Diarmuid Ó Giolláin, Locating Irish Folklore: Tradition, Modernity, Identity (Cork UP 2000) - Extracts.

Locating Irish folklore is the task of situating folklore within Ireland’s history, geography and research traditions. Of necessity the perspective is comparative. The concept of folklore developed partly as a ‘nationalist’ reaction to a metropolitan culture with universal pretensions. Intellectually the notion is traced in this book through the history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European ideas and contextualized by looking at other countries in addition to Ireland. The same ideas varied in their ideological potency. In England or France, ‘folklore’ was primarily a regional interest, meriting scant mention in national histories, whereas in Germany, Finland or Ireland, it was a key element of modern history and national identity. Metropolitan countries had old, long-established and legitimated high cultures. Peripheral countries (we use ‘metropolitan’ and ‘peripheral’ in terms of a power relationship) aspired to their own high cultures, which could not come from the cities, where a metropolitan one was already firmly established. Romanticism greeted the industrial world with horror, seeing the destruction of agrarian culture and the creation of an exploited, alienated and degraded urban proletariat, and at the same time valorizing cultural difference. The idealization of the countryside and its inhabitants then opposed both metropolitan culture and industrialization, limiting the concept of folklore to the countryside, and viewing it as the basis for a national culture.(p.5.)


Those who interested themselves in folklore in Ireland in the past represented traditions which either opposed the political status quo or accepted it. Thus there have been in the most general terms two orientations, the former nationalist by implication, the latter unionist, even if its focus was regionalist. To some extent this has influenced the subsequent institutionalisation of research, with the one focusing more on folklore and {5} the other on folklife. The focus of this book is primarly on the former. Anthropologists have long worked parellel to folklorists in Ireland and have left a number of invaluable monographs on Irish rural communities, mostly in the West. Their projects were not informed by the dominant concerns of Irish intellectual life and were not part of a national discourse as that of the folklorists undoubtedly was. Hence they are somewhat marginal to the focus of this book. (pp.5-6.)

[On W. R. Wilde]: In a ‘discursive’ introduction, written in 1849, and ‘to be skipped by those who feel no present interest in Ireland’, he argued that the recent ‘great convulsion’ - ‘the failure of the potato crop, pestilence, famine, and a most unparalleled extent of emigration, together with bankrupt land pauperizing poor-laws, grinding officials, and decimating workhouses’ had ‘broken up the very foundations of social intercourse ...’, and that ‘The old forms and customs ... are becoming obliterated, the festivals are unobserved; and the rustic festivities neglected or forgotten ...’ (pp.9-11.)

Further: ‘In this state of things, with depopulation the most terrific which any country ever experienced, on the one hand, and the spread of education, and the introduction of railroads, colleges, industrial and other educational schools, on the other, - together with the rapid decay of our Irish vernacular, in which most of our legends, romantic tales, ballads, and bardic annals, the vestiges of Pagan rites, and the relics of fairy charms were preserved, - can superstition, or if superstitious belief, can superstitious practices continue to exist?’ (pp.14-15; here p.17.)

Ernest Renan’s essay, “la Poésie des race celtiques” – published in 1854 – was a key influence for the Romanticisation of the Celts and directly, as well as by extension, the Gaels. It expressed notions that later became familiar in the influential writings of W. B. Yeats, Robin Flower and Séamus Ó Duilearga on Irish folklore. Renan wrote of ‘an ancient race living, until our days and almost under our eyes, its own life in some obscure {25} islands and peninsulas in the West’ This race had been increasingly subject to external influences, but was ‘still faithful to its own tongue, to its own memories, to its own customs, and to its own genius’ This ‘little people, now concentrated on the very confines of the world, in the midst of rocks and mountains whence its enemies have been powerless to force it’ possesses a literature which in the Middle Ages ‘changed the current of European civilisation, and imposed its poetical motives on nearly the whole of Christendom’ The Gaels had their ‘own original manner of feeling and thinking’ Nowhere ‘has the eternal illusion clad itself in more seductive hues’ and ‘no race equals this for penetrative notes that go to the very heart’ But it is ‘doomed to disappear, this emerald set in the Western seas’.

Arthur will return no more from his isle of faery, and St. Patrick was right when he said to Ossian, ‘The heroes that thou weepest are dead; can they be born again?’ it is high time to note, before they shall have passed away, the divine tones thus expiring on the horizon before the growing tumult of uniform civilisation. (The Poetry of the Celtic Races, and Other Studies, London: Walter Scott [1896], p.2-3. See also Patrick Sims-Williams, ‘The Medieval World of Robin Flower’, in Mícheál de Mórdha, ed., Bláithín: Flower – Ceiliúradh an Bhlascaoid, 1, Dingle: An Sagart 1998, pp.75-79.)

The surviving Celts are distinguished by ‘the purity of their blood and the inviolability of their national character’; ‘[n]ever has a human family lived more apart from the world, and been purer from all alien admixture’ The Celtic race ‘has worn itself out in resistance to its time, and in the defence of desperate causes’ Indeed, the Celtic peoples are not ‘by themselves susceptible to progress’ (Renan, ibid., pp.4, 5-6; here pp.25-26.)


Arnold, in On the Study of Celtic Literature (186 7), similarly saw a Celtic failing in ‘the outward and visible world of material life’:

... his want of sanity and steadfastness has kept the Celt back from the highest success. If his rebellion against fact has thus lamed the Celt in spiritual work, how much more must it have lamed him in the world of business and politics! The skilful and resolute appliance of means to ends which is needed both to make progress in material civilisation, and also to form powerful states, is just what the Celt has least turn for. (Study of Celtic Literature, London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1867, pp.14.)

The Celt’s nature, ‘undisciplinable, anarchical, and turbulent’, and at the same time susceptible to demagoguery, is bad for politics in contrast to the Anglo-Saxon’s, ‘disciplinable and steadily obedient within certain limits, but retaining an inalienable part of freedom and self-dependence’ (Ibid., 105, 109.) Renan and Matthew Arnold helped to develop some of the characteristic traits of the Celt: sensitive, spiritual, feminine, imaginative, poetic, passionate, impractical. They were as a result instrumental in establishing a long-lasting opposition between the Celt and the Anglo-Saxon, characterized as restrained, predictable, rational, materialistic and impassive. (See Michael Chapman, The Celts: The Invention of a Myth, NY: St. Martin’s Press 1992, pp.214-17.)


The Anglo-Irish Romantics portrayed their Irish characters as living ‘in remote glens, on islands in lakes, on the shore or even off-shore, in crumbling ruins that are leftovers from the past, almost as if they do not really belong to the same time-scale as the other characters’, in a procedure that Joep Leerssen calls auto-exoticism. It established the subsequent convention which represents Ireland ‘primarily in terms of an anomaly, a riddle, a quesdon, a mystery’

To put it crudely: Ireland, if it cannot be a nation in its own right is reduced to a province, is increasingly described in the discourse of marginality and in terms of its being different or picturesque. The implied audience for Irish literature is English rather than Irish, and the choice of an Irish setting shifts increasingly to the wilder, more peripheral and distant parts of the country. Paradoxically, the most peripheral areas of Ireland are canonized as the most representative and characteristic ones. (Remembrance and Imagination, pp.37-38.)

There was a temporal as much as a spatial distancing in the representation of Gaelic Ireland. Antiquarians had characterized Gaelic culture by its pastness since ‘the most genuine and least adulturated form of Gaelic culture was that of the past, before the contamination of the English presence in Ireland’ So it was understood as ‘a survival of bygone ages, a living fossil of older times, existing only in those places where it had not yet been adulturated by the influence of contemporary European civilization ...’ (Ibid., 49.)


Different ideological tendencies opposed modernity, or certain aspects of it, because of its destructiveness. The Romantics stressed its negative ethical and aesthetic dimensions and the problem of alienation was treated by a variety of social theorists. Utopian socialism and anarchism reacted against industrialization and proletarianization. The anarchists ’favoured a decentralized and multifaceted social structure which made individual self-realization possible’ (Björn Hettne, Development Theory and the Three Worlds, [2nd Edn.] (London: Longmans, 1994, pp.164-65.) The Russian Slavophiles - inspired by Herder - saw the backwardness of Russia as advantaging it over the corrupt West and they opposed autocracy and the Orthodox religion to rationalism, science and democracy: demonstrating how modernity could be rejected for national reasons. The ideas that emerged from the Enlightenment issued from specific national contexts, in particular from the most powerful country in continental Europe at the time, and in that sense any claims made from the same quarter for their universal application could be dismissed as national chauvinism. Militant support for progress was the expression of a bourgeoisie in revolt against feudalism, absolutism and everything else which obstructed the full development of capitalism, but in countries such as Germany, which had not yet managed to constitute itself as a modern nation, and Russia and Spain, which like Germany lacked a democratic bourgeoisie and were economically backward compared to {30} France and England, the idea could have less resonance. 97 The specific national context is central to the subsequent development of the scholarly of folklore and ethnology, which were both national and popular. Folklore study was institutionalized above all in countries where Romanticism had the greatest influence, countries which had been marginalized in relation to the dominant political, economic and cultural powers of Europe and where any reiteration of the onward march of progress only served to underline their second-rate position. [pp.30-31; end Chap. 1.]

Chapter 2: Towards a Concept of Folklore
Before the seventeenth century, acts of council and synods of the church often condemned errores and consuetudines non laudabiles as pagan survivals. There are may Irish examples in the seventeenth century of the opposition of the churches to diverse aspects of popular religion, such as decrees which ‘required the priests to hide sheela-na-gigs, prohibit invoactions to the devil, prevent the gathering of “magical” herbs, and stop the preparation of virility potions.’ (Raymond Gillespie, ‘Popular and Unpopular Religion: A View from Early Modern Ireland’, in Irish Popular Culture, 1650-1850, ed. J. S. Donnelly & Kerby A. Miller, Dublin: IAP 1998, p.31.) Wake ‘abuses’ were condemned regularily at synods or by various statutes and regulations from the early seventeenth to the early {34} twentieth centuries.


Antiquarian interest came to see the ‘errors’ of the people in a new light, but it did not replace the corrective inventories of errors, which continued. The antiquarian and the historical approach came to be opposed. The former, as Leerssen outlines, saw the past ‘as a storehouse of facts and curiosities’ belonging to an undifferentiated ‘long ago but not forgotten’ It dealt with the artefacts of the past and tried to explain them, in the absence of reliable historical information from early medieval or pre-Christian times for the north of Europe, through the Bible and the work of ancient write4rs. In contrast, the historical approach saw the past as a succession of events and took note of the various changes. Antiquarianism was undermined by the growth of scientific knowledge and was gradually relegated to the amateur, who became a figure of fun, while new scientific disciplines such as archaeology, history and linguistics divided out the former fields of the antiquities. (Leerssen, Remembrance and Imagination, pp.68-69; here p.35.)

Quotes John Aubrey, ‘Monumenta Britannica or a Miscellanie of British Antiquities’ (1586):

Before Printing, Old-wives Tales were ingeniose, and since Printing came in fashion, till a little before the Civill-warres, the ordinary sort of People were not taught to reade. Now-a-dayes Bookes are common, and most of the poor people understand letters; and the many good Bookes, and variety of Tumes of Affaires, have putt all the old Fables out of doors: and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frightened away Robin-goodfellow and the Fayries. (Quoted in Richard Dorson, The British Folklorist, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1968, p.1-10 [sic]; here p.36.)

Quotes W. M. Thackeray:

He was going to Ireland. What to do? To see the grand misère. He went, and came back not in the least disappointed. He visited Scotland for its romantic recollections and beauty - England for the wonders of its wealth - Ireland for the wonders of its poverty. For poverty and misery have, it seems, their sublime, and that sublime is to be found in Ireland. What a flattering homage to England’s constitutional rule over a sister country.’ (The Irish Sketch Book, ed. Christopher Morash, Gill & Macmillan 1990, Introduction, p.xiii; here p.39.)

[Copied to Ricorso A-Z to date]

Chapter 3. Folklore and Nation-building
The question of nation building impinges both on folklore as subject matter and as scholarly discourse. The discussion here considers various aspects of the relationship between folklore and nation. It looks at folklorists as nation- builders, who ‘map’ the nation through the project of intensive folklore- collecting throughout its territory, and who use folklore as a national resource, whether for national history or for the construction of a national high culture. And it looks at folklorists as defenders of regional culture. The wish to use folklore as a national resource when the nation does not have its own state comes from a context in which the putative nation has none of the trappings of nationhood and is little more than a province of a metropolis. In that sense, those who make national claims for folklore belong to a group that rejects its own provincial status, on historic or on ethnic grounds, and argues for folklore as a proof of the historical depth of the nation in the absence of firm documentary evidence or of documented continuity with the past. Hence we see that questions of ethnicity and identity are raised. Indeed such debates are commonest in ethnically stratified societies where one group’s lowly status is the result of conquest at the hands of the group whose status is the highest. The former’s rejection of its status is based on its knowledge of or belief in an anterior situation, recorded by history or tradition, in which it occupied its rightful place. An appeal to a better past comes from the rejection of an ignominious present. There are, however, a number of variables involved, and it is necessary to consider these in order to appreciate the different national trajectories of folklore scholarship.

Among them are the ethnic composition of the country in question (e.g. Ireland with its colonial elite and largely native lower classes); the country’s political situation (e.g. Finland passing from Sweden to Russia in 1809); its relationship with a metropolis (e.g. that of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century German states with France); the existence of deep social and regional, and sometimes national, differences between different parts of the {63} state (e.g. the Italian North and South, the Brazilian South and North-East, Catalonia, the Basque Country and Galicia within the Spanish state, Ireland within the United Kingdom); the development of industrialization and urbanization (correlated with one or more of the other factors); and so forth. These variables determined crucially whether the popular could be reconfigured as the national and whether there was a social group or a fraction raction thereof in whose interests the identification could be made. From Herder to the present day, those who idealized indigenous cultural experience (through Scottish ‘Highlandism’, the Catalan Renaixenga, Finnish Karelianism, Russian narodnichevo, the Gaelic Revival, Latin American indigenismo, Francophone West-Indian and West-African négritude and a host of other such intellectual movements and tendencies) attempted to reject ill-fitting foreign models by discovering the raw material of high culture in that section of their own popu lation most removed from metropolitan culture and its local imitations. Of necessity, then, there was an unavoidably “provincial” aspect to all these movements.

Alienated Intellectuals
The model of intellectual alienation was the German bourgeoisie of the second half of the eighteenthth century, politically and socially excluded b y a French-speaking aristocracy (see Chapter 1). Their development of the notion of Kultur in opposition to “civilization” reflected this situation. Early nineteenth-century Anglo-Irish writers wrote their fiction not for their compatriots but for a metropolitan readership and tried to establish ‘its discreteness, its regionalism vis-d-Ws an exoteric readership by means of local colour’’ Thomas Davis and Young Ireland consciously opposed this; their project, in the words of Davis’s celebrated song, that ‘Ireland long a province be / A nation once again’ More recently Roberto Schwarz has written that ‘[w]e Brazilians and other Latin Americans constantly experience the artificial, inauthentic and imitative nature of our cultural life’ 2 In Latin America, ‘the traditional structure of culture - where side by side exist extensive illiteracy and the social but provincial refinement of the, cultivated elites - drives the latter not to modernity, but to a kind of inevitable alienation’ Socially distanced from the peasant and indigenous masses, writers and thinkers could not write for a local public but had to redirect themselves to a European audience, as did the Brazilian symbolists, who wrote dirtctly in French? The Brazilian modernists tried to redress this problem in the 1920s by actively engaging with national traditions, listening to ‘the profound voices of our race’, in parallel with a renewed scholarly dedication to folklore.

The eighteenth-century German intellectuals did not have a ‘social hinterland’ and were dispersed throughout the small capitals of the various {64} German states, unlike their French equivalents, united in the metropolis and ‘held together within a more or less unified and central "good society"…’ 5 The nineteenth- and early twentieth-century folklorists in England, France, post-unification Italy and other countries that did not have significant cultural nationalist movements tended to remain provincial intellectuals. It is significant that before the foundation of the Gaelic League in 1893, which ‘nationalized’ Ireland’s provincialism, Irish folklorists were by and large part of a wider United Kingdom interest, and the most famous two - Croker and Keightley - had metropolitan careers.

From Herder’s time folklore has been commonly understood as an authentic and uncorrupted national inheritance. Interest in it has been called ‘a particularist discourse about identity’ ‘Nationalistic inferiority complexes’ then have been understood as the reason for what Alan Dundes calls the ‘fabrication’ of folklore, giving Macpherson’s Ossian, Elias Lénnrot’s Kalevala and the work of the Grimm brothers as examples. Renato Ortiz argues that popular culture was a symbolic element that allowed intellectuals to express the peripheral situation of their country. In the case of regional elites who resented their marginalization as power became more and more centralized, ‘the revalorization of the regional’ was a means for them to maintain their cultural capital. Similarly, if regional intellectuals did not identify with the state or with the dominant culture of the state, if they had a memory of previous autonomy, a consciousness of a separate nationhood or the desire to create one, then their provincial status could be opposed. They could posit the regional as representing in fact national difference. Alienatgd by political or social change, they could then revalorize their cultural capital in national terms: folklore offered them the means to ‘de-provincialize’ themselves by giving them the basis for a national culture. Folklore then became a national resource and scholarly interest in it led to the establishment of a ‘national science’ It was in this way that folklore studies were usually institutionalized and found their place in the academy.

(Internal) Colonialism and Social Mobility
If elite culture could be construed as the national culture (or at least, art the eve of the construction of a modern society, was a national culture in waiting) and if state elites were also national elites (were hegemonic), then folklore had little national significance. The provinces are always peripheral and, despite carping at the capital’s concentration of power and resources, they may well accept the situation as the natural order of things. But the inequality of the relationship between the provinces and the capital may also be interpreted as having nothing inevitable about it. it may represent a historic wrong that is capable of being redressed. It may be the obvious result of conquest and colonization. Colonialism, after all, unlike provincialism,

[To be continued.]

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