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Irish Folklore: Myth and Reality

(From the Centenary edition of The Lanthorn)

For many people, the mention of 'Irish folklore' conjures up images of leprechauns, banshees and of old women telling fairy stories beside the fire. Very quaint and picturesque, but the possibility of there being a need for and a value in actually studying these things may not so readily present itself, if that is all it is about. But if we push past the shamrocks and shillelaghs, we may glimpse something of more lasting importance beneath. Not quite the crock of gold at the end of the rainbow, but rather the constant pulse of people'e daily life, hopes and fears. This is the dynamism behind folk tradition.

The study of folklore involves a complete and sympathetic understanding of how people live as they do and why they choose to do so. In examining Irish folk tradition, the influence of certain obvious factors and forces must always be remembered such as, the essential significance of the Irish language and our linguistic/ literary inheritance; the pervading religious influences, both pre-christian and christian, which in many ways have become inter mingled through folk belief and custom; the nature of the Irish landscape and climate; and the differing historical movements and developments which have occurred since earliest times on this island. Such factors can affect both our under standing of changes in Irish society and the way in which we look upon our folk cultural inheritance.

However, folklore is about people. It means the study and appreciation of how people celebrate moments such as birth and marriage, or how they come to terms with death; how special days of the year are commemorated, such as Christmas, Hallowe'en or the first of May; or how special crafts developed and were handed on from one generation to the next, just .s many legends and tales were. Sean ó Suilleabhain's Handbook of Irish Folklore (1942) is really the best possible definition of folklore. A book of 699 pages, this handbook has been invaluable to all collectors and researchers in Irish and international folklore. A look at its chapter headings will give some indication of how all-embracing this seemingly elusive subject of 'folklore' actually is:
Settlement and Dwelling, Livelihood and Household Support, Communications and Trade, the Community, Human Life, Nature, Folk Medicine, Time, Principles and Rules of Popular Belief and Practice, Mythological, Historical, Religious Traditions, Popular 'Oral Literature' and Sports and Pastimes.

Lore, or information, is collected from people about all aspects of life, natural and supernatural. Thus insights into the harsh and happy realities of everyday life may be obtained, and it is the oral or non-written tradition (bèaloideas) which concerns us. Beliefs, customs, stories, songs and ways of working or doing things become traditional by their popularity and their communication to others. Inevitably, variations and preferences emerge within folk tradition because, as in all aspects of life, when people exchange knowledge and experience much individual interpretation results. This is seen especially in the storytelling tradition but is not as readily apparent in folk belief where many practices may become ritualized and eventually meaningless. It is worth pointing out here that whenever a person or storyteller recounts a folktale, which is always a long story with many incidents or motifs, he or she will tell it in a personal way, which is unique each time. This is why we can speak of 'versions' of folk- tales, such as the tale of 'Cinderella' which is regarded as a 'fairy story' but which is classified as a 'Wonder Tale' Type 510/ 510A and we can find over 700 international versions of this story. So variation and individual tastes and preferences are important when studying folklore. Indeed it is even more fascinating to think that many of the stories we hear of or read have been told by people for hundreds of years and that the core of the story remains the same even allowing for variance. It is all a very complicated process, obviously, and each folktale with its variants, in one country or in other countries, must be considered separately. Afterwards, comparisons between folk-tales and their different motifs can be made. And we have at our disposal several international classifications of folktales, legends and motifs which help us in our analysis. Similarly differences in folk beliefs and customs exist throughout the world; but many similarities are also evident, and in some ways we are often led to conclude that people everywhere are very much alike.

Having said a little about what folklore means, I would like to draw attention now to how Irish folklore has been and is being collected, preserved and examined. Sean ó Suilleabháin's Handbook of Irish Folklore not only provides a comprehensive definition of what the subject concerns itself with; it helped to create and was in turn created by the systematic collecting of information about the folk tradition in this country. In the nineteenth century the first pioneers such as Thomas Crofton Croker, Patrick Kennedy and Jeremiah Curtin, inspired by the Grimm brothers in Germany, began to record Irish traditions and 'superstitions' or 'piseoga'. Later, people like Douglas Hyde and others in the Gaelic League helped enormously. Unfortunately however, the Anglo-Irish revival and the Irish language movement were practically separate phenomena and in some ways this affected the authentic collecting of folklore in the country. No systematic collecting began until an Irish Folklore Institute, Institiúid Bhéaloideas Eireann was established by the Government in 1930. This became Comish Béaloideas Eireann, the Irish Folklore Commission in 1935, under the directorship of Seamus ó Duilearga. A small but enthusiastic and dedicated staff worked in the Commission and such men as Sean ó Si the Archivist and Caoimhín 0 Danachair, the Ethnologist will be eternally remembered for their achievements. Great good-will and the co-operation of literally thousands of people throughout the country enabled the Commission to succeed in its task. People went out, on a full-time and part- time basis, to homes throughout the country and established contacts with people who knew, and were prepared to pass on all they knew about every aspect of traditional life. Tape recordings and, earlier, Ediphone Cylinder recordings, were made of all these people and these tapes were kept, and where possible were subsequently transcribed to become numbered, bound manuscripts in the archive of the Commission.

During the period 1937-1938, a project to collect folklore through school-children in over four thousand national schools in the 26 counties resulted in over 1,100 bound manuscript volumes being added to the main manuscripts collection. People who helped in this survey still visit and ask to see the information they or their relatives contributed to the archives at that time. Furthermore, questionnaires were circulated and photographs of people, animals, traditional dwellings, farm implements and machinery, craft-work, grave yards and indeed anything which could be photographed, were taken and all this material was carefully catalogued and preserved. Numerous books and other printed material on Irish and international folklore were also amassed and a specialist library developed. All this work took on a different emphasis in 1971 when the Commission became Roinn Bhéaloideas Eireann, or the Department of Irish Folklore, at University College, Dublin.

When Roinn Bhéaloideas Eireann was established the new dimension of teaching folklore as an academic discipline was added to the work of the members of staff. The Department, which combines a teaching institute and a national archive is a very special phenomenon.

The main manuscripts collection of the Department now has over 2000 volumes, and much indexing and cataloguing work remains to be done. We have a separate Folk Music Archive and it is a great pity that, despite widespread interest in folk music at present, there are not yet enough people willing to study this subject seriously and bring more old songs, ballads and melodies to the light of public presentation and appreciation. Indeed, comparatively very few people study Irish folklore in U.C.D.

The work done by the Department of Irish Folklore and all who co-operate with it is invaluable and of lasting significance. For example, following a Government initiative, an Urban Folklore Project 19 79-1980 was undertaken by the Department. A team of five supervisors and twelve helpers carried out research on all aspects of Dublin folklore and many traditions, hitherto unknown or forgotten, were unearthed. About 175 manuscripts, 714 tapes, 10 video tapes and well over 12,000 photographic negatives resulted from this survey. It has long been a criticism of the Department that its emphasis was upon rural folklore and that urban traditions had been neglected. The Urban Folklore Project has done much to remedy this, and now, new contacts have been established and hopefully continuing collecting of Dublin lore will result.

In 1980 the Irish Government issued two stamps, under the title Béaloideas na hEireann as our contribution to the issuing of stamps displaying European folk motifs. One of these shows the symbol of a cock on a pot against a red background, and the other shows an angel with a scales and a trumpet against a yellow background. These two symbols are authentically traditional and are special to Irish folk tradition. Both were taken from carved headstones in a graveyard in the south of Ireland. The figure of the angel with a set of scales and a trumpet symbolises the Last Judgement: the angel's trumpet blast announces the Judgement, and the scales show that the good and evil of each soul will be weighed against each other and judgement accordingly passed. So it was indeed an appropriate symbol for a grave stone. The other figure of the cock and pot is perhaps a little bit more obscure. This motif has its origin, probably, in an apocryphal legend which states that after Christ had been crucified, Judas believed that he would rise again, and determined to hang himself. According to the story, Judas' wife then proclaimed that Christ would no more rise again than the cock which they had been roasting could rise out of its pot, and at that very moment the cock arose, and Judas duly hanged himself. The Department of Irish Folklore collaborated with the artist in producing these two handsome stamps.

Time is very important in the collecting of folklore, and while contemporary lore, of factories, universities, cities etc., is worthwhile and needs to be harvested, it is still true to say that much of the traditional lore of Ireland is still alive and still unrecorded. People with insight and dedication are needed for this work, for it is the unwritten history of the lives and memories of thousands or ordinary people which is contained in folklore archives all over the world. It is always important to remember that this material is from the people, for the people and that our task is not only to collect, but to keep this lore safe and make it available to the public. In this way our study should lead us to wonder at the universality of human experience and to appreciate the diversity within that experience. The reality and relevance of Irish folklore study, then, may be seen in its striving after a deeper understanding of people and of the society which is shaped by and through them.


ANNE O'CONNOR