“Best Irish Books” (letter to the Dublin Daily Express, 27 Feb. 1895; rep. in Allan Wade, ed., Letters of W. B. Yeats, 1954, pp.246-51.)

Sir:
During our recent controversy with Professor Dowden certain of my neighbours here in the West of Ireland asked me what Irish books they should read. As I have no doubt others elsewhere have asked a like question, I send you a list of thirty books, hoping Mr. O’Grady, Mr. Rolleston, Mr. Ashe King, or some other Irish literary man will fill up the gaps. I have excluded every book in which there is strong political feeling. that I may displease no man needlessly, and included only books of imagination or books that seem to me necessary to the understanding of the imagination of Ireland, that may please myself and the general reader. By this means I may have got nearer to what the next century will care for than had I enumerated substantial volumes 'that no gentleman’s library should be without.’ For it is possible that people, both in and out of Ireland, will be singing

’Tis my grief that Patrick Loughlin is not Earl of Irrul still,
And that Brian Duff no longer rules as lord upon the hill;
And that Colonel Hugh O’Grady should be lying cold and low,
And I sailing, sailing swiftly from the county of Mayo.’ [See note, infra.]

- when the excellent books of criticism, scholarship and history that we teach in our schools and colleges, and celebrate in our daily papers, shall have gone to Fiddler’s green. For the best argumentative and learned book is like a mechanical invention and when it ceases to contain the newest improvements becomes, like most things, not worth - an old song. Here then is my list, and I will promise you that there is no book in it 'that raves of Brian Boru’ as much as Burns did of Bruce and Wallace, or has an’intellectual brogue’ more 'accentuated’ than the Scottish characteristics in Scott and Stevenson.

NOVELS & ROMANCES: 1. Castle Rackrent by Miss Edgeworth; 2. 'Father Tom and the Pope’ by Sir Samuel Ferguson (in Tales from Blackwood). 3. Fardorougha the Miser by William Carleton (out of print.) 4. The Black Prophet by William Carleton (out of print.) 5. Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry by William Carleton; 6. The Nolans by John Banim (out of print). 7. John Doe by John Banim (bound up with Crohore.) 8. The Collegians by Gerald Griffin; 9. 'Barney O’Rierdan’ by Samuel Lover (in Legends and Stories of the Irish Peasantry.) 10. Essex in Ireland by Miss Lawless; 11. Charles O’Malley by Charles Lever; 12. The Bog of Stars by Standish O’Grady (New Irish Library). 13. Ballads in Prose by Miss Hopper.

FOLK LORE & BARDIC TALES
: 14. History of Ireland - Heroic Period by Standish O’Grady (out of print.) 15. The Coming of Cuchullin by Standish O’Grady; 16. Fin and his Companions by Standish O’Grady. I7. Old Celtic Romance by P. W. Joyce; 18. Silva Gadelica by Standish Hayes O’Grady. 19. Beside the Fire by Douglas Hyde; 20. 'Teig O’Kane’ by Douglas Hyde (in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.) 21. History of Early Gaelic Literature by Douglas Hyde (New Irish Library.) 22. Mythologie Irlandaise by D’Arbois Joubanville.

HISTORY
: 23. The Story of Ireland by Standish O’Grady; 14. Red Hugh’s Captivity by O’Grady (out of print.) 15. A Short History of Ireland by P. W. Joyce.

POETRY
: 26. Irish Poems by William Allingham. 27. 'Conary’ by Sir Samuel Ferguson (in Poems.) [Wade, p.247]; 28. Lays of the Western Gael, by Sir Samuel Ferguson; 29. Love Songs of Connacht by Douglas Hyde (second edition in the press.) 30. Ballads and Lyrics by Mrs. Hinkson.

The Nolans and Fardarougha the Miser and The Bog of Stars are probably the most memorable among the tragic, Castle Rackrent among the half tragic half humorous, and the Traits and Stories, Charles O’Malley, 'Father Tom and the Pope,’and 'Barney O’Reirdan’ among the humorous tales. I do not think modern fiction has any more strange, passionate and melancholy creation than the old miser Fardorougha, or anything more haunting than the description of the household of the spendthrift squireen in the opening chapters of The Nolan, or the account a little further on of the 'spoiled priest’ taking the door from its hinges to lay upon it the body of his mistress, and of the old men bringing him their charity. These books can only have been prevented from taking their place as great literature because the literary tradition of Ireland was, when Carleton and Banim wrote, so undeveloped that a novelist, no matter how great his genius, found no fit convention ready to his hands, and no exacting public to forbid him to commingle noisy melodrama with his revelations. England can afford to forget these books, but we cannot, for with all their imperfections they contain the most memorable records yet made of Irish habits and passions. Charles O’Malley, “Father Tom and the Pope”, “Barney O’Reirdan” and the Traits and Stories are also in a sense true records, but need no recommendation, for the public has always given a gracious welcome to every book which amuses it and does not bid it take Ireland seriously, while Castle Rackrent, which it has begun to forget, is still, and will be for generations to come, a classic among the wise. I have included, though with much doubt, Essex in Ireland, because, despite - its lack of intensity, it helps one, when read together with the passionate and dramatic Bog of Stars, to imagine Elizabethan Ireland, and certainly does contain one memorable scene in which the multitudes, slain in the Irish war rise up complaining; and I have regretfully excluded Miss Barlow’s Irish Idylls because, despite her genius for recording the externals of Irish peasant life, I do not feel that she has got deep into the heart of things. I, indeed, feel always that both Miss Lawless and Miss Barlow differ as yet from the greater Irish novelists in being only able to observe Irish character from without and not to create it from within. They have, perhaps, bowed to the fallacy of our time, which says that the fountain of art is observation, whereas it is almost wholly experience. The creations of a great writer are little more than the moods and passions of his own heart, given surnames and Christian names, and sent to walk the earth. Ballads in Prose is, on the other hand, an absolute creation, an enchanting tender little book full of style and wild melancholy. It contains also many simple and artful verses about gods and fairies, which will probably outlive estimable histories and copious criticisms that the proud may be humbled.

The most memorable books in the section Folk Lore and Bardic Tales are Mr. O’Grady’s History of Ireland: Heroic Period, and his Coming of Cuchullin, and his Fin and his Companions. But as he, like the men who cast into their present shape the Icelandic Sagas, retells the old tales in his own way, he should be read together with The History of Early Gaelic Literature, and if possible with the Silva Gadelica. However, it will not be to these indispensable and learned books that the imagination will return again and again, but to his description in The Coming of Cuchullin of Cuchullin hunting the ironhorned enchanted deer in his battle fury, or to that chapter in the History where he stands dying against the pillar stone, the others drinking his blood at his feet; or to the account, in Fin and his Companions of the seven old men receiving Fin upon the mountain top and putting the seven pieces of the lark upon his platter, and saying one to another, when he weeps because of their poverty, 'The young have sorrows that the old know nothing of.’ Lady Wilde’s Ancient Legends is the most imaginative collection of Irish folk-lore, but should be read with Dr. Hyde’s more accurate and scholarly Beside the Fire. Lady Wilde tells her stories in the ordinary language of literature, but Dr. Hyde, with a truer instinct, is so careful to catch the manner of the peasant story-tellers that, on the rare occasions when he fails to take down the exact words, he writes out the story in Gaelic, and then translates it into English. If the reader have a special liking for folk-lore, he can pass on to Mr. Larminie’s copious collection or to Mr. Curtin’s two books, or to the various books and articles of the late Patrick Kennedy. I have added one book of a foreign writer, Mythologie Irlandaise, for it is scarcely possible to understand Irish bardic and folk-lore at all without its vivid and precise account of the ancient Pagan mythology of Ireland and of the descent of the mischievous fairies and spirits from the ancient gods of darkness and decay, and of the descent of the beautiful and kindly people of the raths and thorn trees from the gods of light and life.

Mr. O’Grady’s Story of Ireland and his Red Hugh are the only purely artistic and unforensic Irish histories we have, but as they are limited, like every work of art, by the temperament of their writer, and show all events in a kind of blazing torchlight, they should be read with Dr. Joyce’s careful and impartial and colourless volumes.

A reader new to Irish poetry had best begin with Allingham’s Irish Poems and Dr. Hyde’s Songs of Connacht for in them is the blossom of all that is most winning in Irish character; and pass on to the epic measures of 'Conary’ and The Lays of the Western Gael; nor should he neglect Ballads and Legends, for Mrs. Hinkson has given a distinguished expression to much that is most characteristic in Irish Catholicism. The greater portion of Irish poetry is, however, made up of stray ballads and lyrics by Mangan, Davis, Doheny, Casey, Walsh, Reynolds, Moore, Fox, and others among the dead, and by Mr. Aubrey De Vere, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Rolleston, Dr. Todhunter, and “Æ” [Russell], among the living; and of these there is no excellent anthology. Unless the reader will accept a forthcoming anthology of my own, he must in most cases search for the best Irish verse through old ballad books, and be content to find one or two good poems to a volume. There are, however, a few books other than ballad books, such as Mangan’s Poems (the little threepenny edition), De Vere’s Innisfail, and “Æ’s” Songs by the Way - this is a very notable book, but not specially Irish in subject - and two ballad books, Sir Gavan Duffy’s National Poetry and Mrs. Hinkson’s Irish Love Songs, which do not lose the needle in the haystack. The Irish Song Book (New Irish Library) also contains some good verses, but, as it was compiled more for the music than for the verse, it excludes much of the best and includes much which, though very singable, has little of the rapture and precision of good poetry.

Many of the best books in my list can only be got at the secondhand book shops, while in some cases poorer books by the same writers are constantly reprinted. The truth is that chance has hitherto decided the success or failure of Irish books; for one half Ireland has received everything Irish with undiscriminating praise, and the other half with undiscriminating indifference. We have founded the National Literary Society and the Irish Literary Society, London, to check the one and the other vice and to find an audience for whatever is excellent in the new or the old literature of Ireland. Political passion has made literary opinion in Ireland artificial and, despite one of your correspondents, we are not to blame if our remedy seem artificial also. Our justification is the steadily increasing sale of Irish books and the steadily increasing intelligence of Irish criticism. Yours truly, W B YEATS. [End.]

[Vide Wade’s ftn.: 'From “The County of Mayo”, a translation from the Irish of Thomas Lavelle by George Fox (1809 - after 1848.) Yeats included this poem in A Book of Irish Verse, 1895]

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