Dáithí Ó hÓgain, The Hero in Irish Folk History (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1985).

[Note: page-breaks in the original are give in { } brackets.]


Chap. 7: Conclusion (pp.306-20).
We have seen from the various legends discussed that the images given to heroic characters spring from a varied, and sometimes quite complicated, range of cultural developments. A particular personage may be portrayed in a particular way because he or she was perceived to accord with a pre-existing image in the culture. Or an image may have been deliberately attached to a person’s name for political or social purposes current at the time. Or the portrayal may have resulted from some confusion of narrative elements by the storytellers, who were naturally attracted to striking imagery and who strove to combine motifs in such a way as to create a consistent story pattern.

We can refer to these three processes, respectively, as the mechanisms of tradition, of situation, and of aesthetics; and all three frequently interacted. The kind of ‘history’ which emerges from the overall process is not, of course, chronological, though the imagistic clusters - allied to. the continued influence of written sources - do give a distinctive dramatic context to each series of events and personalities. The view of the past as entertaining narrative was not necessarily exclusive of real historical data in the popular mind, and the degree of actual belief extended to what was related as story would have varied from one individual to another - depending on people’s own attitudes to the inter-relationship of the fanciful and the real.

Nevertheless, the lore concerning famous historical characters, taken typologically and functionally, can provide insights into the nature of Irish culture. The heroic figures, and the characteristics assigned to them, must have corresponded to a worldview shared by the bulk of the community in order to {306} secure popularity for the lore. The figures, as they acted out their legendary roles, were enlivened by the imagination of real people struggling to find a logical pattern in the great sweep of human relations. Significantly, and even in defeat, the hero is always at the profoundest level in control of the forces surrounding him. In a real sense, therefore, this lore can be seen to represent aspects of the social psychology of traditional Ireland. But one should be careful not to take the material too much at face value as regards Irish tradition in particular.

The legends have so many similarities to those found in other countries that, in order to gain insights into the distinctively Irish situation, we must isolate the types of lore which are selected and given special emphasis. Outlaws, for instance, are invested with heroic stature in many cultures, but the figure of the heroic outlaw is stressed with unusual strength in Irish tradition due to the objective conditions of the country’s history. Real circumstances are always in the background to folk legend and assert themselves in the emotional colouring which is stamped on the narrative. People do not make heroes of characters unless they feel some empathy with these characters, nor do they enjoy telling stories which involve definite social forces unless these stories embody some of their own desires and hopes.

This brings us on to another question regarding legendary history. Reflecting, as it does, aspects of the people’s experiences and of their aspirations, does it in turn have an influence on people’s behaviour? If so, the perceived and portrayed past could actually effect ongoing history, and the folk narratives could shed light on otherwise unknown forces at work beneath the surface of political philosophy and of technical leadership. As in human culture generally, material forces have giv~fn rise to the conflicts and developments which are part of Irish history. But more subjective forces tend to be at work also, helping to form attitudes and to give confidence and encouragement to the populace, whose participation makes events what they are.

Historians would dearly wish to have the opportunity of interviewing participants in the great events of the past in {307} order to discover why they were willing to take risks - often grave personal risks - in ventures which realistically did not hold out much prospects of success. Irish history includes many examples of such situations. Most of the rebellions against English rule, from an objective point of view, were quite hopeless given the prevailing balance of forces. Yet substantial popular support was forthcoming. It would be of interest, for example, to know exactly what was passing through the minds of the

crowds of rebels, who were in the most disorderly state ... their arms consisted chiefly of pikes of an enormous length, the handles of many being sixteen or eighteen feet long. Some carried rusty muskets. They were accompanied by a number of women shouting and huzzaing and crying ‘who now dare say Croppies lie down?’ (Thomas Pakenham, The Year of Liberty, London 1972, p.205.)

Doubtlessly, the attitudes were conditioned by provocation and fear, by the exigencies of the situation, and by immediate social grievances. Nor does this exclude a more intellectual approach to political realities. The available evidence suggests that the Irish people in general had a reasonably good acquaintance with the international political scene. Indeed, at the end of the eighteenth century, the clergy failed in their strenuous efforts to blot out widespread approval of the French Revolution and the hope for help from the new government of Paris.

But, even in this, there was something older at work in the popular consciousuess - the expected help from abroad, a messianic idea which had been in vogue for hundreds of years. This is the more elusive phenomenon of inherited culture and traditional feeling.

One does well to view history in its cultural atmosphere as well as in its known physical dimensions. This is especially important in the case of Ireland, where the great continuity in tradition tends to present events of far-away times with striking immediacy. One reason for this is the cyclical nature of Irish history itself. The uniformity of the conflicting forces, of oppression and resistance in Ireland for hundreds of years is startling, even so far as the vocabulary used as terms of reference. There is no doubt but that the folk memory, witlh, its highly developed narrative art, bore much of the burden {308} for the native culture, deprived as the latter was of any public institutions of its own. This may also help to explain the unusual resilience of Irish revolutionary politics. Although Daniel O’Connell embraced reformism, it is clear from several of his public speeches that he appreciated the more dramatic meanings which his audience saw in events. And this accords well with the general aesthetic sense of folk narrative, which emphasises the contrast between contending forces and everywhere tends to take the side of the underdog. It follows that, when intellectual and political nationalists put their philosophy before the people, popular culture saw no reason to reject the validity of what was being said. For the same old conflict was being redefined, and ‘the bright quick appeal’ of victory over oppression was being restated.

Apart from historical research, heroic folk legend has some points of contact also with the study of literature in both the Irish and English languages. Examples have been cited throughout this book of how writers have borrowed and reshaped stories to suit their literary, and sometimes not so literary, purposes. Conversely, in absorbing written material, folklore selects and formularises it after its own manner. As a general rule, literary treatment inclines towards interpretation and abstraction, whereas oral narrative is more personal and direct. The fact that the Irish language has a written tradition stretching back for almost 1,500 years means that the co-existing oral and literary streams have interacted in ways which provide a fertile field for research. One point needs to be stressed, however, and that is that in common with most other literary traditions the Irish one has tended to devalue its oral cousin. The assumption of literary superiority was based on the principle of scholarly correctness. As if to symbolise this, Geoffrey Keating claims in his seventeenth-century History that the professors of learning in ancient Ireland sifted through the available sources and compiled an authoritative volume of historical knowledge. Quoting the process with approval, Keating remarks that ‘every other type of lore which was current in Ireland which did not accord with that chief book was not regarded as truthful’. (Foras Feasa ar Eirinn, ed., Dinneen, 1908, p.250.) Similar attitudes are commonly expressed in the work of other writers {309} in the Irish language down to the nineteenth century, and one might gaterh frm this that the folk corpus of legendary history was entirely different from that prized by the learned school.

Account must be taken of the similarity in emotional reaction to events, however, as well as of borrowing between the two streams. For one thing, the folk concept of the heroic image was largely conditioned by the portrayal of the heroes of literature. And these latter were fine prototypes. Cúchulainn, for instance, was described by a mediaeval writer as having but three faults - he was ‘too young, too courageous, too beautiful’. He had many great accomplishments - wisdom, acrobatics, chessplaying, swimming, riding, oratory, counselling, and brilliant calculation. He was poetic in his speech - an attribute with perennial importance in the case of Irish heroes - and of course unconquerable in combat. He died bravely in the face of insuperable odds, giving one great last laugh. And, as if the hero bequeaths his image to posterity, Cúchulainn is described as choosing a short but eventful existence.

Buaine bladh ná saeghal [fame is more enduring than life], he says. (A. G. Van Hamel, ed., Compert Con Cúchulainn, Dublin 1956, pp.21-22, 81, 110-12; Cormac Ó Cadhlaigh, An Rúraíocht, Dublin 1956, pp.55-131.)

The literary portrayal of Fionn Mac Cumhaill is almost as impressive. Poet, prophet, and prodigious warrior, he is generous to a fault:

A man whom nobody would allow into his house Fionn would admit and allow him to remain until death.

Or, again

If the brown leaves shed by the forest were gold, if the bright waves were silver, Fionn would have given them all away.

It is true that the literature, for dramatic purposes, forged Fionn’s character into a more complex whole, attributing a degree of vengefulness to him so that he becomes something of a flawed hero, but the basic spirit of the tales is better expressed in the motto of his martial band:

Truth in our hearts, {310}
Strength in our hands,
And consistency in our tongues.

(Fionn Mac Cumhaill: Irische Texte 4 (1900, 4, 211; Cormac Ó Cadhlaigh, An Fhiannuidheacht, Dublin 1947, pp.217-37.)

Culling from such sources as well as from Church ideals of the typical Christian leader, the poets of late mediaeval times made use of a stereotype list of heroic attributes when praising the chieftains who patronised them. This tradition of professional eulogy continued to flourish until the seventeenth century, and in it the lauded one is described as a nobleman of illustrious lineage who is firm in his dealings with the strong, but gentle in his treatment of the weak, a protector and promoter of sanctity and learning, a generous and reliable confidant, and a man of handsome features and impressive personality.

Many of these motifs figure prominently also in folk tradition, and the parallels stretch further along the weft of shared feeling. In times of war, the literary poets described their chieftain-patrons as champions battling in the cause of their people against the foe, whether domestic rivals or foreign conquerors. In the case of the latter especially, the chieftain-hero is portrayed as struggling against overwhelming odds, relying only on his bravery and skill in combat.

It is clear, therefore, that the literature influenced and reinforced the image of the folk hero. An important factor in all of this is the high level of literacy which was an integral part of the culture of Gaelic Ireland.? As late as the year 1868, and despite the stupendous setbacks which the native language had suffered for generations, an observer could report that:

There is not a town in the province of Munster that had not its teacher of Irish over twenty years ago.

The teaching of reading and of literary forms of the language is what he was referring to, rather than the spoken language which was still widely used at the time. He further states, regarding the literature circulating in manuscript form:

One individual borrows from his neighbour his Irish manuscript and makes a copy of it; or, if unable to write himself, procures one who can do so for him. They find {311} great pleasure and amusement in reading those manuscripts, especially on winter nights, on which occasion the neighbours of the surrounding districts flock together for the purpose of hearing them read.

Writing in 1857 the scholar Standish Hayes O’Grady gives another insight into how manuscripts influenced folk tradition. He says:

These were, for the most part, written by professional scribes and schoolmasters, and being lent to or bought by those who could read but had no leisure to write, used to be read aloud in farmers’ houses on occasions when numbers were collected at some employment, such as wool-carding in the evenings, but especially at wakes. Thus the people became familiar with all these tales.

A hundred years earlier an English doctor who spent several years in Ireland referred to men whom he termed ‘bards’ and described how,

It is a very common practice among them when they return home from the toil of the day to sit down with their people around them, in bad weather in their houses and without doors in fair, repeating the histories of ancient heroes and their transactions.

Several other incidental references show that this process was widespread, and in earlier times the chieftains employed professional storytellers to read and publicly recite the great stories from the literature.

In this regard, it should be noted that the vicissitudes of history gave rise to a fairly unique situation after the collapse of native institutions in the early seventeenth century. For the learned caste of poets and scholars now found themselves deprived of their social standing and gradually had to acclimatise themselves to the conditions of ordinary peasant life. The effect of this was two-fold and worked in both directions, for popular culture was enriched by the infusion of literary modes while at the same time the writers came more under the influence of popular concepts. The general tendency in other countries - notwithstanding the Romantic interlude - was for literary traditions to grow further apart from oral {312} lore, but in the Irish case the reverse occurred and the two streams tended to reconverge. This can be illustrated by a study of the elegies composed by the poets of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In these, the man being lamented is increasingly invested with traits of the local popular hero. As well as the time-honoured literary conventions of nobility, courage, and generosity, we find the lauded one described with more personal immediacy as an accomplished sportsman, a cordial and unpretentious personality, and a witty companion. We can instance also the way in which eighteenth-century poets picked up the messianic idea from popular culture and gave it a new focus in the Jacobite politics of the time. The Old Pretender, James Stuart, inherited the mantle of Balldearg O’Donnell as the deliverer in exile on the Continent. Long after Culloden, rumours continued to circulate in parts of Ireland that the Young Pretender Charles had landed here, but folk tradition - which found the Stuarts quite uninspiring - failed to echo the literary pattern. When the poets later tailored their references to Napoleon Bonaparte, folklore showed more enthusiasm. Le Petit Caporal is represented in Irish legend as an invincible leader who was betrayed by one of his men for a large block of gold. Just before the English got their hands on him, however, his place was taken by a faithful soldier who resembled him closely; and so the real Napoleon escaped and lives on in a secret place waiting to return.

The folk view of history and of its dramatic personalities it is important also to the study of Irish literature in English, though in a somewhat different sense. We should begin again by examining the situation with regard to readership. A census report estimated that in the decade 1781 to 1790 no less than 52% of the population could read English. This estimate seems far too high, but may not be quite as inflated as appears at first glance. That English was widely read is shown by the number of printed books sold — a sale of 300,000 copies of books in Ireland was reported for the year 1818 alone. These were for the most part small cheap works, which were sold in shops in the towns as well as by travelling pedlars. {313}

Several of them were used in the hedge-schools, which were run on a rather inconsistent basis by local or itinerant scholars and which constituted the only form of formal education available in most areas.

No comprehensive study of the influence which this reading-material exerted on the living oral tradition has yet been undertaken, but it is safe to assume that in the case of heroic legend it was slight. One book at least did have an influence, as discussed in chapter 4 — Cosgrave’s Rogues and Rapparees which was widely used as a text-book in the hedge-schools. We have seen also (Chapter 2) that books by Dean Swift used in these same schools helped to imprint his image on the folk mind. And the rather eccentric apocalyptic book of ‘Pastorini’ coloured the messianic lore in many areas (see the discussion on O’Connell in chapter 2).

The actual influence of folklore on Irish writers in English in the past two centuries is an involved and broad-ranging subject, and some studies dealing with aspects of it have already been published. One difficulty which immediately presents itself is to distinguish between source material which writers have drawn from literature in Irish and material derived from purely oral sources. Thus, for example, although W. B. Yeats showed a keen interest in folk tradition, most of the native influence on his creative work comes from Gaelic literary sources. His wide use of themes and characters from the Cúchulainn sagas, for instance, is indebted not to oral tradition but to the mediaeval literature, which was available to him in English translations and re-renderings. Even J. M. Synge, when he put his hand to an overtly epical theme, went to the literature as source for his Deirdre of the Sorrows.

If Irish folklore had been collected, catalogued, published, and studied at that time as it has been for the past half-century, these writers may have seen good reason to incorporate more of the oral tradition into their work. But the difficulty with using oral legend as a basis for creative literature is compounded by aesthetic factors. The folk epic tends to concentrate more of its energy on plot and less on reflective considerations than does the literary epic, and as such has less attraction for writers of the analytic school. That archetypal {314} images had great appeal for both Yeats and Synge explains their fascination with colourful aspects of popular, culture, but the ready availability of the literary texts, allied to the charm of the more ancient atmosphere they found there, decided the issue.

The true nature of the folk legend lies in its continually being retold - in a thousand ordinary mouths rather than in the one great mouth of the literary genius - and this militates against the selection of one particular version for deliberate artistic purposes. If a version were so selected and developed it would itself become a literary work - a not unprecedented phenomenon, of course, but one which would usually require a writer himself steeped in the oral tradition. Perhaps the best qualified of all Irish writers in English in this regard would have been William Carleton. But, although the folk situation is competently described by Carleton in his work, when it came to popular aspirations he tended to be rather derisive and to adopt an external tone. When he made Redmond O’Hanlon the hero of a novel, he only did so by divorcing him totally from the real outlaw context, and the result was a romanticism very different from the folk sense.

There was, indeed, no lack of romantic and sentimental novels in nineteenth-century Ireland, but the writers on the whole showed little creative talent - opting for either close historical fact or events entirely of their own imagination. The folk image of the hero does intrude with beneficial effect in some cases, however. The hunted priest appears in Matthew Archdeacon’s Shawn na Soggarth, braving his bloodthirsty pursuers and suffering martyrdom for his readiness to administer the sacraments. Canon Sheehan in Glenanaar describes how Daniel O’Connell made a heroic defence of the men charged with the Doneraile Conspiracy, giving good insights into popular psychology in the process. Athletic heroism is featured in the same novel, as it is in Charles Kickham’s Knocknagow.

One of the most interesting test-cases for folk tradition and the nineteenth-century Irish historical novel is Albert Canning’s Baldearg O’Donnell, in which the author focuses on the part played in the Williamite Wars by a leader who {315} enjoyed a messianic role in popular lore. The novel gives some interesting interpretations of the attitudes of the historical character - being a scion of the Gaelic order Balldearg is represented as loathe to give loyalty to either Stuartists or Williamites - but it utilises little of the lore surrounding his famous name. What is mentioned is kept in the background - such as oblique references to Balldearg’s heroic adventures on the Continent and passages like the following after his arrival in Limerick:

All kinds of wonders, deeds of valour and heroism, if not actual miracles, were now predicted, and flew from mouth to mouth.

Another good test-case is provided by Mary Anne Sadlier’s The Fate of Father Sheehy, which tells in novel form how the patriot priest was condemned and hanged in Clonmel in 1766. Mistress Sadlier’s source was the research carried out by Richard Madden, largely from popular memory, but she made hardly any creative use of the folk motifs.

Perhaps the most interesting area of literary usage vis-a-vis folk heroism concerns the poetry which surrounded the nationalist movement in the mid-nineteenth century. In this poetry one finds an avowal of heroism as a force in public life, together with a representation of the past as a series of tableaux in which patriots strove to vindicate the country’s cause. As such, it has a somewhat different shade of meaning to the folklore, which places its stress on the feats of the single individual. Yet there was enough of shared sentiment to ensure that the nationalist hero could easily fit into the mould of the folk hero. For their part, the poets of the Young Ireland movement were sufficiently influenced by Carlyle’s idea of the supreme significance of great men to guarantee their approval of the individualism of folk heroes.

The spirit of the new political drift, therefore, was to overtly honour the hero as one who symbolises the nation. This was a case of cultural sentiment being developed into a medium for political philosophy; and it accords well with Balzac’s tribute to Daniel O’Connell who, he said, ‘incarnated a whole people’. We can thus understand the fascination {316} shown in his poetry by the Young Ireland leader, Thomas Davis, for the folk image of great Irish leaders. ‘They slew with poison him they feared to meet with steel’ he says of Owen Roe O’Neill, and concerning Earl Gerald’s prophesied return:

When Ginckle leagured Limerick, the Irish soldiers gazed
To see if in the setting sun dead Desmond’s banner blazed!
And still it is the peasant’s hope upon the Curragh’s mere,
‘They live who’ll see ten thousand men with good Lord Edward here.’
So let them dream till brighter days when, not by Edward’s shade,
But by some leader true as he their lines shall be arrayed!

As we have seen in Chapter 3, the Geraldine prophecies were applied to a character as recent as Lord Edward Fitzgerald, one of the leaders of the 1798 rebellion. On a more purely political level, Davis could apply the imagery to Wolfe Tone also:

In Bodenstown churchyard there is a green grave,
And freely around it let winter winds rave -
Far better they suit him, the ruin and the gloom,
Till Ireland, a nation, can build him a tomb.

There is a distant echo here from Robert Emmet’s concluding remarks in his speech from the dock in 1803:

When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.

But the pre-existing folk sentiment was incorporated into the ideology in a way which gave intellectual and emotional appeal at once to what was being said by Davis. The enduring quality of folk ballads which heroise political figures bears ample witness to the success which Davis and his successors achieved. What Frank O’Connor has termed ‘the backward look’ had a venerable tradition within Gaelic literature, which held ancient history and old rhetorical speech in high respect. The literature of the political hero was able to combine this with hope for the future.

Perhaps the most passionate appeal to the past, shrewdly anticipating the future, was made by Pádraic Pearse, who had a good acquaintance with both literary and oral sources: {317}

I am come of the seed of the people,
The people that sorrow,
That have no treasure but hope,
No riches laid up but a memory
Of an ancient glory ...

Here again we encounter the image of one who both represents and speaks for the people - a favourite theme with Pearse, who in his own case carried the idea to its logical conclusion. It is important to stress, however, that Pearse’s messianism did not derive from oral tradition, but rather from political and philosophical reflection. Even when expressed in dramatic form, the idea that one man must be sacrificed for the people, his allusions were usually to the literary image of Cúchulainn and the theological image of Christ rather than to the figures of folk narrative. But the theme of martyrdom had a ready appeal to traditional balladry and to the rationale of patriotic politics. Yeats, after the 1916 executions of Pearse and his fellow-leaders, immediately saw the apotheosis which had been effected. He had known the dead rebels as ordinary men, ‘being certain that they and I but lived where motley is worn’, but now the situation was ‘all changed, changed utterly, a terrible beauty is born’. The British authorities had blundered. They had failed to appreciate how Irish folk heroes were made.

Yeats himself found a heroic, if tragic, past preferable to a turbulent present. Although he wrote out in verse many of the sentiments of his political contemporaries, he was attracted more by heroic individualism, by the titanic proportions of the folk hero rather than the ideological slant of the revolutionary. As in his celebrated tribute to Parnell:

And here’s a cogent reason,
And I have many more,
He fought the might of England
And saved the Irish poor,
Whatever good a farmer’s got
He brought it all to pass;
And here’s another reason,
That Parnell loved a lass.

This praise is at one with folklore’s delineation of its heroes, {318} and it seems fair to assume that the ‘many more’ reasons for honouring Parnell would echo further motifs of a similar nature. Indeed, Yeats’ general persona of the solitary man embodying betrayed values owes much to his interest in traditional lore. In another guise, the persona becomes ‘an old beggar wandering in his pride’ whose forefathers served the, now vanished, Irish nobility since ‘before Christ was crucified’. The latter phrase is borrowed from a poem of the eighteenth-century Gaelic poet Aogán O’Rahilly. Yeats as a speaker feels solidarity with Aogan and so many other poets whom popular lore pictured as sages buffeted and insulted in an alien world.

The idea of the individual who rescues and incorporates cultural values had, as one might expect, wide application in the age of resurgent Irish literature and art. The writer and scholar Daniel Corkery was one of the great polemicists in this context. In 1925 he published The Hidden Ireland, a study of Gaelic Munster in the eighteenth century and a masterpiece of prose-writing. One of the features of that book was a chapter on the poet Owen Roe O’Sullivan, which combines literary theory and folk legend in a singular blend. Sean Ó Riordáin, the leading twentieth-century poet in Irish, has paid tribute to Corkery in lines which couple him with O’Sullivan and make both an embodiment of a wider whole: Do shiúil sé bóithre lán de Mhuimhnigh, é féin is Eoghan Rua [he walked roads filled with Munstermen, himself and Owen Roe]. Echoes of the epical deer-hunts of Fionn Mac Cumhaill can be heard in another reference in this poem, when Corkery is said to have ‘awakened the doe of our poetry in the forests of years’, and he is further stated to have ‘heard the heart of a people’ in the work of the poets. The raising of Corkery himself to heroic stature is justified within the sphere of Irish literature by the fact that he inspired a large number of celebrated writers in both languages.

The popular image of the hero did not evoke respect from all writers. That the folk wished attributes onto real or supposed champions could be analysed as a manifestation of hidden contradictions. And so the verbal hero takes something of a bashing from Synge and the martial hero from {319} Sean O’Casey, in their plays. But even here there is not a total rejection. In Austin Clarke’s poems dealing with ancient Irish saints, for instance, he is critical not of sainthood itself but of the conventional and not so disinterested formulations of it.

What these writers were attempting to do in general was to strip away the bombast and unqualified flights of fancy, and to restore the hero figure to more human and humanistic proportions. This trend is evident right through the Irish literature of this century in both languages. It is a striking fact that some of the leading writers hardly touch on the theme of folk heroism at all. Two of the most celebrated, James Joyce in English and Máirtín Ó Cadhain in Irish, chose the other and negative side of the Irish traditional coin - that of burlesque and satire - as their favourite modus operandi.

The writer who gave fullest expression to heroism was Liam O’Flaherty, in his historical novels Famine, Land, and Insurrection. In his attempt to give human form to archetypes which experience had embedded deep in Irish popular psychology, O’Flaherty - himself from a strong folk background - took up the challenge which Carleton had renounced. The political and social philosophies of Pearse and James Connolly provide his theoretical framework, but the flesh and blood of folk tradition gives life to the narrative. Expressed through the mouth of the character Raoul in Land, O’Flaherty’s premise is that ‘the soldier, the poet, and the monk represent what is finest in man’.

The parallels with folk legend are obvious, and it is further underlined by the exposition of the three types as resistance fighters, unconventional intellectuals, and rebel priests. The cumulative effect, as the author strives to ‘belong to their earth and their history’, comes quite close to the aesthetic sense of oral narrative — what the folklorist Max Liithi has termed ‘the superiority of the weaker’. 13 But O’Flaherty’s detailed descriptions and quasi-scientific perspective militate against the style of living folklore, thereby putting great pressure on the popular heroic image. It is not surprising that in his later novels O’Flaherty subjects his hero-types to dissection and rigorous criticism. The problem of how to incorporate {320} the folk hero into the style and structure of the Irish novel had not been solved but O’Flaherty’s experiments did clarify certain aspects of the question.

In the final analysis, the writers are men of their own time and circumstances, evaluating each formulation they meet with and integrating it into their own vision. Oral legend, on the other hand, in its simplicity has an enduring quality through which - once established - it does not fall foul of external factors but is carried along by the dynamics of picture and plot. It was when the Irish writers felt closest to actual folk style that they put the imagery to most positive use. Not surprisingly, it is the popular view of the poet which received most -generous treatment. Synge, O’Casey, and Clarke derive much of their narrative power from the spirit of the folk poet - wandering, mystical, irreverent - which breathes through their work; whereas Red Hanrahan, the persona which Yeats forged from the picaresque lore of Gaelic poets, served his creator well in many a verse and tale. And there have been many works based directly on the folklore concerning poets - Donn Byrne’s novel Blind Raftery, Francis MacManus’ trilogy on Red Donough Mac Namara, Liam Ó Catháin’s two novels in Irish on Liam O’Heffernan. Corkery himself wrote a play, The Yellow Bittern, from the lore surrounding the death of Cahal MacElgunn.

The redoubtable Patrick Kavanagh wrestled for a long time with the time-honoured myths which personified the gift of poetry in Irish tradition, and eventually settled for a more elemental but not exclusive persona.

Accordingly, we can conclude with the self image projected by Kavanagh in his poem ‘If Ever You Go to Dublin Town’, which shows that heroic tradition is not just a matter of received lore but is in a deeper sense a matter of common feeling. It might just as easily be Owen Roe O’Sullivan who wished to be remembered — and was remembered — as ‘dangerous’, ‘eccentric’, ‘slothful’, ‘a nice man’, and ‘a lone one’.


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