Harvesting the memories


`Gathering folklore was akin to fishing - both took time and patience . . . I became hooked on folklore - the search, the clues, the earliest known sighting of a tale or tradition," writes Brid Mahon in her just-published While Green Grass Grows: Memoirs Of A Folklorist. She was engaged in the business of fishing for stories for the whole of her working life, in her job with the Irish Folklore Commission.

The commission was established in 1935, and was first run from a building in Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin, where turf fires burned regularly in the grates. Later, it moved to St Stephen's Green. It was impressed upon all who worked at the commission by Seamus Delargy, its honorary director, that their work was "a race against time". In 1971, the Department of Irish Folklore was set up in UCD, and all the thousands of notebooks, stories, tunes, tapes and memories collected over the decades moved to the new campus at Belfield. The commission's race to harvest stories continues, but it's now a race with only one full-time folklorist in it.

Folklorists are surely the anthropologists of the aural. Apart from recording stories, they also collect in their notebooks details about such subjects as food and clothes, thereby documenting something of the social texture of earlier times. "When someone died, it was the custom to wear their clothes for three Sundays in a row. Otherwise, the dead person would go naked into the next world," Brid says. In the course of her work Brid went to Belgium in 1984, to campaign for the return of St Brigid's cloak to Kildare. The cloak had been presented to the Flemish people by a Saxon princess almost 1,000 years earlier. But the Belgians were not for turning. St Brigid's deep-red cloak still lies in a glass case in a Bruges cathedral.

Another, more unexpected task that went with the job was the business of buying items for various members of the public. There was a core of about 500 people around the country who answered the questionnaires that were sent out on a regular basis on such topics as the Famine and pattern days. On returning their completed forms, they sometimes enclosed money, with requests for items that could not be bought in their home places at that time. Thus Brid found herself buying and posting down the country such diverse things as snuff from Fox's, the tobacconists, and a wedding dress from Switzers. In her Dublin home Brid is like a bird, flitting from bookcase to bookcase, fetching papers and books to illustrate various tales. Out of a simple brown envelope, Walt Disney's looping signature, familiar from the credits of all his films, appears like magic. "I only found this again about a week ago," Brid confesses. The signature had been mislaid for almost half a century.

Disney came to the commission's offices in 1946, looking for stories for a proposed film. The commission tried to interest him in the Tain, the Children of Lir, Diarmuid and Grainne. However, "nothing but leprechauns would do the man". The resulting film was Darby O'Gill And The Little People, starring Jimmy O'Dea.

Brid is herself a sort of mobile folklore library. She has stories about everyone. She visited the 80-year-old Maud Gonne, who held court in an armchair in Roebuck House with wolfhounds at her feet. She knew Frank O'Connor well, and Miceal Mac Liammoir. On the one occasion she met James Stephens, halfway through their meeting he wandered off to a corner of the room where he stood on his head. "He swore he regularly exercised in this manner, that it brought fresh blood to his brain and helped him concentrate."

Paddy Kavanagh used to have his lunch regularly in the same place as Brid. "Mostly, he talked about politics and horses." However, when Kavanagh got his £100 cheque for The Green Fool in the 1940s, he had other things on his mind. He asked Brid out for dinner in Dublin's famous French restaurant, Jammets. In her book, she recalls that evening. " `If you become my mistress,' he solemnly declared, `I shall write an ode to you, and your name will be forever enshrined in the poetry of the 20th century." ' She turned down the opportunity to be immortalised in a Raglan Road-type ballad. Still, they remained good friends.

On her sitting-room wall, there hangs a luminously beautiful painting of a circle of dancers in a glade. It is by George Russell - AE. On admiring it, Brid discloses that she "bought it in memory of Paddy Kavanagh, because AE was the first to befriend him".

When J.R.R. Tolkien visited Dublin, himself and Brid ended up one evening eating fish and chips from a takeaway in Rathmines. Where had he got the idea for The Hobbit, Brid inquired. "Without batting an eyelid, he told me that he had come across Bilbo Baggins's memoirs by chance in a densely written and obscure manuscript in the Bodleian Library in Oxford: `The chronicle, of course, had to be modernised and turned into English as far as possible.' " Appropriately, the fish being consumed was cod.

While Green Grass Grows: Memoirs Of A Folklorist is published by Mercier (£8.99).