In this delightful volume, first published in 1892, William Butler Yeats has collected all manner of Irish folklore (mostly short stories, with a few poems) from a wide variety sources. He has divided the works into categories as follows: the "Trooping Fairies" (fairies, changelings, and the "merrow" or mermaids); the "Solitary Fairies" (the lepracaun, the pooka - an animal spirit, and the banshee); "Ghosts"; "Witches & Fairy Doctors"; "T'yeer-na-n-Oge" or "Tir-na-n-Og" (a legendary island said to appear and disappear); "Saints & Priests"; "The Devil"; "Giants"; and "Kings / Queens / Princesses / Earls / Robbers." Yeats introduces each section with background information on the creature the stories in that category will concern. He also includes numerous footnotes of interest, making this book a valuable resource for anyone seeking to learn about the tradition of Irish folklore.
While I have given this anthology a five-star rating based on it's value as a source of information on Irish mythology, it would probably be worth only four stars for entertainment value alone. Some of the stories are very short and/or don't have much of a point, and are less interesting. These tend to serve more as testimony to the nature of a particular mythical being rather than being an actual story with a plot and message for the reader. Nevertheless, the book as a whole offers a very comprehensive look at just what defines Irish folk culture. The stories that do have a point sometimes take the form of "how things came to be this way" tales, or provide a moral lesson, etc. Many of the stories are rather dark, as that tends to be the nature of lore from this region, but there are also some lighthearted and cheerful pieces.
Despite the book having been compiled more than one hundred years ago, most of the stories are quite easy to read. Yeats makes things even more simple for the reader by making footnotes where old Irish words or phrases are used, giving us their meaning. However, there are a few stories that have been left in a more archaic form, which is distracting and a bit harder to decipher. Take, for example, the following excerpt:
". . . the minit he puts his knife into the fish, there was a murtherin' screech, that you'd the life id lave you if you hurd it, and away jumps the throut out av the fryin'-pan into the middle o' the flure; and an the spot where it fell, up riz a lovely lady - the beautifullest crathur that eyes ever seen, dressed in white, and a band o' goold in her hair, and a sthrame o' blood runnin' down her arm" (pg. 46).
I should probably make note of the fact, for those whom it might interest, that although the title page says the book is "profusely illustrated," there are actually only a few pictures. I believe only six of the over seventy stories are illustrated, and these with simple (but nice), old-fashioned line drawings in black and white. However this is not really a criticism as I view it, since I like the book for its literary content and wouldn't really care if it had no pictures at all.
One of the things I enjoy most about literature is finding connections with other works I've read, and "Irish Fairy & Folk Tales" does not disappoint in this regard. Many of the pieces are derivations of other, more common fairy tales. For instance, "Smallhead and the King's Sons" (Ghosts / pg. 194) incorporates some elements from both "Cinderella" and "Hansel and Gretel," while "The Giant's Stairs" (Giants / pg. 355) has some similarities to the story of "Jack and the Beanstalk." There are more connections like this. On the whole I found this book to be very enjoyable, and also a valuable read from a literary / academic standpoint. I'd certainly recommend it to anyone interesting in the history of Irish culture, the study of fairy tales and folklore, or both.