Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Archive: Irish Folk Custom and Belief - Séan Ó Súilleabháin

Irish Folk Custom and Belief
Séan Ó Súilleabháin

I've been looking for a good book on Irish folk customs for ages and in some ways this book fits the bill perfectly (it does what it says on the tin), but in others it's slightly lacking from my perspective because I really wanted more detail. I want a book with some depth, but this book is very much not about depth. It's short and sweet, but it does a good job of introducing the key points of the subject it deals with. So yes, it's very short - less than A5 in size and only about 100 pages or so long - but it packs a lot of stuff in.

On the one hand, there were quite a few tidbits that I found very useful - he gives an example of a smooring prayer that Dames also gave, for example, but here it seems more complete and it's obvious where Ó Súilleabháin got it from. On the other, it covered a lot of familiar ground, which at least helped me get a good grounding in where he was coming from and whether he's reliable as a source or not. It seems he is, but like most books of this type, he doesn't give references. But unlike Dames, however, Ó Súilleabháin's background and style of writing inspires a bit more confidence in the content of his work, I think.

Ó Súilleabháin writes in an easy and conversational tone, but puts across his points about what folklore is and how it should be interpreted (from his point of view, at least) well. And to Ó Súilleabháin's credit, he gives the Irish and then his own translation whenever he quotes something that was originally recorded in Gaelige. Seeing as the book's so short it only skims the surface of the subjects it deals with, but given the style of writing as well as its content, Ó Súilleabháin covers his bases and then some (to a point). While he left me wanting more, it was in a good way - or not, seeing as I definitely want to save up for his A Handbook of Irish Folkore now (clocking in at nearly 700 pages and based on his work with the Irish Folklore Commission, and extremely expensive to buy, to boot. And I could get it from the library, but I need books on my shelf, y'see).

He's clear on the points where he doesn't go into too much detail - either because of space constraints, or the fact of repetition because he's gone into the subject in more detail in a separate book - and this is a good thing because at least you know it's not all there is to know...An extensive bibliiography, or references would have been nice, though. As it is, there's a limited bibliography and that's about it. And as well as all this, while I personally appreciate his very logical and analytical interpretation of folk belief at times, I think some may find him overly so in his interpretations. I don't always agree with these interpretations, but he seems to make his bias clear at least. If the book was written today, he wouldn't have used the phrase 'primitve society' so much, anyway...

Ó Súilleabháin covers things like the Otherworld, festivals, charms, healing, and everyday life, which is just the sort of thing I was interested in as a beginner, and while E Estyn Evans' Irish Folkways covers a lot of the same thing - both with illustrations, too - Ó Súilleabháin is much more succinct about everything. Evans gives the detail, but often to the point where you might start crying with boredom if you keep ploughing through...As an introductory sort of book, then, this fits the bill, I'd say - much more so than Evans, although the quality of his work, at least, is impressive.

Although I want more, I also think it's a shame that Scottish practices don't have nearly the same sort of calibre of introductory level work. I would recommend this to someone who's a beginner, who wants a solid grounding in the basics before moving on to the more in depth and daunting tomes. I think it falls short in the details in some places, but ultimately it gives far more than it lacks. And really, I think I might just have to splurge on everything else he's written.