Collecting the Folklore of Ireland

The Irish Folklore Commission (1935-1971)

The increased interest in Gaeltacht areas in the 1920s resulting from the gaelicisation policies of the newly-founded Irish State , also focused attention on the oral traditions enshrined in the Irish language. Some scholars who visited the Gaeltachtaí to learn or improve their knowledge of the Irish language, collected folklore as part of that exercise. Séamus Ó Duilearga, for example, collected the repertoire of Séan Ó Conaill of Cill Rialaigh, Co. Kerry, during the 1920s,[1] and that of Stiofán Ó hEalaoire, Killilagh parish, northwest Clare, between 1930 and 1943.[2] Folktales taken down by The Celtic scholar, Kenneth H. Jackson, from Peig Sayers of the Great Blasket Island , between 1932 and 1937, were published as Scéalta ón mBlascaod (‘Tales from the [Great] Blasket’) in 1938.

The richness of the oral heritage preserved in the Irish language already evident in the published collections of Douglas Hyde, and Jackson, and in the fieldwork carried out by Séamus Ó Duilearga in Kerry and Clare, focused attention on the need to set up structures to collect and publish the folklore of Ireland on a more formal and systematic basis. The foundation of An Cumann le Béaloideas Éireann/The Folklore of Ireland Society, and its journal Béaloideas (with Séamus Ó Duilearga as Editor), in 1927, was the first significant step in this direction. The next was the six-month visit by Séamus Ó Duilearga to Sweden (and other Scandinavian countries, and also to Finland , Estonia and Germany ) in 1928,[3] to acquaint himself with the folklore archives and academic institutions for the study of folklore long established in those countries. His contact with Carl Wilhelm von Sydow (Lund), Dag Strombäck and Åke Campbell (Uppsala), and Reidar Th. Christiansen (Oslo), turned out to be of fundamental importance for the later setting up of structures in Ireland for the collecting of folklore, the training of staff, and the production of key works necessary for the development of the Irish Folklore Collections and for making them accessible to national and international scholarship. In 1930, Ó Duilearga was appointed Honorary Director of the Irish Folklore Institute (1930-1935),[4] and then of the government-established Irish Folklore Commission,[5] from its foundation in 1935 until it became the Department of Irish Folklore in University College Dublin, in 1971.

The Irish Folklore Commission was a remarkably successful institution. Its full and part-time collectors, its special collection initiatives such as the School's Scheme (1937-8),[6] and its extensive network of questionnaire correspondents, enabled a vast amount of folklore to be amassed over the decades. In directing the work of collection, Séamus Ó Duilearga set the highest standards for himself and his field-workers, in relation to the provenance of the material, fidelity to the words and language of the storyteller, the depiction of the context and performance of the narrative event, and the portrayal of the storyteller and his or her way of life. Acoustic documentation to capture the vocal performance of narrative or song, was also carried out, using gramophone discs initially and   then tape-recorders from about the 1960s. Seán Ó Súilleabháin (1903-1996), archivist of the Commission and trained in Sweden (1935), systematised the collected material, and his A Handbook of Irish Folklore (1942), published by the Folklore of Ireland Society, with its list of fourteen major subject areas and suggested lines of enquiry (Settlement and Dwelling; Livelihood and Household Support; Communications and Trade; The Community; Human Life; Nature; Folk Medicine; Time; Principles and Rules of Popular Belief and Practice; Mythological Tradition; Historical Tradition; Religious Tradition; Popular Oral Literature; Sports and Pastimes) was fundamental to the success of the Commission’s collecting strategy. By means of the journal Béaloideas, and a variety of publications issued by the Irish Folklore Institute[7] and the Irish Folklore Commission,[8] Séamus Ó Duilearga brought the richness of the Irish folk narrative tradition, particularly examples of international folktales, and Ossianic and heroic tales which he or others had collected from the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland, to the attention of international scholars, making the material accessible through the use of English-language translations and the provision of scholarly annotation of the various texts. The Types of the Irish Folktale (1963), which Seán Ó Súilleabháin compiled together with Reidar Th. Christiansen ( Oslo ), confirmed Ireland ’s place at the heart of international folktale scholarship. Recognising the community of culture between Ireland, Gaelic Scotland and the Isle of Man, Calum Maclean, a native Scottish-Gaelic speaker from the Isle of Raasay, was appointed a full-time collector for the Commission in the Western Isles of Scotland (1945-50), and in 1948, Commission staff recorded on disks the last native speakers of Manx in the Isle of Man.[9]

In developing a material culture/ethnological dimension to folklore collecting in Ireland, Séamus Ó Duilearga invited Dr. Åke Campbell, Dialect and Folklore Archive, Uppsala, to Ireland in 1934, to carry out an ethnological survey of the way of life of Seán Ó Conaill – the Co. Kerry storyteller whose repertoire he had collected in the 1920s. In 1935, he invited Dr. Campbell, together with Dr. Albert Nilsson (Eskeröd) of Stockholm University , to conduct a survey of Irish rural houses in the southeast, south, southwest, west and northwest of Ireland .[10] The Commission later appointed Caoimhín Ó Danachair (Kevin Danaher, 1913-2002) as its ethnological expert, and he played a decisive role in the areas of vernacular architecture, calendar custom and traditional foodways for the Commission, and later as a lecturer in the Department of Irish Folklore.[11]

Although storytelling was no longer a significant part of the fabric of local entertainment in most parts of Ireland even in the early 1920s, Séamus Ó Duilearga and the collectors of the Irish Folklore Commission caught a last glimpse of an erstwhile venerable institution – which was evocatively described by Ó Duilearga in his Rhys Memorial Lecture, entitled The Gaelic Storyteller, delivered to the British Academy in 1945, and reiterated by him in a variety of articles throughout his life.

In response to his celebration of the Gaelic storyteller, five Irish-language storytellers – from the extensive catalogue of narrators recorded by the Irish Folklore Commission – are presented here. They were regarded by the Commission as outstanding surviving exponents of the traditional art of storytelling which had once flourished throughout the Gaelic world.

[1] Ó Duilearga, Séamus (eag.), Leabhar Sheáin Í Chonaill, Baile Átha Cliath 1948; Ó Duilearga, Séamus (ed.), Seán Ó Conaill’s Book, Dublin 1981. (Translated by Máire Mac Neill).

[2] Ó Duilearga, Séamus (eag.), Leabhar Stiofáin Uí Ealaoire, Baile Átha Cliath 1981.

[3] Ó Catháin, Séamas, Formation of a Folklorist, Dublin 2008.

5Ó Catháin, Séamus, ‘Institiúid Bhéaloideas Éireann 1930-1935’, Béaloideas 73 (2005), 85-110.

[5] Almqvist, Bo, ‘The Irish Folkore Commission. Achievement and Legacy’, Béaloideas 45-7 (1977-9), 6-26; Briody, Mícheál, The Irish Folklore Commission 1935-1970. History, Ideology, Methodology, Helsinki 2007.

[6] Ó Catháin, Séamas, ‘Súil Siar ar Scéim na Scol, 1937-1938’, Sinsear 5 (1988), 19-30.

[7] Important publications of the Irish Folklore Institute included: “An Seabhac” [Pádraig Ó Siochfhradha], An Seanchaidhe Muimhneach, Baile Átha Cliath 1932; Ó Tuathaill, Éamonn, Sgéalta Mhuintir Luinigh, Baile Átha Cliath 1933; de hÍde, Dubhghlas, An Sgéuluidhe Gaedhealach, Baile Átha Cliath 1933.

[8] Publications under the auspices of the Commission included the important comparative study: Christiansen, Reidar Th., Studies in Irish and Scandinavian Folktales, Copenhagen 1959, and the classic work on calendar custom: MacNeill, Máire, The Festival of Lughnasa, Oxford 1962.

[9] See Skeealyn Vannin. Stories of Mann. The Complete Collection of Manx Language Archive Recordings made by the Irish Folklore Commission in 1948, Douglas, Isle of Man 2003.

[10] Lysaght, Patricia, ‘Swedish Ethnological Surveys in Ireland and their Aftermath’, in High Cheape (ed.), Tools and Traditions. Studies in European Ethnology Presented to Alexander Fenton, Edinburgh 1993, 22-31.

[11] For Caoimhín Ó Danachair’s publications, see Lysaght, Patricia, ‘Caoimhín Ó Danachair and his Published Work’, in Alan Gailey and Dáithí Ó hÓgáin (eds.), Gold under the Furze. Studies in Folk Tradition. Presented to Caoimhín Ó Danachair, Dublin 1982, 12-26.

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