'd ha' made her pay."

'The Dance', Robin Flower, Poems and Translations, 1931:

On the white wall flickered the sputtering lamp
And lit the shadowy kitchen, the sanded floor,
The girls by the painted dresser, the dripping men
Late from the sea and huddled,
These on the settle, those by the table; the turf
Sent up faint smoke, and faint in the chimney a light
From the frost-fed stars trembled and died and trembled again in the smoke.
'Rise up now, Shane', said a voice, and another:
'Kate, stand out on the floor'; the girls to the men
Cried challenge on challenge; a lilt in the corner rose
And climbed and wavered and fell, and springing again
Called to the heavy feet of the men; the girls wild-eyed,
Their bare feet beating the measure, their loose hair flying,
Danced to the shuttle of lilted music weaving
Into a measure the light and the heavy foot.

One of my all-time favourite television series adapted from the humorous Somerville & Ross Irish R.M. books:


  1. Fascinating ,wonderful post!Looks too as if I have a bit of catching up on your posts. I had stopped checking I think after the Christmas one as I think it was quite awhile before you posted anything. So pleased I remembered your blog today. Hope things are well with you

    1. It's good to hear from you! Thank you! Yes I know, I've been so sporadic with the blog posts, though have been posting lots of books on fb, where I can generally get more of an obvious response. (please don't give up!). I will do one or two this very week. I'm all right, I hope all is well with you.