William Butler Yeats
and The Little People

Excerpt from:
Strange Magazine, Number 4, ISSN 0894-8968
P.O. Box 2246, Rockville, MD 20852


In the late 1800s, William Butler Yeats came into contact with two very unrelated movements, the Irish nationalists and the Theosophists (an occult/magical sect), and took an active part in both ... In 1890 he was "excommunicated" from the Theosophists by their leader Madame Blavatsky, because of discrepancies in their beliefs.


Yeats then joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, another occult sect, where he began to experiment with magic.

In contrast to the Theosophists, the Golden Dawn put emphasis not on obscure and untraceable Indian and Buddhist masters, but on the European mystical tradition, mainly the Kabbalah.


Further contrasting Madame Blavatsky, the Golden Dawn encouraged its members to undertake occult experiments,

"to demonstrate their power over the material universe." ...

Instead of giving Yeats theories as Theosophy had done, the Golden Dawn,

"gave him the opportunity and method for constant experimentation and demonstration. Yeats spoke of it later as the chief influence upon his thought."

D.A. MacManus, one of the first to write a natural history of the fairies, reports that his friend Yeats,

"was fully aware of the ’everyday aspect’ of fairy lore and had great respect for it."

In fact, Yeats firmly believed in the objective reality of the creatures.



Yeats and the Little People
by Ulrich Magin

In the last day of August 1938, according to the London Times (September 6, 1938), John Mulligan encountered two fairies near Ballingarry, West Limerick, Ireland. The day before, a boy named Keely had seen one at the same place, a crossroad. The fairies were two feet high, had hard, hairy, earless human-like faces, and were dressed in red.

The first reaction of a "modern," educated person, after reading this report, will be one of disbelief. But this initial reaction is somewhat childish, and shows a lack of understanding of human nature. I first became aware of the deeper layers of these folk- beliefs when I visited Scotland some years ago and found myself talking to people who had seen ghosts, or the Loch Ness monster, or who firmly believed in goblins. And, apparently, they were all sane.

Few regions in Europe have firmer beliefs in goblins and other supernatural creatures than Ireland. (In Iceland, another stronghold of fairy-folklore, interpreters have officially been employed to communicate with goblins as recently as 1984.) (1) The actual belief in the "little people" is a very interesting topic, and in this article I will discuss its sociological and psychological implications.

I will also examine the influence the fairy-folklore had on modern Irish literature, especially on William Butler Yeats, and how Yeats incorporated the traditional ideas, as well as his personal encounters with these beings, into his mystical belief- system and his poetic writings. Yeats was deeply involved in the fairy-belief, and made it the subject of his writings and poetry. He believed in their reality, like his ancestors had done centuries before, and justified his ideas with European and Oriental mystical tradition.


His mystic thoughts tied strongly to his poetic and political ideas, so it is useful to begin with a "natural history" of the fairies to show how they were described before Yeats took hold of the subject.


The Natural History Of The Fairies

Fairies are a universal phenomenon, known to every country and people of the world. But while in most parts of Europe the belief in fairies vanished with the beginning of the Enlightenment, it continued in more remote parts of our planet, such as Ireland, Scotland, and Iceland. While a certain (and often far-reaching) similarity exists between the legends of the various regions, I will concentrate on Irish goblins, fairies and banshees, as they, obviously, were the main source of inspiration for Irish writers and poets.

Fairies, in general, were (are) small, but not tiny, creatures, about three to five feet in height, wearing mainly red or green dresses. In contrast to ghosts, they were not regarded as supernatural beings, but rather as actual beings with many supernatural aspects. Their origin is not explained, but there is general agreement among the people that the "little people" or "gentle folk" are fallen angels. Scholars have classified them as "natural spirits," being manifestations of natural forces rather than immortal souls, like ghosts. Fairies can die, just as they can give birth to children.

Elizabeth Andrews, a 19th-century folklorist, summarized the general appearance of fairies in this way:

"The fairies are small people, but no mushroom could give them shelter. The colour red seems to be clearly associated with these little people. I have frequently been told of the small men in red jackets running about the forts.... Fairies have red hair." (2)

They also sometimes possess very large feet (3) and abnormally long arms, "so long that they can pick up anything off the ground without stooping." (4)

They live in raths and dolmens, the remains of prehistoric humans. They often trade with people, and, if not disturbed, will be very generous -- sometimes they show ordinary humans places where treasure has been buried. If treated badly, they will take revenge, making ill the animals of a farmer, disturbing his house in the guise of poltergeists, or even tormenting humans.

But fairies were enraged not only when they had been cheated in trade or treated badly otherwise, but also when their dwellings were destroyed: their raths, forts, tress, bushes and paths. McManus (5) gives the example of a house of which one corner had been built on a fairy path. "Serious disturbances" were the result, so that the original corner was finally removed.


This ended the disturbances.

Fairy Sightings

But fairies do not belong to folk legends alone: there have been, and still are, many eyewitness reports, some very recent. These sightings verify the claims made in legends and general descriptions.

  • In the 19th century, a farmer saw, one stormy night, several little creatures with red hair in a valley of the Mourne Mountains. A woman of Tullamore Park, County Down, observed "wild looking figures with scanty clothing whose hair stood up like the mane of a horse." (6)

  • A child of four or five years of age was lying in the grass at Maghera, County Down, when "little men about two feet in height" danced around him. His father chased the beings away, but his son had become deaf, and only recovered ten years later. This is also alleged to have happened in the 19th century. (7)

  • At Crom, near Lough Erne, County Fermanagh, leprechauns, mainly accompanied by strange globes of light (preceding modern UFO reports) were frequently observed at the beginning of the 20th century.

  • On a September evening in 1907, a French maid and Lord Erne’s governess were rowing across the lake when "they saw the small figure of a man walking on the water from the direction of Crom Castle past the ferry towards Corlat." (8)

  • Another leprechaun used to visit the priest’s daughter at nighttime; he would stand at one end of her bed grinning at her. This is a well-known folk motif and a common hallucination, termed "bedside visitor" by psychologists. (9)

These recent reports, as well as the uniformity of the traditional stories, have always surprised and puzzled the scholars (as well as Yeats, but more of him later), and they made several attempts to explain them in some rational way. In doing so they more often mirrored the spirit of their own time rather than the spirits they were writing about.


Fairy Theories

Elizabeth Andrews, who conducted her research at the end of the 19th century and early in the 20th century, following the doctrine of her time, tried a rational/biological solution. In the 19th and 20th centuries, until the atom bomb was dropped, the faith of the people in rational science and progress was unshaken, and scholars thought they could solve every problem or mystery if they had enough time. (It is ironic that the most exact of all sciences, physics, shattered that simple ideology with Einstein’s theory of relativity, and later, even more occult ideas.)


So, Andrews concluded that fairies do not only exist, but that they are the last descendants of a race of dwarfs -- a pygmy race that once lived all over Europe (and so the rationality of the world was re-established).

"It is possible that, as larger races advanced, these small people were driven southwards to the mountains of Switzerland, westwards towards the Atlantic, and northward to Lapland, where their descendants may still be found." (10)

(Note the innocent use of the word race, also typical of the 19th century, that led to disaster in Germany later -- yet, at the beginning of the 20th century, Andrews insisted that the Finnish people were a different race than the other Europeans pygmies!)

Indeed, she produces evidence for that alleged race:

"Professor Kollmann mentions several places in Switzerland where skeletons of dwarfs have been found ... If I might hazard a conjecture, I should say that both in Ireland and in Switzerland dwarf races had survived far into Christian times, perhaps to a comparatively recent period." (11)

From a modern perspective, this viewpoint seems, to put it mildly, without base; or our brave explorers hunting the snowman of the Himalayas could save money and energy and hunt the missing link in Ireland.

The 1970s, with sociology as science and ideology gaining new ground among the rebellious youth, brought another theory -- this (equally unbased) idea was offered in an otherwise brilliant book by Keith Thomas. (12) He observed that fairies disliked dirt, and would plague an untidy house in the form of poltergeists. Also, they would take away children that were badly looked after, and substitute them with an ugly, badly behaved changeling.

Now, following a strict, functionalistic sociological analysis, he claims that fairy folklore such as this had been established to make sure that women cleaned their house, or did not leave their babies unguarded.


The universal belief in goblins in the Middle Ages therefore was a gentle way of control and education. Yet, while this might explain why fairy folklore managed to stay alive for such a long time, it definitely cannot explain the recent sightings, and I doubt if it really explains any aspect of the phenomenon at all. I personally met a police officer from the Orkneys, Scotland, who every morning put a bowl of milk for the goblins outside to keep them good-tempered. I would rather think that fairies are real than that this man was following a traditional system of education.

The most recent idea (or, at least, the most popular theory at the moment) is that goblins are folk-memories of the old pagan gods, which were banned when St. Patrick arrived in the country. This could explain why the "little people" are considered as fallen angels. But with the new interest in witchcraft (and the many quite curious feminist interpretations of it) and paganism, many authors establish concepts that are hard to swallow, such as tracing back individual fairies to Greek or Egyptian gods.)


 F. Logan’s attempt is by far the best that I have seen:

"The ’Old Gods,’ the ’Good People’ and the ’Fairies’ are but a few of the names given to the pre-Christian gods and goddesses of the last Celtic invaders of Ireland. Their folk religion quickly took root and, highly Christianized, proved remarkably resilient in the face of change: for well over a thousand years the ’Old Gods’ were universally believed in and their lore considered history." (13)

There are other theories that sound crazy at first, but may be worth consideration in the light of modern psychology. Jacques Vallee and John A. Keel, (14) for example, discuss fairy lore in the context of early observations of humanoids (UFO-occupants).

Author Stan Gooch thinks that ghosts, fairies and demons are creatures of the unconscious mind. Yeats also thought that fairies were symbolic expressions of a racial memory, which, through some parapsychological process, become reality. Again, his book has some remarkable ideas, but his occult reasoning asks for a gullible reader. (Nevertheless, I think Yeats would have liked it.)

Fairies may also be very common hallucinations (which might be perceived as Venusians in a metropolitan context). According to C.G. Jung, hallucinations are "not merely a pathological phenomenon but one that also occurs in the sphere of the normal." (16) If we consider fairies and banshees as archetypal visions triggered by stress, (17) we can also explain why all fairies of the world (and not only the Celtic world) seem to be similar and why they resemble modern eyewitness accounts so much.


Certainly, stress situations seldom occur in rural communities such as those from which we have the most traditions, but the general acceptance of the phenomenon may provide a similar trigger function. (That is, in sociological terms, that observations of goblins are well within the norm.)


If fairy reports have this psychological origin, then to understand them would be essential in order to understand a large group of people in Ireland -- those who believe in or see fairies.


That is exactly what Yeats found himself, and explains why he was so concerned with the "gentle folk."


The Goblin Folklore In Irish Literature

In seeking for the traces of the Irish folk-belief in goblins and other supernatural beings, we can obviously neglect those writers such as Sean O’Casey who are nationalists but concerned themselves mainly with the present, or historical events, and not with the cosmological concepts of the people; and writers like James Joyce who found (or find) the newborn faith and nationalism and interest in folklore amusing rather than worth consideration in their work.

On the other side, all authors writing about the life in the country can be expected to deal with goblins, fairies and banshees, as well as those interested in the resurrection of the old myths (which are mainly the authors of the Irish Renaissance, Yeats, Lady Gregory and AE).

A fine example for the first category is Cork-born writer Frank O’Connor, whose short story First Confession contains a description of a curious story, allegedly true, that O’Connor (or his hero, to be correct) recounts as a childhood memory.


When the protagonist is instructed for his first confession by an elderly, obviously neurotic woman, she relates the story of a sinner and the dreadful consequences of his "bad confession" - a journey into hell (as a warning for potential future sinners among her flock):

"Another day she said she knew a priest who woke one night to find a fellow he didn’t recognize leaning over the end of his bed. The priest was a bit frightened -- naturally enough, but he asked the fellow what he wanted, and the fellow said in a deep, husky voice that he wanted to go to confession ... the fellow said the last time he went to confession, there was one sin he kept back, being ashamed to mention it, and now it was always on his mind.


Then the priest knew it was a bad case, because the fellow was after making a bad confession and committing a mortal sin. He got up to dress, and just then the cock crew in the yard outside, and -- lo and behold! -- when the priest looked around there was no sign of the fellow, only a smell of burning timber, and when the priest looked at his bed didn’t he see the print of two hands burned in it?" (18)

Here O’Connor mixes three rather distinct folk-motifs: the "grinning man" or bedside visitor, (such as the leprechauns at Crom); the banshee leaving a burning mark of her five fingers; (19) and a more traditional ghost story.

It is likely that this hybrid supernatural creature is a real tradition recounted by O’Connor from his time in Cork, but it’s unusual enough to leave room for doubt whether it’s a genuine tradition. This carelessness does not seem to be important in a work that does not claim to represent true Irish folk-stories, but we will later see that Yeats, who claimed just that, has sometimes been guilty of a similar carelessness.

As I have pointed out, anyone who wants to describe the Irish country people and their psychology must at one time or other refer to their supernatural beliefs. Though the Irish folklore includes many mystical creatures besides the "gentle people," like pucas (animal fairies), horse-eels (lake monsters), mermaids and ghosts, which have all been referred to by Yeats, I will concentrate on the human fairies.

I have already given an example of how fairylore was incorporated into literature in order to capture the attitudes and ideas of people. The most serious attempt in this direction was undertaken by W.B. Yeats, who not only collected fairy-folklore, but experimented with magic and occult formulas to evoke the beings -- with success, as we shall see.


W.B. Yeats’s philosophy in regard to these creatures, and the way he used folk stories and his own experiences in an attempt to create "literature/folklore" is the main subject of this article.



William Butler Yeats was born in Sligo, Ireland, in 1865. His grandfather, also named W.B. Yeats, was a deeply orthodox rector of the Church of Ireland. His father, J.B. Yeats, in contrast, was a rationalist skeptic and atheist -- and W.B. Yeats was to unify both in his character:

He "erected an eccentric faith somewhere between his grandfather’s orthodox belief and his father’s unorthodox disbelief," his biographer Ellman writes. (20)

The family moved between London, Dublin and Sligo, and Sligo must have been where Yeats heard first what was later to influence his whole art and poetry: the fairy tales of the ordinary Irish people. His mother told him of leprechauns and goblins, and later he heard the country people talk of their beliefs and experiences with the "little people." A world where even the grown-ups believe in fairy tales must be a child’s wonderland.

"The place that really influenced my life most was Sligo," he wrote years later. (21)

From 1874 to 1880 he lived in England, where he went to school. After that the family moved to Howth, where he would spend most of his time outside, dreaming. He began to read and write poetry.

He failed to meet the entrance requirements to Trinity College, and so studied at the School of Art in Dublin, where he studied painting, and, more importantly, met George Russell (better known under his pen-name "AE").

Russell was a visionary and Yeats, who had given up orthodox religion in 1880, was initiated by him into the world of the supernatural. Yeats wrote symbolistic poetry, and experimented with visions and hallucinations. He learned to hate science, which he saw as being in direct contrast to poetry, beauty and truth.

In the late 1800s, he came into contact with two very unrelated movements, the Irish nationalists and the Theosophists (an occult/magical sect), and took an active part in both.

Yeats is generally regarded as the founder, and certainly as a leading figure, of the Irish Literary Revival, a rediscovery of the old Celtic traditions and forms of art. He "discovered" and supported many writers who became important personalities in the movement, like John M. Synge and Lady Gregory. With Lady Gregory he founded the Abbey Theatre in Dublin; first intended as a stage for mystical and occult plays, it became an important place for all genres of Irish theatre. (One of Yeats’ own early plays, Land of Heart’s Desire, deals with peasants and goblins.)

In 1890 he was "excommunicated" from the Theosophists by their leader Madame Blavatsky, because of discrepancies in their beliefs. Yeats then joined the Order of the Golden Dawn, another occult sect, where he began to experiment with magic.

During all this time of involvement with mystical and nationalist groups, he kept on writing and campaigning for original, autonomous Irish art. Yeats wrote prose, poetry, plays, essays, and parts of an autobiography. Eventually, he became one of Ireland’s most prominent writers.

In 1922, one of the objectives he had always fought for, an independent Irish state, was established. In 1924 Yeats was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died, a very respected and admired man, in 1939.

This brief sketch of Yeats’ life shows two topics that stand out: his interest in mysticism and his strong nationalism. Both are of great importance in regard to Yeats’s dealings with goblin lore.

Yeats And The Theosophical Society

In 1884, when Yeats read Charles Johnson’s The Occult World, he became convinced of the reality of occult phenomena and of the claims of Madame Blavatsky, an extremely interesting modern mystic. Blavatsky had founded the Theosophical Society, allegedly based on secret Tibetan teachings.


Despite the fact that the London-based Society for Psychical Research had demonstrated in 1885 that the lady was an impostor, Yeats trusted her more than the scientists, as she confirmed his rejection of materialism.

"The Theosophists reinforced their doctrines with examples from Eastern religions, from European occultism, mysticism, philosophy, and, when it served their purpose, from science," according to Ellmann. (22)

Yeats’s interest in occultism was enormous:

"I choose to persist in a study which I decided ... to make next to my poetry, the more important pursuit of my life ... The mystical life is the centre of all I do and all that I think and all that I write," he says in a letter in August 1892. (23)

It is only as a consequence of this strong interest that Yeats felt a desire to experiment with the supernatural. But Madame Blavatsky had forbidden her followers to "plunge too deeply into Theosophical depths," and warned them of the dangers of black magic.

This could hardly satisfy Yeats, and he went to seances. On one occasion the alleged supernatural phenomenon so impressed him "that he lost control of himself and beat his head on the table." (24)

For this disobedience, he received severe criticism from Madame Blavatsky. This happened in the summer of 1888, yet on Christmas of that year he still believed in her and formally joined the Society.

"The Theosophists gave him support because they accepted and incorporated into their system ghosts and faeries, and regarded dreams and symbols as supernatural manifestations," Ellmann comments. (25)

Then, in December 1889, he began several experiments to satisfy himself that occult phenomena were real - without success. Though he never doubted Theosophy, and continued to believe in the supernatural world (as he did all his life), the experiments did not help to settle the problems he had with Madame Blavatsky.


The relationship at this time had definitely cooled down. His last public appearance at the Society took place in August 1890, after which he was "excommunicated."

The Golden Dawn

Yeats, after his "excommunication," did not have to stand alone against a fortress of rationality.


On March 7, 1890, months before his expulsion, he had joined the Hermetic Students of the Golden Dawn, another occult sect, which had, among others, the notorious Aleister Crowley among its members.

In contrast to the Theosophists, the Golden Dawn put emphasis not on obscure and untraceable Indian and Buddhist masters, but on the European mystical tradition, mainly the Kabbalah. Further contrasting Madame Blavatsky, the Golden Dawn encouraged its members to undertake occult experiments, "to demonstrate their power over the material universe." (26) That was more to Yeats’s taste.

(A complete history of the Order of the Golden Dawn and its various followers, including Yeats and Crowley, can be found in Colin Wilson’s The Occult.) (27)

Yeats saw a close relationship between "enchantment" in magic and in literature. Again, he experimented, and met with immediate success:

"Early in his acquaintance with Mathers (tbe leader of the Golden Dawn), the magician put the Tantric symbol of fire against his forehead, and Yeats slowly perceived a huge titan rising from desert sands. He was greatly excited because this kind of vision seemed to him to confirm his beliefs in the supernatural ...


Soon he was experimenting upon all his friends and acquaintances, sometimes with remarkable success ... Instead of giving Yeats theories as Theosophy had done, the Golden Dawn gave him the opportunity and method for constant experimentation and demonstration. Yeats spoke of it later as the chief influence upon his thought." (28)

(See also Yeats’s own account in Wilson’s "The Occult".) (29)

As the subject of this article is Yeats’s views about and use of fairy folklore, I shall leave his mystical experiments here (we will find some of them, in the form of attempts to raise fairies, later). Yeats considered occult visions as very important, and he was fully convinced that all phenomena experienced by him were objectively real and genuine - and I’m not in a position to judge this (though, in my own materialistic Weltanschauung, most of it seems to be rather strange).


Add to these convictions Yeats’s nationalism, and you will realize why Irish supernatural beings were to play such an important role in his work.


Irish Nationalism And Folklore

In the 19th century, Douglas Hyde, in an attempt to promote an original Irish literature, founded the Gaelic League. He wanted a "de-Anglicization" of Ireland. After all, he argued, a people is not only a group of people, but a group of people sharing common ideas and mythologies -- so, for the Irish to find their own identity, it was essential to get rid of the British culture that ruled the country.

Yeats was soon among Hyde’s followers, as well as other writers of the Irish Literary Revival, who had the same objectives:

"Hyde, Yeats, AE, Synge and Lady Gregory, each wanted, though each used different words to express his intention, to de-Anglicize, to de-provincialize Ireland and to make it live again in all its individuality as a Celtic country, different in race, in traditions, in ancestral glories from the neighboring island that had looked, not only across, but down on it for so long." (30)

There were obviously two ways to do this:

  • first, to use the Irish language as basis for the literary work (as Hyde did), but this meant also to provincialize the literature, as there was no large audience for works in Gaelic

  • second, somewhat more moderate, to use the language and stories of the people, but to write in English -- a language, after all, with one of the biggest possible audiences in the world

"Folk Art," writes Yeats in his Mythologies,(31)

"is indeed the oldest of the aristocracies of thought ... it is the soil where all great art is rooted."

This view, combined with his great occult interest, led to an emphasis on the mythological and supernatural aspects of the folklife in Ireland; in contrast to, for example, O’Connor, who also used the language of the people and Irish settings, but stayed down-to-earth in the subjects he chose.

As in the Golden Dawn, Yeats soon found a home in the nationalist movement -- which suggests that he always needed a firm group or society to cling to or identify with, and that he might have had a weak self-confidence which needed the safety of friends who shared his ideas (especially when one had exotic ideas like the ones Yeats held).


Significantly, he explained later,

"from O’Leary’s [the nationalists’ leader] conversation, and from the Irish books he lent or gave me has come all I have set my hands to since." (32)

Just remember that Yeats had also called the Golden Dawn the "chief influence" upon his thought.


This feature of Yeats’s character is mentioned in none of his biographies, but it could explain his belief in the occult: what a boost of his self-confidence it must have meant to be able to communicate with spirits, and so prove to the rest of the world that it had been wrong! (Wilhelm Reich, the eminent psychologist, in his study of fascism, explains that weak characters constitute the main body of such movements and use pathetic words like "race" to be part of a more important total; this may also explain some other aspects of Yeats.)

It seems that his occult and nationalistic activities, although he saw no relationship himself, tended to confirm each other; so that,

"the interest in fairies and folktales, which he had learned from his mother in his boyhood, now had the sanction of O’Leary’s authority," writes Ellmann. (33)

His occult experiments confirmed his nationalism, and his nationalism, in some way, justified his magical experiments. (34) The same mixture between occult and nationalist views led to disaster in Germany, and therefore it is possibly no great surprise to find Yeats among the supporters of the fascist General O’Duffy, for whom he even wrote marching songs. (35) Though it is true that he soon understood his enormous mistake and turned away from fascism, it is also evident that his biographer Ellmann plays down the whole episode. (36)


Be that as it may, the role the Literary Revival, and Yeats as one of its leaders, played in the establishment of an independent Irish nation should not be underestimated.


Yeats And The Fairies

Yeats’s mystical beliefs, combined with his patriotic ideas, make him a man who represents a continuum in the telling of folklore; a man who is aware of both the poetic and political importance of folklore and convinced of the truth of the stories.

If he had not believed in the reality of the fairies, he would have either treated them in an academic way, or as simple poetic stories, but Yeats represents a traditional story-teller who knows about the poetry and truth of his story -- there is no real difference in the attitude of a simple countryman and Yeats’s towards the supernatural world.

It is from this context that I now try to show how he used, changed, collected and told fairy tales. Though Yeats’ ideas about the "gentle folk" have been referred to in passing, some clarification is necessary. McManus, one of the first to write a natural history of the fairies, reports that his friend Yeats,

"was fully aware of the ’everyday aspect’ of fairy lore and had great respect for it." (37)

In fact, Yeats firmly believed in the objective reality of the creatures. (38)


In 1888, he asserted in the preface of a book about fairy lore which he had collected:

"that the Irish peasants, because of their distance from the centers of the Industrial Revolution, have preserved a rapport with the spiritual world and its fairy denizens which has elsewhere disappeared. He makes speeches declaring his belief in the fairies, though if hard pressed he will say that he believes in them as ’dramatizations of our moods’." (39)

Another definition of the fairies, made by Yeats under the influence of the Theosophists, is also quoted by Ellman:

"The fairies are the lesser spiritual moods of the universal mind, wherein every mood is a soul and every thought is a body." (40)

So here we find the "little people" not as an expression of the imagination of the people, but as manifestations of the "universal mind," which Yeats had substituted for the God of his grandfather.

This kind of pantheism is another expression of Yeats’s attempts,

"to bring together all the fairy tales and folklore he had heard in childhood, the poetry he had read in adolescence, the dreams he had been dreaming all his life." (41)

Yeats’s writings on fairies can be roughly divided into three distinct groups: first, his collections of original traditions; second, his own allegedly genuine experiences; and third, the poetic and dramatic writing that made use of the fairy lore.

In 1888, Yeats spent his holiday in Sligo collecting local fairylore, and before 1890 he had edited several small books on Irish fairy and folktales.


In a letter to Katharine Tynan, written in 1888, he speaks critically of his works:

"The worst of me is that if my work is good it is done very slowly -- the notes to folklore book were done quickly and they are bad or at any rate not good. Introduction is better. Douglas Hyde gave me much help with the footnotes, etc." (42)

Here we find again that his mysticism and nationalism find their best common expressions in fairy stories.

In the preface to his collection Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, he states, in a nearly scientific manner:

"As to my own part in this book, I have tried to make it representative, as far as so few pages would allow, of every kind of Irish folk faith." (43)

He later gave this up when he used traditional stories as a basis for his own writings, or as illustrations for his own beliefs.

In his autobiographical sketches, Yeats explains how he gathered some of the stories that later became his collections, or were used as foundations for his own poetical work:

"We had a regular servant, a fisherman ... (My mother) and the fisherman’s wife would tell each other stories that Homer might have told, pleased with any moment of sudden intensity and laughing together over any point of satire. There is an essay called Village Ghosts in my Celtic Twilight which is but a report of one such afternoon, and many a fine tale has been lost because it had not occurred to me soon enough to keep notes." (44)

This was in Howth, near Dublin.


Yeats not only kept notes of the stories his mother and the fisherman’s wife told each other, but also went to the country to collect stories in a more active way:

"Yes, he noticed, if you are a stranger, you will not readily get ghost and fairy legends, even in a western village. You must go adroitly to work, and make friends with the children and the old men, with those who have not felt the pressure of mere daylight existence, and those with whom it is growing less, and will have altogether taken itself off one of these days.


The old women are most learned, but will not so readily be got to talk, for the fairies are very secretive, and much resent being talked of; and are there not many stories of old women who were nearly pinched into their graves or numbed with fairy blasts?" (45)

His experiences with living traditions led Yeats to postulate that "every Celt is a visionary without scratching." (46) This leads me to Yeats’s claimed first-hand experiences with super- natural beings.

Early in his autobiography, Yeats relates the day his brother died.

"Next day at breakfast I heard people telling how my mother and the servant had heard the banshee crying the night before he died." (47)

Later Yeats himself made -- with the aid of magic -- the acquaintance of an earth spirit.

On another occasion, as he described in his Autobiographies, he tried to invoke the "spirit of the moon." He continued invocations,

"night after night just before I went to bed, and after many nights -- eight or nine perhaps -- I saw between waking and sleeping, as in a cinematograph, a galloping centaur, and a moment later a woman of incredible beauty, standing upon a pedestal and shooting an arrow at a star." (48)

Yeats later discovered similar dreams and symbols, which led him to believe that he had seen an archetypal image that was rooted in his racial memory. He used this vision in a poem twenty years later, according to Kathleen Raine (though she does not state which poem, and I haven’t been able to identify it).

This leads to the question of how Yeats used his first-hand experiences and traditional stories in his poetic writings.


First-Hand Supernatural Experiences And Folktales In Yeats’s Literary Works

Yeats devoted a whole book, The Celtic Twilight (later incorporated into a larger volume, Mythologies), to these aspects. In this book, he makes use of folklore and turns it into poetry -- still with a fine sense for the language that ordinary people would use, but it undoubtedly is Yeats -- perhaps the best solution of his attempt.


Mythologies relates stories of ghosts (which his mother had told him); goblins (here he draws on his experiences, and tales he had been told); and stories about popular superstitions, such as A Sailor’s Religion. In the book Yeats also pays tribute to his old master of the Golden Dawn, Mathers. The tales The Sorcerers, Regina, Regina Pigmeorum, Veni, A Voice and The Golden Age all deal with Yates’s own visions of spirits and ghosts.

Reading this book, one has the feeling of listening to ordinary people sitting around a peat-fire and relating ordinary stories -- an enchantment few other books of this kind manage to create. But of course Yeats as a poet and editor is always present.


In regard to fairies, Yeats quotes what a declared skeptic of the supernatural had told him:

"one can question ghosts, and even God, but one never doubts the fairies -- as they stand to reason." (49)

Yeats’s poetry is also mainly based on old Irish sages, and, in some parts, his adventures with the paranormal and folk traditions of it. According to Kathleen Raine, who has made an in depth study of Yeats’s magical and occult beliefs and his role in the Golden Dawn, (50) the poem A Statesman’s Holiday (51) is based on the Tarot. (The last paragraph of the poem is a description of the "Fool" card of the Tarot.)


The Tarot was also laid by the Theosophists and is described, with much irony, in T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land as a "wicked pack of cards" with Madame Blavatsky under the pseudonym of Madame Sosostris.

Other poems deal with the fairies themselves, such as The Hosting of the Sidhe, for which, like many other poems, he wrote an elaborate explanation. (52) At the time of the composition of the poem, he was also working on a series of six articles about fairies for various periodicals, and the poem shows how this more scientific work got its poetic expression.


Yeats even includes in the poem minute details of fairylore, such as the belief that whirlwinds mark the passage of the "little people," without making it sound too academic:

"The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round, Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound." (53)

Other poems using fairy lore are A Lover’s Quarrel Among the Fairies, (54) which sounds very elaborate and therefore is less convincing, and The Priest and the Fairy. (55) The latter poem describes a goblin "three spans high as he rose to his feet" and his hair was as yellow as waving wheat" - in full accordance with the traditional image. This goblin asks a priest where "the souls of fairies go," a folk-motif known as "the fairy question."


As the "little people" were regarded as fallen angels (they sided with Lucifer), so people say, their strongest desire is to return to Heaven, but when they asked St. Patrick, he had to tell them that they would never be allowed to return (though some versions of the legends add that God himself, by means of a miracle, pointed out the possibility of a return).


However, since then, whenever the fairies find a priest, they ask him this all-important question (and they always get the same sad news). Yeats used the plot unaltered, and, by adding dialect spellings and simple phrasing, tried to improve the sense of authenticity. This example illustrates well the manner in which he was working, and demonstrates Yeats’s successful fusion of folklore and poetry.

In one of his last poems, Under Ben Bulben, (56) in a kind of resume, he reassures his readers of what he had always been trying to tell them:

"ancient Ireland knew it all."

This includes both his occult ideas and his nationalism. Under Ben Bulben is in fact a summary of all of Yeats’s philosophy, and well underlines how important, even for our modem age, he considered the old traditions of the ordinary people.


The poem ends with his epitaph, confirming its programmatic nature.


The Effect Of Yeats’s Fairy Writings

After all of Yeats’s obsession with supernatural creatures, what effect did his collections, his poetic works, have?

The influence that Yeats had on the formation of the modern public image of the fairies is not easy to assess. Hardly any book written on folklore after his death fails to mention him, or to quote at least two or three lines of one of his poems about the gentle people. Indeed, the very name of Yeats has become a synonym for a "collector of folklore." Lysaght complains in her books that most people seem not to be aware that new folklore has been collected since Yeats! (57)

Yet this has disadvantages as well as advantages. Some of what Yeats has added to folklore (and he always added some of his own philosophical ideas) has been taken for genuine folklore by later writers -- so great is their trust in his authenticity.

In his Irish Fairy Tales (1892) he writes, based on a fictional account by D.R. Anally (1888) that,

"when more than one banshee is present and they wail and sing in chorus, it is for the death of somebody holy or a great one." (58)

Lysaght, in her thorough study of the banshee, found no single instance of the banshee in the plural -- there simply never existed such a folk belief. Yet Yeats’s words are quoted in Katharine Brigg’s Dictionary of Fairies (1976) as authentic folklore.

Another time Yeats mentions the "fact" that banshee usually wear green -- but this "stands isolated as literary invention," as Lysaght puts it.

On the positive side, Yeats surely focused attention on the whole topic, and, inspired by him, a number of good collections of stories, as well as non-fiction books about fairies (for example, McManus’ The Middle Kingdom, which is dedicated to Yeats) have been published.

But though Yeats’s influence must be considered strong among scholars or lovers of literature, the general public, while remembering him as a collector and poet, ignores his views to a large extent.

Fairies And Goblins After Yeats

Disney’s Cinderella and other cartoons did far more than Yeats could ever have done to influence the public image of the fairies.


D. McManus, a close friend to Yeats, bitterly observes in his excellent volume on fairies, The Middle Kingdom:

"Today, the word ’fairy’ has come to be associated with everything that is unreal and childish. Shakespeare was probably one of the first to draw attention to small sprites, giving them great names and an importance that no tradition has justified. From this arose the nursery fairy stories of the nineteenth century, and we now have the colorful fantasies of Walt Disney and his confreres, flitting with gay and vivid insouciance across the cinema screen.


By all these steps the word ’fairy’ has shifted away completely from its medieval concept of a powerful spirit in human form which should be treated with respect, if not with a little fear, and has now become attached to dainty little winged figures flitting like butterflies from flower to flower or doing ballet dances with a starlit wand. The traditional fairies, though rarely dainty are sometimes lovely; but far more often, when small beings are reported to have been seen, they are described as elflike." (59)

And, lastly, it is sad to note that Yeats’s serious treatment of the fairies had no influence at all on the formation of general opinion: Lysaght reports that most witnesses are now afraid to talk about their sightings (and hearings) of banshees because of their fear of being ridiculed. I assume that is the case with fairy observations as well.


So many important folk-accounts, which could influence some future writers in the way they did Yeats, will become lost forever.



  1. Robert J. McCartney, "Supernatural Summit in Store for Reagan, Gorbachev," The Washington Post, October 5, 1985.

  2. Elisabeth Andrews, Ulster Folklore (Reprint of 1913 Elliot Stock edition; Wakefield: EP Publishing, 1977), p. 2.

  3. Ibid., p. 34.

  4. Ibid., p. 42.

  5. D.A. MacManus, The Middle Kingdom (London: Max Parrish, 1960), p. 103.

  6. Andrews, p. 2.

  7. Ibid., p. 4.

  8. Hugh Malet, In the Wake of the Gods (London: Chatto and Windus, 1970), p. 183.

  9. Stan Gooch, Creatures From Inner Sphere (London: Rider, 1984).

  10. Andrews, p. 45.

  11. Ibid., p. 62.

  12. Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (London: 1971).

  13. Patrick Logan, The Old Gods (Belfast: Appletree Press, 1981).

  14. John A. Keel, Strange Creatures From Time and Space (Greenwich: Fawcett, 1970).

  15. Gooch, op. cit.

  16. C.G. Jung, "On Hallucinations," in Collected Works, vol. 18 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 461.

  17. Jung, "Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle," in Collected Works, vol. 8 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), p. 440.

  18. Frank O’Connor, My Oedipus Complex and Other Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982), p. 44.

  19. Patricia Lysaght, The Banshee (Dublin: The Glendale Press, 1986), chapter 10.

  20. Richard Ellmann, Yeats-The Man and the Masks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), p. 7.

  21. Ibid., p. 24.

  22. Ibid., p. 60.

  23. Ibid., p. 94L

  24. Ibid., p. 63.

  25. Ibid., p. 67.

  26. Ibid., p. 86.

  27. Colin Wilson, The Occult (London: Grafton Books, 1979).

  28. Ellmann, p. 93f.

  29. Wilson, p. 129.

  30. Lorna Reynolds, "The Irish Literary Revival," in The Celtic Consciousness, ed. Robert Driscoll (Port Iaoise: Dolmen Press, 1981), p. 383.

  31. W.B. Yeats, Mythologies (London: 1959), p. 139.

  32. Ellmann, p. 46.

  33. Ibid.

  34. Ibid., p. 289 -- expresses a similar idea.

  35. Elisabeth Cullingford, Yeats, Ireland and Fascism (London: Macmillan, 1981), p. 210.

  36. Ellmann, pp. 276-78.

  37. MacManus, p. 12.

  38. Ibid., p. 154.

  39. Ellmann, p. 116.

  40. Ibid., p. 67.

  41. Ibid.

  42. W.B. Yeats, Selected Criticism and Prose (London: Pan Books, 1980), p. 388.

  43. Ibid., p. 421.

  44. Ibid., p. 279.

  45. Ibid., p. 41 5.

  46. Ibid.

  47. Ibid., p. 278.

  48. Kathleen Raine, Yeats, Tarot and the Golden Dawn (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1976).

  49. Yeats, Mythologies, p. 7.

  50. Raine, p. 33.

  51. Yeats, The Poems (London: Gill and Macmillan, 1983), p. 583.

  52. Ibid., p. 622.

  53. Ibid., p. 55.

  54. Ibid., p. 518.

  55. Ibid., p. 520.

  56. Ibid., p. 325.

  57. Lysaght, p. 16.

  58. Ibid., p. 88.

  59. MacManus, p. 23.



Other Works Consulted

  • Richard Fallis, The Irish Renaissance (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 1978).

  • Robert Driscoll, "The Aesthetic and Intellectual Foundations of the Celtic Literary Revival in Ireland," in The Celtic Consciousness, ed. Robert Driscoll (Port Iaoise: Dolmen Press, 1981), pp. 401-425.

  • G.J. Watson, Irish Identity and the Literary Revival (London: Helm, 1979), pp. 87-150.