- The Blessed and the Damned: Sinful Women and Unbaptised Children in Irish Folklore
Historians and folklorists do not necessarily make good bedfellows. One is concerned mainly with the busyness of everyday political, economic, religious, and cultural life, while the other tries to penetrate below the daily round to the underlying structures of thought that shaped motives and actions. Inevitably the historian is involved in a world of continual change while the folklorist’s cosmos appears almost static over time and space. However, the possibilities for the exchange of ideas are greater than one might expect, and this book is a fine example of such cross-disciplinary activity. It is a successor to Anne O’Connor’s earlier fine study Child Murderess and Dead Child Traditions (Helsinki, 1991). While both books draw on a similar corpus of evidence, they treat it in very different ways. The earlier work, as befits a book based on a dissertation, contains not only an analysis of stories about unbaptized and ghostly children in the Irish and European folklore tradition but also a series of texts and the scholarly apparatus of motif numbers among which unwary historians are likely to become confused and disorientated. This book, while dealing with a similar body of material, is a less empirical and more reflective work. It is intended not to lay out the evidence but rather to consider what the evidence of folklore about unbaptized children and child murderesses may tell us about religion and the supernatural in societies that told those stories. It is therefore a rereading of this evidence within a series of frames different from those that were employed in the earlier work. Thus a range of reading strategies is deployed from feminist theory through contexts provided by cultural studies to the more traditional historical- geographical method of folklore analysis. The result is an extremely interesting and stimulating book that enlightens a whole range of issues in the [End Page 577] Irish past as well as addressing a more contemporary range of concerns about religious identities and memory. A case in point is the suggestion that many of the apparently medieval exempla in these stories are, in fact, products of Tridentine reform (pp. 188–97). This seems highly likely given that preachers in Irish, such as Geoffrey Keating, resorted to works such as the Magna Exemplorum for at least some of their illustrative material. However, this also suggests the traditional nature of what passed for Tridentine reform in Ireland and hints at the use of conservative strategies by which bridges between traditional and Tridentine forms of spirituality were created. Again the similarities between Irish and Breton (and more generally French) traditions (pp. 208–09) highlighted in this book may well reveal something of a shift in Catholic Tridentine religious sensibilities. While the early-seventeenth century was dominated by religious works from a Spanish tradition, and particularly that of the Low Countries, in the later seventeenth century when Bishop Luke Wadding of Ferns imported religious books for his diocese it was to France that he looked for his supply of works. Such story traditions may have traveled a similar route. This, as these two examples indicate, is a richly suggestive book for historians interested in the religious cultures of Ireland over time. It demonstrates the importance of multiple readings and approaches to the sometimes intractable evidence that makes up the raw material for interpreting religious identities in Ireland.