Folklore collector who specialised in traditions of Travelling community


Patrick Greene:Patrick Greene (Pádraig Mac Gréine), who has died aged 106, was a teacher and folklore collector, specialising in the stories and traditions of the Travelling community. He also collected stories among the settled community in north Longford, an area with a strong storytelling tradition. He is estimated to have transcribed 10,000 pages of folklore material in the course of his work.

In the 1930s he collected and published several lists of Shelta or Gammon vocabulary. He first learned of the existence of the secret language or Cant of Travellers from "Oney" Power, a Roscommon-born Traveller woman who lived on the Longford-Westmeath border.

Some Travellers were unhappy that a member of their community had revealed much of the Gammon to a "buffer" or settled person. They wrongly believed that this had enabled gardaí to learn the argot, making it useless in the presence of police. One man concluded that, "tellin' him the Gammon was like bein' a traitor to her own country".

Master Greene, as he was known locally, remained active in retirement. As a centenarian he renewed his driving licence for a further three years and he gave weekly classes to settled members of the Travelling community in Longford. Three years ago he lamented the lack of interest among Travellers - particularly young men - in their own culture and the poor attendance at his classes.

Born in Legan, Co Longford, he was the son of John Greene and his wife Rose (née Naughton). He attended Lenamore National school where he proved to be a bright pupil.

He became a school monitor, or assistant teacher, when the parish priest approached his father with a number of career options, including the possibility of entering a Jesuit novitiate.

"I wasn't inclined that way," he said of the priesthood, while his father was anxious to keep him at home "because I was a delicate youngster".

Having spent four years as a school monitor he was in 1918 awarded a king's scholarship and enrolled for teacher training at St Patrick's College, Drumcondra. He was not the first teacher in his family. His great grandfather, Peter Naughton, was the first national school teacher in the Ballinalee area in the 1840s.

On qualifying, he worked as a substitute teacher at Horseleap, Co Westmeath. In 1921 he spent six months as a farm worker in Ballingeary, Co Cork, to learn Irish. Following a stint as a substitute teacher in various schools, in 1923 he was appointed to the national school at Lislea, near Ballinalee, where he later became principal. He transferred to Coole, Co Westmeath, in 1958, retiring in 1965.

He was an early member of the Folklore of Ireland Society. When the Irish Folklore Commission was established, he became one of several dozen voluntary fieldworkers who in their spare time sought out and recorded local storytellers. The focus of the commission under James H Delargy was mainly on the recording of Ireland's oral tradition. However, the fieldworkers were also instructed to collect information on other folklore topics including traditional crafts, dwellings, pastimes, folk medicines, popular beliefs and religious traditions.

The principal tool of the early collectors was the Ediphone recording machine, a bulky 56lb machine that recorded sound on fragile wax cylinders. In the early years the commission had only three such recorders and accordingly most collectors had the use of one for only a few weeks each year.

Short items of prose and simple information could be recorded in writing, but long stories had to wait until the Ediphone was available. Then the collector recorded feverishly, attempting to complete the work in the short time the machine was available to him.

Thirty years ago Patrick Greene explained how he worked. "I would tell the narrator to hold the voice box close to his mouth . . . then when the bell rang at the end of the cylinder, I would write down the last sentence and put on a new cylinder and remind the narrator what he had finished saying."

In the evening he transcribed the cylinders, taking two to three hours to transcribe a story. He wrote exactly as the narrator spoke, so as to faithfully record English as it was then spoken in the Midlands. "When I finished the box of cylinders, I'd take them to the bus station and send them back to Dublin to be shaved [ recycled]."

Most of the stories he collected are known to folklorists as Märchen, better known as magic or fairy tales, most of them centuries old. Oney Power was one of his main sources of Traveller lore. She was a first-class seanchaí, in his opinion. "Her stories flowed like water," he recalled. "She never missed a word."

The material was transcribed in octavo notebooks supplied by the commission. Every three to six months the notebooks were bound together in leather volumes. Numbered and arranged in chronological order, by the 1970s there were almost 1,900 volumes in the folklore archives at University College Dublin. One of the largest and richest collections in the world, it makes available folk tales in Irish and English which in many other countries have been lost.

In 2003 he was awarded an honorary master's degree by the National University of Ireland in recognition of his contribution to education in Ireland.

Predeceased by his wife Helena (née Sullivan) in 1993, he is survived by his daughters Róisín, Maureen, Sr Mel and Anne, and sons John and Tom.

Patrick Joseph Greene (Pádraig Mac Gréine): born June 6th, 1900; died February 22nd, 2007