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Folklore Friday: How W.B. Yeats Changed the Face of Irish Folklore

Folklore Friday: How W.B. Yeats Changed the Face of Irish Folklore

Posted by Olivia O'Mahony on 10th Jun 2019

Though he was born to an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family, W.B. Yeats did more to promote and preserve the folklore of ancient Ireland than anyone else.


By the time that poet William Butler Yeats was born in 1865, the discipline of Irish folklore studies had been gaining traction for quite some time. Of course, it’s only natural that this would have been the case: since Ireland had been occupied by the Celts several centuries before the birth of Christ, the country’s culture of myth and legend had only grown, and as political unrest between Catholics and Protestants worsened in the 20th century, people increasingly turned to the past and its belief systems for answers. By that time, many believed that the key to a successful future could be gleaned from the stories of history.

Yeats, however, stood out from the rest in a couple of ways. Unlike so many of the researchers and writers who came before him, he took the stories of Irish folklore with the utmost seriousness, holding many of their facets as absolute truth. For him, the mystical otherworld was as real as the one he lived and breathed in himself. This conviction would prove to shape the direction of his writing career, which is still lauded today as one of the most prolific in Irish history — and later, it would change the way that scholars viewed Irish folklore forever.


This bust of Yeats sits in the middle of Sandymount Green, near the location of No. 5 Sandymount Avenue, where he was born on June 15, 1865. This bust of Yeats sits in the middle of Sandymount Green, near the location of No. 5 Sandymount Avenue, where he was born on June 13, 1865. (William Murphy / CC BY-SA 2.0 / via Flickr)

Beginning his life in Sandymount, Co. Dublin, the young William spent his early years between London (where his father was studying art) and Ireland. When the family made a long-term move to the Emerald Isle, he was overjoyed. They settled in Co. Sligo, which he later came to regard as the place where he most belonged in the world. The county’s natural beauty was a source of huge inspiration to him. Despite that, in, school, he was an average student, noted for being “very poor in spelling.” All the same, around the age of 17, he began to nurture his natural talent for writing; in turn, his three younger siblings passionately followed their own creative pursuits. His brother, Jack, became a well-respected painter, while his sisters, Elizabeth and Susan Mary, had a natural knack for crafts.

It soon became apparent that the Ireland of the late 1800s was prepared to issue the children no shortage of political or social upheaval to find inspiration in: as the 1880s and 1890s rolled in, the nationalist movement picked up, and by the turn of the century, Catholic communities were gaining standing and prominence. While all evidence points towards Yeats’ Protestant family having been supportive of these developments, this time of immense change had a very clear effect on their early work. William, in particular, had a preoccupation with national identity, how it could be understood, and what it meant in the grand scheme of things. This is reflected in one of his very first poems, written about a magician in Central Asia who attempted to set up a throne. Shortly after, this interest showed up again, paired with a dash of the love of mysticism he would eventually become known for: this time it was in a draft of a play, centered around the characters of a bishop, a monk, and a woman accused of paganism by the local authorities.

While most young men might have left their love of the supernatural behind as they entered adulthood, Yeats nurtured his fixation with a passion that only grew with his coming of age. When his family was unexpectedly called upon to return to London in 1887, he found solace in joining the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. This group, which considered itself a “magical order,” was dedicated to the study of the occult and paranormal activity all over Britain. It was through organizations like this that Yeats added to his inner lexicon of all things otherworldly, and eventually returned to his love of Irish folklore to gaze on it with fresh eyes.


W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Robert Gregory at Coole. W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory, and Robert Gregory at Coole. (W.E. Bailey / Autumn Gathering)

In 1888, he wrote the much-discussed Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, a collection of “fairy legends,” or the recorded beliefs of his home country’s people with regards magic and the paranormal. Interestingly, this book contained far fewer fictitious “wonder tales” (or, as we understand them, “true” fairy tales) than it did real-world accounts of supposed encounters with beings not of this world, collected from the townspeople of rural Ireland. Yeats was dedicated to biographical and geographical accuracy, presenting everything in this work as unflinchingly true.

However, this quasi-empirical approach to Ireland’s lore drew as much criticism from his early readers as it did praise: for some, it simply wasn’t scientific enough. To this, Yeats replied: “When we look for the source of this spirit rabble (i.e., fairies) we get many different answers. The peasants say they are fallen angels who are too good to be lost, too bad to be saved, and have to work out their time in barren places of the earth.” Later, he wrote: “All who are young enough for any use [...] are taken, I have been told over and over again, by the ‘others’.” In making these claims, Yeats seemed to clarify his understanding of the world of fairy as a realm of the dead, some kind of alternate dimension where arcane knowledge lurked. Working with the Hermetic Order, he began to participate in séances — which were, perhaps, as close to a science as he could bring his studies at the time.

Meanwhile, his writing career continued to take off, unhindered by the mixed reception of Fairy and Folk Tales. In 1889, he produced The Wanderings of Oisin and Other Poems, a collection which concerned itself with the Fenian Cycle characters of Irish mythology. The title poem took over 24 months to complete, and eventually became one of Yeats’ lifelong favorites; where the supernatural featured, it seemed, he found satisfaction in his craft. In 1892, he wrote: “If I had not made magic my constant study, I could not have written a single word of my [William] Blake book, nor would [the novel] The Countess Kathleen have ever come to exist. The mystical life is at the center of all that I do and all that I think and all that I write.”

But perhaps there was just one other thing that could prove to be as central. In the early 1890s, Yeats met Maud Gonne, an English-born Irish actress and nationalist revolutionary. They were both prominent members of the fledgling Dublin branch of the Hermetic Order, equally passionate in their pursuit of spiritual truth. For Yeats, it was love at first sight. For Gonne, it was more of a ginger approach to liking; Yeats’ hesitancy to partake in the fight for Irish independence would prove to be a romantic wedge between them for most of their lives. In 1891, he asked for her hand in marriage. She declined, and would proceed to do so three times over the next ten years — only to eventually concede to a so-called spiritual union, never to be physically consummated. This was how, Yeats later commented, the “troubling of [his] life began.”


In 1892, Yeats produced a second ambiguously non-fiction book of Irish lore, this time simply titled Irish Fairy Tales. In its introduction, he marveled at how absolutely devoted his informants were to a fact-forward approach to sharing their stories: “How [they] believed them!” It seemed that, at last, Yeats was beginning to understand how to make personal sense of what it meant to be Irish. For him, it was the belief in fairies, magic, and the “other” that united the country’s people as one. Historian Gregory Castle unpacks this mindset best: “Yeats wanted to close the gap that class and religious differences opened up between him and his peasant informants, and to create a space in which he could work out the ambivalence of his deracinated position.”

Yeats’ final book of Irish fairy legends, The Celtic Twilight, was published just one year after Irish Fairy Tales, in 1893. As a kind of spiritual successor to that which came before it, The Celtic Twilight erased the line between Yeats as narrator and ethnographer and his informants; his own educated approach was no longer illustrated as greater than that of their “lowly” folk customs. He included plenty of his own experiences with the paranormal in the text, noting in the introduction that “I have [...] been at no pains to separate my beliefs from those of the peasantry.” One of these personal stories told of an encounter he had with the “queen of the fairies” on a “far western sandy shore.” In it, a young Yeats and his cousin fall into a trance, in which they are visited by this strange, regal being. After spending some time talking with the two young men, the fairy queen warned them to “Be careful, and do not seek to know too much about us.” Evidently, it was advice that Yeats disregarded from the first.


[caption id="attachment_24011" align="aligncenter" width="640"]Walter de la Mare, Bertha Georgie Yeats (née Hyde-Lees), W.B. Yeats, and an unknown woman in the summer of 1930. Photograph by Lady Ottoline Morrell. (Public Domain / via National Portrait Gallery, London) Walter de la Mare, Bertha Georgie Yeats (née Hyde-Lees), W.B. Yeats, and an unknown woman in the summer of 1930. Photograph by Lady Ottoline Morrell. (Public Domain / via National Portrait Gallery, London)[/caption]

Indeed, in the year 1912, Yeats’ engagement in occult ceremonies with the Hermetic Order reached a new level of intensity. Over many séances held during those months, a spirit which identified itself as Leo Africanus apparently made its presence known to him. This demonic force claimed to be an inexorable part of Yeats’ essence, his “anti-self” who served as a source of inspiration for many of his later works. Yeats also claimed that Leo made him privy to many a dark secret about the universe, prompting him to later give himself a magical motto in honor of the spirit’s service: Daemon es Deus inversus, or “The devil is God inverted.”

But soon, Leo would be usurped as Yeats’ primary source of information on the world unseen by human eyes. In 1914, a new member of the Hermetic Order would prove to “untrouble” Yeats’ life to a great degree. This was Georgie Hyde-Lees, the young woman who he would eventually marry. (What this relationship spelled out for his metaphysical relationship with Maud Gonne, we can’t rightly say.) Despite his newfound happiness with Hyde-Lees, Yeats feared that domestic living would suck him dry of poetic inspiration. These concerns were banished, however, when four days into the couple’s honeymoon, Hyde-Lees appeared to have some kind of episode. It quickly came to seem as though she was being used as a vessel for the voices of the otherworld, and was able to transcribe their words via “automatic writing” whenever she made a connection. Yeats’ poetry and prose overflowed with thoughts on the arcane; he had never known a muse like this.

Together, Yeats and Hyde-Lee conducted over 400 sessions of communion with the spirits beyond the veil, always careful to take extensive notes on their dialogue. From these conversations, Yeats put together theories on history, existence, and the afterlife, which served to fuel many of his later works. Most importantly, he came to believe that humanity’s path was predestined in its entirety, and that fate revealed its grand designs only in the moments when the magical and everyday worlds collided. By the time he died in 1939, his certainty had never wavered.

As one of Ireland’s most seminal writers to date, Yeats’ preoccupation with fey, folklore, and the supernatural brings a unique flavor to the country’s overall literary legacy. In one way or another, after all, Ireland has always been a nation of believers; like or loathe the concepts which Yeats obsessed over, there’s simply no denying that his work continues to do us proud by igniting new interest in the country’s magical depths each and every day.