Anglo-Irish Literary Renaissance

A parallel late nineteenth-century cultural movement – the Irish Literary Revival led by the poet William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) – also focused attention on the folklore of Ireland . John Millington Synge (1871-1909), in his book, The Aran Islands (1906), and in plays such as Riders to the Sea (1904) and The Playboy of the Western World (1907) captured much of the way of life, world view, narrative genres and poetic dialogue of the Aran Islands .

Lady Isabella Augusta Persse Gregory (1852-1932), mistress of Coole, a country estate in the barony of Kiltartan, Co. Galway , and a central figure of this renaissance, was drawn to folklore initially through the work of W.B. Yeats. In Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (1920), she recalled the sense of excitement and mission she felt when she read Yeats’s Celtic Twilight (1893):

“The Celtic Twilight” was the first book of Mr. Yeats’s that I read, and even before I met him, a little time later, I had begun looking for news of the invisible world; for his stories were of Sligo and I felt jealous for Galway . This beginning of knowledge was a great excitement to me, for though I had heard all my life some talk of fairies and the banshee (have indeed reason to believe in this last), I had never thought of giving heed to what I, in common with my class, looked on as fancy or superstition…[1]

Lady Gregory was the most important folklore collector among the English language literary revivalists, and what is probably her most important collection – Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland (2 vols., 1920) – contains personal narratives, beliefs and legends about people thought to have ‘power’ in traditional communities – seers and healers, wise women and herbalists, friars, priests and blacksmiths. Visions and Beliefs also contains beliefs and narratives concerning the world of the sea, about a fairy race thought to exist conterminous with the human race, about the dead, the banshee and other death-omens, and about ‘sacred’ places in the landscape.

[1] Lady Gregory, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, Gerrard’s Cross 1970, 15.

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