Author, ethnologist and military historian

 

KEVIN DANAHER: Kevin Danaher (Caoimhín Ó Danachair), who died on March14th aged 89, was a pioneer of Irish ethnological studies, a prolific writer and an outstanding teacher. He brought immense energy and enthusiasm to his work for the Irish Folklore Commission.

His many books and articles reflect the wide range of his research - settlement and dwelling, livelihood and household support, folk custom and belief, social history, folk narrative and research methods. He made a significant contribution to ethnological mapping both in Ireland and abroad. He developed a mobile studio to record in the field and the many sound recordings he made saved a wealth of material from oblivion.

Central to his scholarship was the study of Irish vernacular architecture. His enduring interest in house-types and their effect on the physical and cultural environment was a constant throughout his career.

Kevin Danaher was born on January 30th, 1913, in Athea, Co Limerick, one of four sons of William Danaher, a teacher, and his wife Margaret (née Ryan). He was educated at Athea National School and Mungret College, Limerick, later studying archaeology at University College Dublin.

He spent his Christmas holidays in 1934 collecting the oral tradition of Athea for the Irish Folklore Institute, the body that preceded the Irish Folklore Commission. His interest in Irish rural architecture dates from this time.

In 1935, he accompanied the eminent Swedish ethnologist, Äke Campbell, on field trips to Galway and Mayo. This experience had a major influence on his subsequent career.

On graduating from UCD in 1937, he continued his studies as a Humboldt scholar at the Universities of Berlin and Leipzig. The outbreak of war in 1939 led to his early return to Ireland.

He began working for the Irish Folklore Commission in 1940 but the war again interrupted his work when he was recruited into the Defence Forces. He served in the Army as an artillery instructor and rose to the rank of captain. By the time he returned to work with the commission in 1945 he had completed his MA thesis on Irish house types.

In 1948, he travelled to the Isle of Man to record some of the surviving native speakers of Manx, thereby ensuring that a permanent record of this language exists. For the next four years he was engaged in field work in Ireland, recording singers, musicians and storytellers.

In the course of the 1952-'53 academic year he was a guest lecturer in Irish language, literature and tradition at the University of Uppsala, Sweden.

On returning to Ireland, his research into rural life resumed. He devised many of the commission's questionnaires on aspects of folk tradition which were circulated throughout the country. Replies to the questionnaires provided an invaluable resource for folklorists.

Kevin Danaher also compiled a substantial pictorial archive, much of it consisting of an assortment of fine photographs he had taken. It also included plans, diagrams and drawings of traditional farmyard tools and household utensils.

The fruits of his labour were relayed to the general public through lectures, television programmes and particularly through his writings which enjoyed a wide readership. He lectured extensively at university seminars and summer schools and to learned societies and local groups. His 1967 series for RTÉ, The Hearth and Stool and All, depicted the Irish countryside as it would have appeared at the turn of the 20th century.

Kevin Danaher devised Bunratty Folk Park, an excellent example of applied folk-life, which features a range of buildings illustrating the social history of the Shannon areas of south Clare and north Limerick. Traditional furnishings and fittings are seen in context and are augmented by the Talbot Collection of agricultural machinery.

Kevin Danaher was also adviser to the trustees of Muckross House Museum and maintained a close interest in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum at Cultra, Co Down.

In 1971, when the Irish Folklore Commission was transferred to UCD, he became a lecturer in the newly-created Department of Irish Folklore where he proved to be a popular and inspirational teacher.

He played a major role in the establishment in 1973 of an undergraduate course in folk-life studies which has been very successful in training people in all aspects of folk-life research.

He was a member of the National Monuments Advisory Council, An Foras Forbartha's Nature and Amenity, Conservation and Amenity Committee and Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann (The Folklore Council of Ireland). From 1965 to 1980 he was general editor of the Irish Life and Culture series of the Cultural Relations Committee of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Further afield he was a member of the working group of the European Ethnological Atlas and served as president of the Society for Folk-life Studies.

He retained an interest in military matters and was for 11 years (1960-'71) editor of The Irish Sword, the journal of the Military History Society of Ireland, of which he was president.

His publications include Ireland Long Ago (1962), The Year in Ireland (1972), Ireland's Vernacular Architecture (1975), A Bibliography of Irish Ethnology and Folk Tradition (1978) and That's How It Was (1984).

A Doctorate of Literature was conferred on him by the National University of Ireland in 1974. A festschrift in his honour, Gold Under the Furze, was published on his 70th birthday in 1983, which was also the occasion of his retirement from UCD.

Kevin Danaher is survived by his wife Anna and sons, Donal and John (Seán).

Kevin Danaher: born 1913; died, March 2002