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Words from the People

Síle Ní Mhurchú

An Irish Folklore Treasury: A Selection of Old Stories, Ways and Wisdom from the Schools’ Collection, by John Creedon, Gill Books, 312 pp, €24.99, ISBN: 978-0717194223

The Schools’ Collection was a scheme initiated by the Irish Folklore Commission in the 1930s whereby children throughout the Irish Free State were instructed to gather lore and local traditions from older people living in their neighbourhoods. The result was a substantial collection gathered in over five thousand primary schools and amounting to approximately 740,000 pages of material. Its value has long been known to scholars, but accessibility has been increased greatly in recent years by a project of digitisation, which can be accessed at https://www.duchas.ie/. This very attractive website allows users to browse images of the original manuscript books, generally written in the pupils’ best cursive hand.

The Dúchas website also contains digitised material from the Main Manuscript Collection, which was made by trained adult collectors of folklore, an archive of photographs and a great deal of informative supplementary material such as indexes and articles. The physical sources from which these derive are held in the National Folklore Collection, UCD. An interesting feature of the Dúchas project is that of the meitheal: this word traditionally refers to a working party, particularly in an agricultural setting at harvest-time; but here it refers to a crowdsourcing scheme whereby members of the public were invited to try their hand at transcribing the texts of the digitised images. This was evidently successful: at the time of writing, the website reports that 100 per cent of the English material digitised to date has been transcribed, as well as 82 per cent of the Irish-language texts.

In Irish, folklore is referred to as béaloideas, a word first entered into the written record by the historian Séathrún Céitinn (Geoffrey Keating) in the seventeenth century, who proclaimed that the three sources for determining historical truth, apart from the Bible, were the béaloideas of the ancients, old writings and antique remains. Céitinn, trained in bardic learning in Ireland and in Tridentine theology in France, belonged, of course, to a very different intellectual tradition from that of modern scholars of béaloideas, but it is interesting that the Irish word is so much older than the word folklore, which was coined in 1846 by the English antiquarian William Thoms. Béaloideas can by translated literally as ‘oral instruction’, but it covers a great deal more than the sum of its parts and my admittedly subjective impression is that it suggests something more nourishing and sustaining than its English equivalent. In French, the expression ‘C’est du folklore’ (It’s folklore) means that something is utter nonsense: the associations of folklore in English, outside of academic circles, are less negative but my sense is that it is not valued as much as it might be. The work of projects such as Dúchas is thus of great importance in cultivating a widespread appreciation for such knowledge.

In the nineteenth century, folklore was collected in Ireland by private individuals of an antiquarian bent, and their approach was often idiosyncratic and less than systematic. Interest grew during the Irish Revival at the end of that century but it was only after independence and the founding of the Irish Folklore Institute, later the Irish Folklore Commission, that people were employed to collect it in a methodical fashion, drawing on insights from the academic field of folklore studies. State support for the collecting of folklore was not, of course, a product of purely academic interest: the creation of a large-scale folklore archive was a way of signalling the country’s cultural distinctiveness and reasserting its right to take its place among the nations of the world. Priority was given to collecting in rural, Irish-speaking areas: this fell in line with the ideology of the new state, of course, but it was not, to my mind, an unreasonable approach given that the language was in precipitous decline at the time, a problem of which the collectors were keenly aware. The Schools’ Scheme was in operation throughout the state, in both English- and Irish-speaking areas: Mícheál Briody argues that one consequence of it was to draw attention to the wealth of lore that existed in both languages but that the collection of English-language material was not pursued as vigorously as it might have been.

An Irish Folklore Treasury consists of a selection of material from the Schools’ Collection by the well-known and admired broadcaster John Creedon. Bookstores around the country are full of cynically marketed books by celebrities, often ghost-written and of poor quality. This book represents the opposite of that tiresome trend: Creedon’s personality and his genuine enthusiasm shine through in his writing. He relates the folklore material to his own experiences growing up in Cork city, to childhood visits to West Cork, to the many interesting characters he has met during his career, and much more. His discussion of heroes, for instance, takes in figures as varied as the Bold Thady Quill, Cú Chulainn, Katie Taylor and Lao Tzu. He tells a touching tale of how his father was inspired by the sight of the National Famine Memorial in Carrowkeel to share with him a memory of meeting a man who had told him of seeing the Famine dead and dying collected by ‘ambulance’, that is to say by a man in a cart sent out from the workhouse in Bantry. Mixed in with such personal thoughts and anecdotes is a light dusting of historical information that gives readers a context for some of the archive material ahead: a brief biography of John Twiss, wrongfully hanged, whose memory was preserved in folklore; a reminder that the rules of hurling were not standardised until the foundation of the GAA in 1884 and that the game had once been far more rambunctious than it is today; a short disquisition on Ireland’s move from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar and its impact on marriage customs.

Creedon has arranged his chosen material thematically: this reflects the structure of the Schools’ Collection to an extent as the children were instructed to collect specific types of material and given questions and suggestions for eliciting this from their informants. Thus, the book ranges from stories of ghosts, heroes and supernatural beings to information about food, crafting, folk medicine, religion, trades and pastimes. As Creedon mentions, the texts are a great source of interesting Hiberno-English words and expressions (he does not include any Irish-language material although we often find Irish words used in the English, reflecting how recently language shift had occurred in much of the country). The young collectors were between the ages of eleven and fourteen and the voice of childhood is audible in many of the texts. This is particularly notable in the section on games and pastimes, a topic on which children are, of course, the experts: ‘In Spring, I play skipping, hide and seek and many other games. The games we play in Spring keep our feet very warm,’ writes Kathleen Fallon of Kinvarra. An aspect of this theme are the games that used to be played long ago at wakes. So unfamiliar is this idea in contemporary Ireland that a student of mine once though I was joking when I mentioned that the folklorist Seán Ó Súilleabháin had written a book called Caitheamh Aimsire Ar Thórraimh or Irish Wake Amusements, but such games were once commonplace. Thus, one entry in Creedon’s selection, collected by Betty Gillespie of Easky, Co Sligo, mentions that mock weddings would be performed at wakes: ‘One fellow acts as a priest and he would marry another boy and girl, and they would have great fun at the sermon.’

The children collected many tales and stories. Among the selection of ghost stories, there is a fascinating one on body snatchers in Rathfarnham that reads like something the great MR James might have written. In the section on supernatural beings, there are a number of mermaid tales: a common theme is that the mermaid is captured and forced into marriage with a human man. When the mermaid finally escapes, the fate of her half-human children is often an unhappy one. These stories might be fantasy but they are disturbing and we might wonder whether they reflect otherwise unexpressed undercurrents of despair, torment and anxiety. They are short and do not attempt to convey the psychology of the characters as in a novel, yet they speak to modern readers and offer great scope for the imagination, as can be seen in Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill’s famous mermaid poems which have taken inspiration from them. On the other hand, the heroic tales in Creedon’s volume are short and some have a homely feel that contrasts with the adventure tales found in Irish manuscripts or those collected elsewhere from Irish storytellers. In one tale, we are presented with the two Ulster Cycle heroes Cú Chulainn and Ferdiad and their wives. Ferdiad’s wife dislikes Cú Chulainn and forces her husband to fight him. When Ferdiad arrives at Cú Chulainn’s house, his wife speaks as follows: ‘Here is Ferdiad coming. I wonder what he is looking for. I suppose he is looking for a fight. That wife of his is a holy fright.’ This is certainly different from the elevated dialogues of medieval Ulster Cycle texts. Cú Chulainn disguises himself as a baby and the size of him scares Ferdiad off. Again, we are very far here from the tragic combat of Cú Chulainn and Ferdiad that features in the Táin.

The sections of Creedon’s book that deal with practical matters are as compelling as the tales and stories. Anyone could guess that people in Ireland in the 1930s and earlier decades lived sustainably (without knowing it) but the level of detail on daily activities and the use of local materials is fascinating. Diets were limited and meat consumption was low but the ingenious variety of ways in which people made use of staples such as oats, milk and potatoes is impressive. One account gives step by step instructions on the making of blood pudding, beginning with the washing of pig intestines in a local stream. There is a great deal of detail on the production of items such as rush candles, soap, plant-based dyes, bricks, and much more. We also learn of the social side of work: women taking a break to eat hot bread and butter after churning and travelling tailors who would put the finishing touches to home-made garments.

Also detailed are folk medical practices, healing charms and popular religious beliefs. Creedon would see the latter two of these as representing relics of a pagan or pre-Christian system of belief. Another interpretation would be to see them as informal beliefs that existed alongside officially sanctioned ones. A Christian is no less Christian if they believe in the power of a verbal charm to cure disease or visit holy wells as well as the local church. Some of the entries in the section on religion speak of beautiful old prayers no longer heard or of prayers that disappeared along with the Irish language: this might be related to the Catholic church’s attempts in the later nineteenth century to eradicate unofficial forms of worship in Ireland.

The Schools’ Collection is a democratic one, reflecting how vast numbers of people in Ireland lived, ordinary people otherwise not well represented in the historical record. It is told in their own words: we can sense their joys and hardships, and we can relate to them as fellow human beings making the best of what life had to offer them. This too is a form of historical truth. John Creedon is to be congratulated for producing such a fine volume that will undoubtedly inspire many to take a deeper interest in the riches that folklore in its many forms has to offer us.


References are to Dinneen, Patrick S (ed), Foras Feasa ar Éirinn: The history of Ireland, by Geoffrey Keating, vol 2, London: Irish Texts Society (1908); Briody, Mícheál, History, Ideology, Methodology: The Irish Folklore Commission 1935–1970, Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society (2016); Ó Súilleabháin, Seán, Caitheamh Aimsire Ar Thórraimh, Dublin: An Clóchomhar (1961, Irish Wake Amusements, Cork: Mercier Press (1967); Ní Dhomhnaill, Nuala & Paul Muldoon (trans), The Fifty Minute Mermaid, Oldcastle: Gallery Press (2007).
Síle Ní Mhurchú is a lecturer in the Department of Modern Irish, University College Cork.





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