Keepers of the folklore

Sat, Feb 9, 2008, 00:00

We might take it for granted now, but our rich folklore archive survives thanks to the work of a handful of determined people, writes Mícheál Briody.

Between 1935 and 1970, the Irish Folklore Commission (Coimisiún Béaloideasa Éireann) assembled one of the world's largest folklore collections. Under the direction of Séamus Ó Duilearga (James Hamilton Delargy), in its heyday the commission was considered one of the foremost folklore institutions in the world.

Its advice was sought by foreign institutions and governments alike, students came from abroad to train at its head office, while hundreds of foreign scholars visited the commission to consult its archive and research library and better acquaint themselves with its work, sometimes accompanying its collectors in the field.

That the commission should have achieved such a leading role on a world stage within little over a decade of its being established is remarkable, for as Ó Duilearga wrote to an Estonian friend many years later, assembling an archive of Irish folklore meant "making something out of nothing, for we had to begin at the beginning, as the material had never been collected, although it was available to an amazing extent in many parts of Ireland".

In the early 20th century, Ireland was believed by many to possess the richest oral tradition in western Europe, but before the setting up of the Folklore of Ireland Society (Cumann le Béaloideas Éireann) in January 1927, there existed no body specifically devoted to collecting this tradition and placing it in safekeeping.

This society might in time have succeeded in saving a good deal of Irish folklore, but it would not have managed to amass the large collections of oral tradition that were later to be assembled in Ireland. Nor would it have spawned offshoots such as the Irish Folklore Institute (1930-1935) and, later, the Irish Folklore Commission, without the drive, determination, and vision of Ó Duilearga, its librarian and editor of its journal, Béaloideas.

There was no certainty, however, that Ó Duilearga would come to see as his life's mission the saving of Irish folklore for posterity. A graduate of Celtic studies, and assistant to the professor of modern Irish in UCD since spring 1923, he might well have pursued a career in mainstream Celtic studies. Neither is it certain that sufficient state support would have been provided for him to realise his dream.

THE SETTING UP of the Irish Folklore Commission in April 1935 (and much of its effective operation) hinge on three events: Firstly, Ó Duilearga's meeting with the accomplished storyteller Seán Ó Conaill in the small mountain hamlet of Cill Rialaigh in southwest Kerry in August 1923; secondly, his making the acquaintance in July 1927 of the Swedish folklorist Carl Wilhelm von Sydow of the University of Lund, and his subsequent six-month-long study trip to Sweden and northern Europe the following year; and, lastly, his interview in May 1933 with Éamon de Valera, president of the executive council of the Irish Free State, at which the latter agreed to fund a five-year survey to salvage the folklore of Ireland.

In later years, Ó Duilearga was wont to say it was in Seán Ó Conaill's small mountain cottage that he was inspired not only to collect the folklore of one individual but of a whole people. However, his meeting with von Sydow in 1927 and his trip to northern Europe in 1928 helped him shape his vision of how best to realise this goal, while his interview with de Valera provided him with the resources to achieve it.

Not only did the commission have a high international profile in its heyday, its work was also well known and highly regarded at home. Through its collecting, the commission touched the lives of thousands of informants, and those of their families. In many parts of Ireland, particularly in Gaeltacht areas, the commission's full-time collectors in time became somewhat of an institution. Their visits were very often eagerly awaited and much hospitality shown them.

Its part-time collectors, both in the Gaeltacht and elsewhere in the country, would also have made many ordinary people aware of the commission's work, as indeed would the hundreds of questionnaire correspondents who elicited information for it throughout the length and breadth of the country. Furthermore, the Schools Scheme of 1937-1938 made a whole generation of schoolchildren aware, to varying degrees, of the work of the commission, and turned thousands of them into collectors in their own right.

The bulk of the commission's main collection, some 54 per cent, was collected by the commission's full-time collectors between 1935 and 1970. These collectors (24 in all) were the backbone of the commission, who, along with their head-office colleagues, made tremendous personal sacrifices in amassing this great collection: working long hours for meagre wages, with no pension rights and no security of tenure. Part-time collectors assembled some 39 per cent of the main collection and were paid by the page. Questionnaire correspondents did their work gratis, but usually received a free copy of Béaloideas in recognition of their services.

Questionnaire returns amount to approximately 6 per cent of the main collection. By the time the commission was disbanded in 1970, its main collection comprised some 720,300 manuscript pages (which includes about 50,000 pages of folklore inherited from the Folklore of Ireland Society and its offshoot, the Irish Folklore Institute).

It was not until 1962 that each full-time collector could be supplied with a portable tape recorder. Prior to that the full-time collectors had to make use of the cumbersome Ediphone. For economy, Ediphone cylinders were transcribed and reused. From the late 1940s, however, the commission had its own mobile studio and began assembling a sound archive of permanent recordings to complement its main collection.

The schools collection, comprising more than a million pages, is divided into the official manuscript books into which a selection of the material from each school was written (bound in 1,126 volumes), and some 40,000 copybooks written by the children containing a great deal of material not found in the bound volumes of the collection. Unlike the main collection, in which the bulk of the material is in Irish, most of the schools collection is in English.

ALTHOUGH THE COMMISSION was originally intended to run for only five years, it was to last for 35. The reasons for this were twofold. Firstly, it soon became apparent that the amount of folklore to be collected was greater than anybody, even Ó Duilearga, realised. It simply could not have been collected in five years. Secondly, for a variety of ideological and political reasons, it took more than a generation for a permanent home to be found for the commission's collections. A home might have been found much sooner but for the fact that Ó Duilearga sought to have the commission reconstituted in UCD, where he first held the post of lecturer and later professor.

Objections to making the commission an integral part of UCD came from three quarters. Firstly, many in the Irish-language movement and in the Folklore of Ireland Society were against transferring a national institute such as the commission, so intimately bound up with the Irish language, to UCD because of the College's unwillingness to initiate Irish-medium teaching.

Secondly, elements in Fianna Fáil were prejudiced against UCD because many on its staff had sided with the pro-Treatyites in the Civil War. Thirdly, de Valera believed that a research institute such as the commission could be best catered for in a non-university setting, either as a separate school of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies or as an independent institute. The commission from the beginning, was, however, housed in UCD, and nobody seems to have objected to this arrangement.

In time those most opposed to transferring the commission to the ownership of UCD departed the scene, and in 1971 the commission's collections and staff were reconstituted in UCD as the department of Irish folklore (since renamed the Delargy Centre for Irish Folklore and National Folklore Collection), its collections becoming the property of the College.

The commission's collections have grown a great deal since then, but almost 40 years on, despite numerous efforts over the years, these have yet to be housed in a secure, custom-built archive, and sufficient archival and research staff provided to ensure their proper care and utilisation.

The Irish Folklore Commission 1935-1970: History, Ideology, Methodology by Mícheál Briody is published by the Finnish Literature Society.