Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 May 2006
This chapter surveys current and past definitions and theories of Irish folklore. It relates our understanding of folklore and folklife to the ways in which these knowledges have developed and become institutionalised and argues for the special place of folklore studies in our understanding of Irish subaltern culture more generally.
In practice, ‘folk culture’ usually distinguishes those aspects of popular culture which have long been established in agrarian society and are associated with a particular way of life – especially that of peasants – from more recent and non-rural forms. The latter, of course, may be traditional too, but are usually seen as being a product of modern rather than traditional society. Folk culture in another sense refers to an ideal of authenticity, as in the attribution by the Romantic thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau to nature of various social phenomena supposedly uncorrupted by culture: the ‘noble savage’ and then the peasant challenged the decadence of aristocratic society. Johann Gottfried von Herder explicitly contrasted natural writing (Naturpoesie) with the artifice of civilisation (Kunstdichtung). Ireland in the same period sawa heated Irish controversy over James Macpherson’s appropriation of the common Gaelic Ossianic poems. The Ossian poems prefigured European romanticism with their wild native energy. To Herder these poems, along with Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) by Bishop Percy (a friend and mentor to the pioneering editor and translator of Irish poetry, Charlotte Brooke), were the epitome of Naturpoesie.