Literacy and Orality in Eighteenth-Century Irish Song (Poetry and Song in the Age of Revolution)

By Julie Henigan. 2012. London: Pickering & Chatto. 272 pages. ISBN: 978-1-84893-342-2 (hard cover).


Reviewed by James E. Doan, Nova Southeastern University

[Review length: 286 words • Review posted on January 22, 2014]


Published in a new series, Poetry and Song in the Age of Revolution, this volume presents an overview of topics relating to Irish poetry and song: specifically to what degree they were shaped by earlier oral and literary traditions. This question has been at the crux of much scholarship on medieval and modern Irish literature for the past thirty-five years or so, including works by such scholars as James Carney, Proinsias MacCana, Seán Ó Coileáin, Alan Bruford, Edgar Slotkin, and Joseph Nagy. Not limiting herself to just the Gaelic tradition, Julie Henigan incorporates both Irish- and English-language materials in her study.

Henigan prefaces her work with a discussion of the larger issues concerning literacy and orality in folklore research over much of the same period. Though it is difficult to summarize the various strands of her argument, she does make a claim for a particularly complex relationship between the oral and literary traditions in Ireland, which numerous other scholars have also suggested. Not reducing this to a dichotomy of high vs. low, elite vs. popular, or learned vs. illiterate segments of the society, she instead sees a rich interplay among all of them up to the present day. The final chapter of the book, “The Eighteenth-Century Irish Ballad and Modern Oral Tradition,” looks at modern performances and adaptations of traditional and non-traditional works within the context of the Irish and diaspora communities where they are performed and for whom they have the most meaning.

This book should be useful for folklorists and Celticists, historians, and those with interests in cultural studies. Well researched and written, it provides an excellent addition to the already rich bibliography of tomes dealing with orality and literacy in an Irish context.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.