Internationally renowned folklorist and author

 

Seán Ó hEochaidh, who died on January 18th aged 88, was an internationally-renowned folklorist. His collection of Irish folklore - the largest compiled by one individual - is housed in the Department of Irish Folklore at University College Dublin.

Together with Proinsias Ó Conluain, he was largely responsible for the publication of Rotha Mór an tSaoil by his father-in-law, Micí Mac Gabhann, which was translated by Valentin Iremonger as The Hard Road to Klondike.

The book recounts Micí Mac Gabhann's early life, from a hiring fair in Letterkenny to working on a Lagan farm and then in the potato fields of Scotland. From there he headed to the US where he joined in the Klondike gold rush.

At Klondike Micí Mac Gabhann struck gold which yielded sufficient money to purchase a farmhouse in Gortahork, Co Donegal. It was there that Seán Ó hEochaidh, married to Anna Ní Gabhann and living with his in-laws, heard and recorded the stories that became Rotha Mór an tSaoil.

The book won the annual award of the Irish Book Club in 1958. Valentin Iremonger's lucid translation was published in 1962 and a television documentary based on the book was screened by RTÉ 1 in 1999.

Seán Ó hEochaidh was born on February 9th, 1913, in Teelin, south-west Donegal. Educated locally, he worked for several years as a fisherman. At an early age he developed an interest in folklore and began recording in written form the folk tales of the old people of the locality.

The Irish Folklore Commission was established in 1935 and its director, James H. Delargy, was looking for a full-time folklore collector in Co Donegal. Hearing of Seán Ó hEochaidh, he travelled to Teelin to meet him.

Delargy wrote in his diary of how they climbed Slieve League: "On the top I talked to Seán about the vast importance of the work he is about to begin, and I urged him to do his best for the honour of his native country and of the dead generations whose lore he is about to collect. I trust and pray that he will be successful, as so much depends on him in this first (and last) effort at the collection of the oral literature of Donegal."

Seán Ó hEochaidh, the first full-time Irish folklore collector to be appointed, fully justified Delargy's faith in him. He was dedicated, hard-working and a good listener. His own storytelling skills also came into play: "In my time, I must have talked to nearly 1,500 people. It was very hard work and many a time I'd be hoarse telling yarns before they would begin to open up. They were a bit shy and more than a bit suspicious about all those questions, but once they began to talk it was great."

In the early years, Seán Ó hEochaidh used an old Ediphone machine which recorded on wax. It weighed 56lb and he carried it on his back from place to place. He regularly recorded a dozen cylinders a day which he transcribed in an elegant hand by night. His life's work as a collector runs to more than 50,000 manuscript pages.

Seán Ó hEochaidh's interviewees included some of the best of the old-time storytellers. Almost all of them, he reckoned, were illiterate but they had tales to tell that dated back to the Middle Ages. Some interviewees were wary of the recording technology.

He recalled visiting a man named Gillespie and playing a test recording to him: " . . . he nearly went out of his mind. Nothing could put it out of his head and (sic) it wasn't the devil who was speaking!"

The hospitality encountered on fieldwork sometimes required a strong stomach: "The man of the house made me some tea, and I'll never forget it. He put two fistfuls of tea into a billycan, he let it stew and then poured the thick liquid into a baking bowl, adding milk and sugar. He broke a cake of bread over his knee, slapped me on the back and said 'Eat-up'. I like my tea weak, but every time I took a sup I could see the ring inside the bowl as it went down. It was the hardest job I ever had in my life, to drink it without offending the man."

Donegal was rich in fairy lore. One woman swore to Seán Ó hEochaidh that she had seen fairies playing football on the seashore.

Seán Ó hEochaidh collected folklore almost exclusively in Irish. He had a remarkable command of the language and its dialects. "The language of Donegal," he once said, "is an unending variation on simple themes, like a great composer writing a symphony with lights and shades."

In the 1960s he was briefly a guest lecturer in the Celtic department at Queen's University, Belfast. In 1971, the Irish Folklore Commission was dissolved and he was assigned to the Department of Irish Folklore at UCD until his retirement in 1980. His Sean-Chainnt Theilinn (1955) was published by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies and, with Heinrich Wagner, he wrote Sean-Chainnt na gCruach (1963) for a German journal. He was the author of Síscéalta ó Thír Chonaill (translated by Máire MacNeill as Fairy Legends of Donegal) which was published in 1977 by the Folklore of Ireland Society. He was a regular contributor to the society's journal Béaloideas and frequently broadcast on Raidió na Gaeltachta.

One of Seamus Heaney's poems is based on Seán Ó hEochaidh's rendition of the legend of the man who married a mermaid.

Seán Ó hEochaidh was conferred with a DLittCelt by University College Galway in 1988. The following year he was selected as president of Oireachtas na Gaeilge which was held in Glencolmcille, Co Donegal. In 1995, he was named Donegal Person of the Year, a fitting award for a true local patriot.

Seán Ó hEochaidh was predeceased by his wife Anna in 1996. He is survived by his brother Thomas and sister Cáit.

Seán Ó hEochaidh: born 1913; died, January 2002