‘Out of the Mouths of Babes’: An Archaeology of the National Folklore Collection

Schoolchildren, Waterford, 1932.

Image: National Library of Ireland / Flickr Commons (NLI Ref: P_WP_3910)

For the day that’s in it, I bring glorious tidings of a recently unveiled fantastic new historical & archaeological resource, wrapped up with a festive angle for good measure. Dúchas.ie is a new website of an incredible project (work in progress) which holds the long-awaited & venerable task of digitizing the National Folklore Collection of Ireland – ‘one of the largest folklore collections in the world’ – and ultimately making it available online for all. In the last two weeks, it has released its first fruits, 80% (c. 64,000 individual items) of handwritten folklore material from four counties in the Schools’ Folklore Collection (Dublin, Donegal, Mayo and Waterford) all beautifully digitized, readable, and zoomable on a clean, clear interface.

The Irish Folklore Collection is, quite simply, one of the nations greatest modern cultural treasures:

Detailed transcripts of interviews conducted by folklore collectors from the 1930s to the present are bound in volumes and stored in the Manuscript Archive of the NFC. The names of collectors, informants (storytellers) and correspondents, and details of the varied subject matter of their conversations, are provided in a series of finding aids.

Most of the material in the Collection has been assembled by full-time collectors of the Irish Folklore Commission (1935-1971) and its successors, and collecting activity is ongoing. A large proportion of the material taken down by full-time collectors consists of transcripts of field recordings in both Irish and English, made initially on wax-cylinder recording machines.

The Main Manuscript Collection also contains material recorded by part-time collectors and by a network of correspondents throughout Ireland in response to questionnaires. Information collected in this way includes descriptions of seasonal customs, beliefs and practices, historical tradition, as well as detailed information regarding Ireland’s material and social culture.

IFC Manuscripts

One of the most outstanding aspects of the above is the ‘Schools Collection’, a huge volume of material gathered by schoolchildren throughout the length and breadth of the country in the late 1930s under the guidance of their teachers and the Irish Folklore Commission. Essentially, national school children were sent home with questionnaires and starting points and asked to collect a wide range of folklore from the older members of their family. This was an incredible undertaking and logistical feat in itself and one which occurred at a crucial point in Irish history. Their older family members and informants, people in their 60s,70s & 80s, were the last of a very important generation: those who had been born to survivors of the Irish Famine who had not emigrated. These were the last generation with any hope of retaining local pre-famine memories, customs & traditions from those who had not. Collecting what they could from them, before they passed on, was one of the most prescient acts of cultural safeguarding the fledgling Irish State ever undertook.

The famine of course looms large in the Irish historical consciousness for the appalling loss of life and the resulting forced emigration of millions in its wake. But a secondary aspect not usually articulated is the effect it had on social & folk memory. With widespread depopulation in large parts of the country, the cultural ‘landscape’ itself – which had previously been a living canvas upon which people farmed, worked and inhabited – was largely erased within a few short years. The layers of history, stories, traditions, and topographical lore of over-subscribed fields, villages and townlands disappeared along with those who died or emigrated. Those left behind inherited a much smaller fountain of knowledge from fewer people with less knowledge, and with substantially different ways of walking, working and viewing the landscape alongside its inevitable industrialisation and modernisation. Which makes these last vestiges of localised folk memories, customs and traditions – intimately entwined with the surrounding landscape – so very valuable.

From a purely archaeological point of view, the folklore collection is filled with equally valuable early & incidental detail, usually inadvertently provided, concerning local antiquities, ruins, features in their respective landscapes – many of which do not survive, or have been much reduced. In my time and research, I’ve come across descriptions, plans, sketch maps and drawings of early medieval souterrains, ringforts, burial mounds, church sites, graveyards, holy wells, crosses, pillars, ogam stones, penitential cairns, wooden artefacts, bronze age Cist graves and stone age flint tools… all of which are literally wrapped in original ‘packaging’ so to speak: that is, the local placenames, field names and townlands in both Irish and English. Placenames which, even when corrupted, sometimes contain older aspects and indications of previous settlement activity – very many of which are totally unknown within the same localities today. For anyone beginning an archaeological study of anywhere in Ireland, the national folklore collection, organised along geographic and political units (townlands, parishes, baronies) is an essential port of call – if nothing else than to see what has been previously recorded/unrecorded in the locality.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

To give just one example, from one school, that of St. Patrick’s National School, An Cheathrú Mhór (Carrowmore, Lackan, Co. Mayo):

In the returns sent from that school we have some fantastic information on the Irish placenames in Lackan, complete with very precise topographical details; the lore behind signs of the weather and how people read the land in turns of what was to come; as well as the customs surrounding the religious feasts of the year. We also have incidental architectural detail concerning the old protestant ‘school around the corner’ and explicit detail concerning the older methods of local house building styles. For the day that’s in it, we have accounts of how they spent Christmas  in times past, along with a wonderful detailed account of making bread and oatmeal cakes at outdoor locations in the townlands, utilising millstones situated at ancient boundaries.

“Every household made an oatmeal cake every Christmas Night and gave a bit of the cake to each of the farm animals in turn and especially to the ass”

Of particular interest to me, of course, is a lot of detail concerning Holy Wells and their associated saints of the area, particularly that of St. Patrick and St. Cummin. Indeed, some of the local folklore concerning St. Cummin as a baby is couched in much older medieval hagiographic motif and legal formula.

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Kilcummin Church, Mayo. (Image: Author)

The ‘Folk’ in Folklore

I first came across the folklore from the children of St. Patricks School, Carrowmore, back in 2007, when I was embarking on a series of fieldwork forays in the surrounding area. I spent days in the Folklore Archives in UCD, reading and transcribing these very pages from the original hardback volumes. I remember feeling extremely grateful to the likes of the remarkably prolific Kathleen Duggan and her classmates for including such information – which gave me much in the way of pointers towards certain areas and localities I wished to follow-up.

Fast forward a few months, and I found myself on a bike traipsing around the backroads of deepest darkest north Co. Mayo in beautiful June weather – visiting church sites, exploring some of the country off the beaten track and seeking out old pilgrim sites, holy wells and half forgotten archaeological lumps and bumps. I would go whole days without seeing a human being or meeting a vehicle on the roads. One morning, after cresting the wonderfully named locality of ‘Gallows Hill’, I started speeding down a gravelled boreen. Halfway down I flashed past an abandoned building, and as I did so, something caught the corner of my eye. ..

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(Image: author)

I skidded to a halt, turned back around, trudged up the hill and leaned my bike against the rusting gate.

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Without knowing or intending to, I had come face to face with the very school that Kathleen Duggan and her classmates had gone to. The very building in which they had written up the folklore I had previously consulted: Scoil Naomh Padraig, St. Patricks School, Carrowmore; established just 5 years prior to their efforts.

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(Image: author)

The school had been apparently used up to relatively recent times, before a more modern one was built a little way out the road. The shell of the 1930s building was still there, give or take a few later additions.

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The detritus of schooldays past still visible within the windows…

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The (later) schoolyard, half overgrown,with fading children’s paintings of the French Landing at Killala, 1798…

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And the view from the school door, looking south out the old school gate, towards Nephin framed in the distance – a mountain intimately linked with local Patrician legends. It doesn’t take much to imagine the same scene on a morning in 1938. Perhaps the Teacher, Mr. P Ó Glacáin, standing looking out at his arriving children and Kathleen Duggan, coming through the gate with her folklore ‘homework’ done… 

A Present from the Past

And so, given the festive season, I’d like to raise a virtual glass to all the above – to the children who collected such reams of folklore, their teachers and the folklore commission who archived it safely. Most are long gone and even the school buildings have become archaeological monuments in themselves; but their pages and handwriting and the folklore they collected continue on, physically – and now digitally –  providing us with voices from the past that played a large part in preserving cultural heritage for the future. At a time of the year when we naturally focus on giving presents to children, it seems curiously appropriate, as adults, to receive such cultural treasures from children.

Thank you, Kathleen, et al. And Merry Christmas.

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For more on the ongoing project to digitize the National Folklore Collection, see http://www.duchas.ie

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14 thoughts on “‘Out of the Mouths of Babes’: An Archaeology of the National Folklore Collection

  1. Two weeks from tomorrow I will be 76. I was born in Cork City in 1938 and had the privilege of being a regular long stay child visitor to Ballinagree where people still lived and worked more or less as they had in the late 19th century. They were, of course, the children of families who had survived the famine but they said nothing about it to me – I imagine that they did not want to shock or frighten me…

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    • Mr Tobin,

      Thank you so very much for commenting. It is a privilege to be read by someone of your generation and to hear of your experience. I can only imagine how deep that ‘old silence’ went in those days. I probably would have done the same. Hopefully, when cork county is digitized, you may be able to read some of the children of the area who must have only been a few years older than you at the time.

      Thank you for reminding us how close, yet far, removed, we are in this day and age.

      Have you considered contacting the NFC yourself with any memories/information you have? They are still collecting… and are always delighted to hear from those in he know.

      Like

  2. A lovely post, I remember reading the entries in Mullingar Library from Coole, not far from Lough Deravarragh, Co Westmeath, written by a bright little chap whose name I can’t remember now. A lot of stuff about fairy horses in the lake, etc. Well done to UCD, UCD Folklore and Dept of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht for this venture. Well done to this blogger for the post – wouldn’t it nice if somehow such abandoned schools were tied into this record now too?

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    • Cheers Aidan, yes, that would be a wonderful prospect. I know a fair few have been turned onto private residences, and others still exist in varying levels of dilapidation. Bit of a race against time. Few years ago I searched out, and brought my father back to, the school my grandfather went to c.1909. It is nothing more than a baling shed now, but still recognisable.

      Hint hint to any students out there, looking for a dissertation project…

      Like

    • Katie, that’s incredible! Thanks so much for telling us. I hope I did her proud. I’d love to know more about her. Did she ever mention the folklore collection process? And did she ever get to see her own pieces in the archive? Do you know where she lived, as in the particular townland name?

      voxhiberionacum@gmail.com if you do not wish to do so in public.

      Many thanks, you’ve made my day.

      Like

  3. My father took part in this scheme, I enjoyed seeing his neat handwriting and reading the tale he collected. It was interesting too to sometimes see phrases and snatches of songs in Irish, to learn something of the way the people spoke Irish in my locality.

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  4. Hi, I just came across this blog – most interesting as I have deep roots to the North East Mayo area and have done quite a bit of research. Quick question, where was Gallows Hill in Lacken?

    John

    Like

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