Irish Sagas and Folk-Tales Critical Essays

Eileen O’Faolain


(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

O’Faolain makes an important choice in the tales that she retells in Irish Sagas and Folk-Tales. For Irish people, these stories are an invaluable part of their culture. The images and ideas behind Irish heroes such as Cuchulain and Oisin continually surface in Irish history and literature. The leaders of the Easter 1916 rebellion against the British, for example, are compared to the heroic Cuchulain. A statue erected in their memory even includes this legendary figure. This mixture of myth and history makes understanding these tales important for readers wanting to know more about Ireland.

Some aspects of this book should be kept in mind. First and foremost, these tales started as part of an oral tradition and were handed down for many centuries. Only much later were they recorded by scribes, and scholars are unsure of the content of the original tales. Nevertheless, reading these tales relates values that the Irish have held for many years. The importance of family, honor, and the love of the land itself, all predominant themes in the tales, are as important in contemporary Ireland as they were in Celtic Ireland.

An understanding of these tales is also important for readers who want to study such Irish writers and poets as William Butler Yeats, Lady Augusta Gregory, and John Millington Synge. Many of Yeats’s poems and plays, for example, are based on these very tales. His narrative poem “The Wanderings of Oisin” is about Oisin’s journey to the land of the Sidhe; his play Deirdre (1906) is based on the tale “The Fate of the Sons of Usnach.” Yeats also wrote a set of four plays on Cuchulain. Lady Gregory was interested in the Irish sagas, as was Synge, who based some of his plays on them and on Irish folklore. These are but a few examples.

Ultimately, O’Faolain’s collection of sagas and folklore is valuable because she retells them in a language that is readily understood. She does not try to capture the Irish dialect and thereby leave readers struggling with pronunciations or guessing the meanings of words. Nevertheless, she is able to relate the tales in a manner that maintains the integrity of their ideas.