I have called this paper ‘The Folk-Songs of Ireland,’ Mr. Chairman, simply because I was unable to think of any better title. I fear, however, that the name is calculated to give a false impression of what I really intend to do. Even had I had full materials at hand, which unfortunately, I had not, it would be impossible within the limits of a paper like this, to treat in anything like an adequate manner a subject so vast and so important as the folk-songs of Ireland. I do not propose, then, to trace in detail, the history of the folk-song, entering into an elaborate discussion as to its origin and antiquity; nor do I propose to make an exhaustive classification and analysis of the Gaelic folk-songs existing at the present day. Such a task would, indeed, be quite beyond me; and I shall have to content myself with making a few rapid and tentative remarks, of a more or less general nature, in the hope of interesting the members of the Society in a species of unwritten literature—the expression, though a bull, may be allowed on account of its handiness—which may not, perhaps, up to the present have received from us that attention which it deserves.

It is in the highest degree probable that every form of literature which we have at the present day has sprung from the folk-tale and the folk-song. These two were, to a by-gone age, all that the press, the novel, and the drama are to ours. Co-aeval with man himself, they are, so to speak, the two elemental forms of literature. It is impossible to conceive a state of society in which they did not exist: since man first trod this earth to the present moment, he has loved to wander in the land of fancy opened up by the folk-tale, and to pour forth in song the emotions of his soul.

Most of our great authorities incline to the belief that the folk-tale originated in an attempt on the part of primitive man to bring home more strongly to himself, or, as one might put it, to represent pictorially to himself, the phenomena of nature. The folk-song also, I conceive, owes its existence to the influence of nature on man. We moderns, who live in an atmosphere which we studiously endeavour to render as unnatural as possible, can scarcely form an idea of what nature means to the savage—and the savage, let us remember, is the man as God made him. Living in constant contact and communication with nature, its beauties and potencies stir him with feelings unknown to us. Nature is all in all to him—his friend, his life, his god. Hence, just as primitive man attempted, in the folk-tale, to allegorize in a simple form the phenomena and objects of nature—representing the cloud as the boat that sails over land and sea, the sun as the giant that drinks up lakes and strands fish and boats, the rainbow as the man that jumps a hundred miles, the blade of grass as a ‘slender green man’—so, in the folk-song, did he endeavour to give expression to the bounding joy of his heart at the glorious sounds and sights of nature—the delight with which he listened to the bird-song, the mystic fascination with which he heard the wind-moan, and the streamlet-laugh, the awe with which he gazed on the mighty sea and the sombre mountain. The song, then, was originally man’s hymn of praise to nature, and, through nature, to God.

If this theory be true we should expect to find that the earliest songs of every nation are nature-hymns. This is exactly what we do find. The songs of those nations which are to-day in a state somewhat similar to that of our ancestors three thousand years ago, are all expressions either of praise or of fear, to the forces of nature, these being very frequently represented as divinities. The earliest songs of our own race have, of course, been lost, or, at least, have come down to us in forms which it is now impossible to recognize. But going back as far as we possibly can, we discover that the oldest lines of poetry extant in any vernacular European tongue, with the exception of Greek, are those three strange but beautiful pieces attributed to Amergin, son of Milidh—traditionally represented as the first verses ever sung in Eire. Here is how Dr. Sigerson translates the first few lines of Amergin’s ‘Triumph-Song’:—

‘I, the Wind at sea,
I, the roaring Billow,
I, the roar of Ocean,
I, the seven Cohorts,
I, the Ox upholding,
I, the rock-borne Osprey,
I, the flash of Lightning,
I, the Ray in Mazes.’

‘This poem,’ says Dr. Hyde, ‘is noticeable for its curious pantheistic strain which reminds one strangely of the East.’ Pantheistic or not, it is instinct with the nature-spirit so characteristic of the early productions of every race. I quote it not, of course, as a folk-song, but as an instance of the part in which nature-worship has played in the genesis of Gaelic poetry.

It may be urged by those who are acquainted with the Gaelic folk-songs of the present day that comparatively few of them can be described as nature songs. This is, no doubt, true. We rarely find a Donegal fisherman singing an ‘Ode to the West Wind,’ or a Connemara labourer, an ‘Address to the Daisy.’ But, is it not quite possible that many songs which are now love songs pure and simple were once nature-songs? The folk-memory is, as everyone knows, wonderfully retentive and conservative. Yet, we find that, while a folk-tale itself may be preserved for two thousand years—and preserved without any radical change in incidents or detail even to the very word-formulae and nonsense-ending—yet the origin and meaning of the tale have been forgotten. The Mayo peasant, for instance, who relates the story of Páidín drinking up the lake,1 no more dreams that Páidín is, in all probability, a solar-myth, than he does that his own grandfather sleeping in the church-yard hard-by is one. In the same way, whilst the ideas and words of a folk-song may be preserved, its meaning and origin may, in many cases, have been completely lost.

In quite recent times we find a striking example of such a process,—a case in which the meaning and origin, not of a single song, but of a whole class of songs, have been forgotten, though the songs themselves, which include some of the finest in the language, are popular all over Gaelic-speaking Ireland to-day. The eighteenth century poets almost always referred to Ireland under some allegorical name,—and very beautiful these allegorical names are. ‘Róisín Duḃ’, ‘Siġle Ní Gaḋra’, ‘Caitlín Ní Uallaċáin,’—these and many more were originally patriotic or political songs, but are now sung as love-songs. The ‘Páistín Fionn’ too, is considered by Hardiman to represent the son of James II.—thus forming one of the most remarkable instances on record of a song’s having lost its meaning, the ‘Páistín Fionn’ being now treated as a girl. What has happened in the case of this particular class of song may very well have happened in the case of many more.

It is true, of course, that most of the Gaelic folk-songs current to-day, are, in their present forms at least, not more than one or two centuries old. But the antiquity of existing folk-songs is often much greater than would at first sight appear. We may, for instance, come across a Munster song, which from its language and style, and from the political or other allusions which it may contain, we may be inclined to set down as, say, one hundred and fifty years old. We may then fall in with a Connacht version of the same song, and soon after with an Ulster version, both of about the same date as the Munster song. Now, when we find three distinct versions of a folk-song, each belonging to a different province, and the three of approximately the same date, we must necessarily conclude that all three versions have come from a common root,—a folk-song, that is, belonging to some date at least a century or two earlier than that of the three existing versions. We thus see that the language of a folk-song forms a very far from infallible guide to its antiquity; and it is quite possible that many our best-known and most modern-looking songs are some centuries older than they appear.

Further than this, however, it is highly probable that there exist a small number of folk songs which are of the very highest antiquity. We know that the greater number of our folk-tales are of comparatively modern date,—either accounts, more or less embellished with imagination, of events which have actually occurred among the peasantry, or else pure and simple inventions of the folk-fancy; but we know also that there are a number of old tales,—including those which contains traces of nature-myths,—which have been handed down by word of mouth for two or three thousand years. Now, there is no reason in the world that what is true of the folk-tale should not also be true of the folk-song. Most of those current to-day are, as has been said, of comparatively recent date; but, reasoning from analogy, nothing is more probable than that there is many a folk-song sung to-day around the turf fire of a Munster cabin, or on the bare side of a Connacht mountain, which has been sung by generation after generation since the Gael first set foot in Eire.

Let us turn, however, from dry theorizing to the warm living folk-songs themselves. Here, at any rate, we are on firm ground. The question of their age and origin, interesting as it undoubtedly is, is, after all, but of secondary importance: be they centuries old, or be they but of yesterday, they are here, and they speak for themselves. Had the Gaelic race never produced a scrap of literature—had our treasures of history and romance never had a being, had our Cormacs, and our O’Clerys, and our Keatings, and our Donnchadh Ruadhs, never written a line—these folk-songs of ours would still have been sufficient to prove for all time the glorious capabilities of our race. Let the scoffer scoff as he wills—let the up-to-date young Irishman fresh from the ‘National’ School, or from the still worse, and still more un-Irish Intermediate regime, sneer as he, and he only, can sneer, let him solace his soul with the London Music-hall song, and the pantomime ballad—but the fact remains that these folk-songs exist, the fact remains that the brains of Irish-speaking peasant men and women have given birth to them, the fact remains that, by wilfully making up his mind to ignore them, and their language, he is committing an act, not merely of egregious folly, but of actual criminality, for which his children and his children’s children may curse him yet.

In his folk-songs the Gaelic peasant reveals himself in a new light to us. He shows us a side of his character hitherto unknown and undreamt of. We behold him wandering in an ideal world of his own. Black, dreary bog; damp, half-roofless mud-cabin—these things are forgotten. He shows himself the poet and the dreamer now as of yore. We hear him pouring out, in his folk-songs, his feelings of joy or of sorrow, of love or of hate. We hear the peasant-girl singing by her spinning-wheel, hear the mother crooning over her infant, hear the lover giving utterance, in sweet and passionate language, to the love which fills his soul. The rollicking strain of the drinking-song mingles with the sad piercing note of the caoineadh,—the plaintive wail of the young mother carried off by the sluagh-sidhe mingles with the hymn of love and trust to the Muire Máthair. Love, and joy, and sorrow, and hope,—these are the notes that perpetually ring through our folk-poetry, as through our folk-music,—these are the tints that colour the lives and character of our people.

The Gaelic folk-song, be it remembered, is totally distinct, not only from the technical poetry of the ancient bards, but also from the highly-polished, voluptuous, and, as it has been well called, Swinburne-like poetry of the 18th century Munster school. The folk-song proper is the product of a folk-poet, and the common possession of the folk-people. Hence, it possesses those two distinguishing characteristics of the folk-fancy—simplicity of language and beauty of thought.

Simplicity, beautiful and almost childlike simplicity, both of idea and language—this is, above all things, the leading characteristic of Gaelic folk-poetry, as, indeed, of all folk-poetry. The ideas are such as a child might grasp, the language such as a child might use and understand. Take for instance, such a song as ‘Eiḃlín A Rúin,’ probably the best known and most popular in the language. It is possible to conceive anything more beautifully simple than the poet-lover’s declaration?—

‘Do ṡiuḃalfainn an saoġal mór leat,
Aċt cleaṁnas d’ faġáil ó’m stór,
‘S ní scarfainn go deó leatsa,
A Eiḃlín a rúin!’

Or his bold impassioned question:—

‘A’ dtiocfaiḋ nó’n ḃfanfaiḋ tú,
A Eiḃlín a rúin?’

Or Eibhlín’s answer:—

‘Tiocfaiḋ mé ‘s ní ḟanfaiḋ mé,
Tiocfaiḋ mé ‘s ní ḟanfaiḋ mé,
Tiocfaiḋ mé ‘s ní ḟanfaiḋ mé,
‘S euloġaiḋ mé le m’ stór!’

Take again, say, the ‘Páistín Fionn.’ For beautiful and simple effect what would surpass either version of its chorus?—either that beginning:—

‘Is tusa mo rún, mo rún, mo rún,’

Or that other version which commences:—

‘‘S óró, bog liomsa, bog liomsa, bog liomsa.’

Assuredly, language is capable of nothing more inexpressibly soft and melodious than this song.

The extreme simplicity of our folk-songs extends not merely to the thoughts and language but also, very naturally, to the metre. The thought and word parallelism, the intricate internal assonances, the studious employment of alliteration, so characteristic of literary Irish poetry—these, as a rule, are absent from the folk-song. The verse-structure is of the simplest imaginable kind. Here, for instance, is the opening stanza of a song in which peasant-girl caoines for her absent lover:—

‘Mo ḃrón ar an ḃfairrge,
Is é atá mór,
Is é gaḃáil idir mé,
‘S mo ṁile stór!’

Dr. Hyde’s English version of this stanza runs:—

‘My grief on the sea,
How the waves of it roll!
For they heave between me
And the love of my soul!’

The language and ideas throughout this song are so simple that we may well believe it was the composition of a peasant-woman. Dr. Hyde got it from an old woman named Briġid Ní Corruaiḋ (anglicé, Biddy Crummey), who lived in a hut in the middle of a bog in Roscommon. As he mournfully remarks, ‘Tá sí marḃ anois ⁊ a cuid aḃrán leiṫe,’ ‘She is dead now, and her songs with her.’

One of the chief charms of the folk-imagination is the originality, the quaintness, the oddness of its conception. What could be more delightfully quaint and original than the song composed by the fairies of Knockgraffon, aided by the little hunchback Lusmore? Or, to take a very different example, than that beautiful dialogue, ‘Taḋg agus Máire,’ one of the finest songs in the language?

It is a remarkable fact that our folk-poetry contains so little of a ballad nature. Lovesongs we have, and drinking-songs, and occupation-songs, and lullabies, and caoineadhs,—but few songs, if any, which contain a regular story. The nearest approach, perhaps, is in a certain class of religious songs, many of them in the form of a dialogue between Death and a Sinner or Death and a Lady, perhaps, or Death and Someone-else,—long and uninteresting enough frequently, to tell the truth. The best example of this kind of religious ballad I have ever come across is a really fine poem called ‘The Keening of the Three Marys,’ which, with a poetical translation, will be found in Dr. Hyde’s ‘Aḃráin Diaḋa Ċúige Connaċt.’

Fond as they are of story-telling, the ballad seems to have little attraction for our folk-people. What they delight in, above everything else, is their love-songs; and accordingly we find that their love-songs are not only the most numerous but also, as a rule, by far the best intrinsically. It is in the love-song that the folk-poet shows best the beauty, and wealth, and originality of his imagination, the depth and tenderness of his soul. The love-song, indeed, is the form in which all the grandest and most poetical aspirations of our nature finds expression. Next to love of God and love of country, love of woman is the noblest feeling that can stir men’s souls; and well did our Gaelic folk-poets feel this, for they have left us many of the most beautiful and most valuable love-songs in the world.

I have already referred to that wonderful beauty of thought which characterises our folk-songs. What a lovely expression, for instance, is ‘réalt eolais,’ ‘star of knowledge,’ or ‘guiding-star,’ and how appropriately it is applied by a lover to the one he loves. Another star-comparison—more beautiful still perhaps— is ‘réaltan tríd an gceó,’ ‘a star through the mist.’ A girl says to her lover:—

‘A ógánaiġ óig mar réaltan tríd an gceó,
Do ṫugas-sa mo ġean go léir ḋuit,’

which Dr. Hyde translates:—

‘Oh! youth, whom I have kissed like a star through the mist,
I have given thee this heart altogether.’

What a bold and beautiful comparison is that in ‘Taḋg agus Máire’:—

‘Ba ḋuiḃe ḃí an ġrain ag luiġe
Ioná do ġnúis, a Ṁáire,’—

‘Blacker was the sun at setting than thy face, my Mary!’ or, as Dr. Hyde renders it in the exact metre of the original:—

‘The setting sun shows black and dun
And cold beside thee, Mary.’

One more example will suffice. Could lovelier or more appropriate similes be found than these?

‘A ’s ṡaoil mé, a stóirín.
Go mba gealaċ agus grian ṫu,
A ’s ṡaoil mé ‘na ḋiaiġ sin
go mba sneaċta ar an sliaḃ ṫu;
A ’s ṡaoil mé ‘na ḋiaiḋ sin
Go mba lóċrann ó Ḋia ṫu,
Nó gur ab ṫu an réalt-eolais,
Ag dul róṁam a’s ‘mo ḋiaiḋ ṫu!’

Dr. Hyde’s translation is:—

‘I thought, O my love! you were so—
As the moon is, or sun on a fountain,
And I thought after that you were snow,
The cold snow on top of the mountain;
And I thought after that you were more,
Like God’s lamp shining to find me,
Or the bright star of knowledge before,
And the star of knowledge behind me!’

Assuredly the minds which conceived such thoughts and shaped them into such words must have been the minds of true poets. So elevated, so refined, so free from anything approaching coarseness, is the language of these songs that it is almost incredible that their authors were peasant men and women. Yet such is the fact. Peasant men and women they were, born and bred in the middle of a bog, perchance, or in a mud-cabin on a mountainside. Poor they were, the poorest of the poor; ignorant, too, if you will—ignorant, that is, of reading and writing, ignorant of the English language; but POETS they were, poets taught by nature herself. Someone has said that poetry is the language of the soul. If this is true, then must our Gaelic folk-poets be poets of the highest order—for their songs come straight from the soul: they are the simple, artless, poetic, outpourings of the souls of a simple, artless poetic people. The folk-poets of our race have left us songs which would do honour to Burns—songs which, considering the circumstances under which they were written, rank, aesthetically, higher than the songs of Burns.

And one great merit the folk-songs of Ireland possess—a merit possessed by the folk-poetry of few nations, a merit possessed by the love-poetry of fewer still. Even Burns himself, true poet as he was, occasionally introduces into his most beautiful love-songs allusions and comparisons which shock all fastidious ears. Never do we find this in our Gaelic folk-songs. Pure they are and spotless as the driven snow, like the souls and lives of those who sing them; sweet they are as the scent of the wild mountain-flowers which grow in their native homes; musical they are as the ripple of the streamlet, as the note of the blackbird, as the laugh of a happy and innocent girl; grand they are and time-honoured as the Gaelic race itself. May they never die away on the hillside and in the valley, may they continue to be sung by the hearthside of our people for many a day to come. They are going from us—we feel it, we see it, we know it; let us save them ere it be too late, and it is not too late yet. Save the language, and the folk-tale, and the folk-song, and all the treasures accumulated in the folk-mind during three thousand years will be saved also. The cause is a holy one—God grant it may succeed! May our language, and our literature, and our folk-lore live; and if they live, then, too, will our race live ‘Go bruinn an ḃráṫa.’

  • Read in January, ‘98. In its original form this paper was considerably longer, as I quoted in full many of the best examples of living Gaelic folk-songs. As most of these, however, are to be found in Dr. Hyde’s ‘Aḃráin Gráḋa Ċúige Connacht,’ it is unnecessary to print them here. I would advise anyone whom the somewhat desultory remarks contained in the following paper may succeed in interesting in the subject to fly at once to the pages of Dr. Hyde.

1 See ‘An Sgeuluidhe Gaodhalach,’ Cuid I.