Portrait of an Artist as a Folklore Collector

I think I’ll remember all these experiences for the rest of my earthly days. I feel I’ve been immersed in a great wave that has impregnated my whole mind and being…

So reads one of the final diary entries written by the artist Simon Coleman RHA as his field work with the Irish Folklore Commission in Co. Clare drew to a close in April 1959. These two short sentences convey something of the transformation the artist had undergone during his assignment period with the Commission, both professionally and personally. What began as a typical, if slightly unusual contract became something far more personal for Coleman.

Born in Duleek, Co. Meath (1916-1995), Simon trained at the Metropolitan School of Art in Dublin and studied under Seán Keating at the Royal Hibernian Academy of Arts. He himself became a member of the Academy in 1942, and was for many years a teacher of art at St. Laurence’s School in Drogheda, Co. Louth. His creative ability and technical skill secured him many prestigious commissions. Most notable among these early contracts was the request from Dr Douglas Hyde that Coleman paint his first Council of State meeting on January 8, 1940.

The first meeting of the Council of State

Photograph of Simon Coleman’s painting of the first meeting of the Council of State on 8 January 1940.

It is no surprise then that a figure so familiar within the small-knit fraternity of Irish cultural life should be known, or come to be known, to the director of the Irish Folklore Commission, Séamus Ó Duilearga (1899-1980), he himself being a close acquaintance of Dr Hyde’s, through their shared membership of the Folklore of Ireland Society, and their work at University College Dublin.

Known for its innovative approach to folklore collection in the early 20th century the Irish Folklore Commission (1935-1970) broke new ground in 1949 when it first engaged Coleman to undertake the visual documentation of the material culture of rural Ireland. Coleman was commissioned to travel in the company of fulltime folklore collectors, and to make drawings of local work practices and associated equipment, the traditionally built environments he encountered, as well as the diverse material culture evident in homes and communities of the day. He would also, in time, paint a number of memorable portraits of notable storytellers from across Ireland.

Donegal storyteller Anna Nic a'Luain

Photograph of Simon Coleman’s painting of the Donegal storyteller Anna Nic a’Luain.

In all, Coleman undertook three field trips as part of his work with the Commission. His first assignment took him to Donegal for a fortnight’s fieldwork in December 1949. Whilst there he accompanied fulltime Donegal collector Seán Ó hEochaidh, travelling the same roadways, meeting the same people, hearing the same tales and extracts of local history, and seeing for himself the lived environment of rural Ireland at a moment of significant cultural, linguistic, social and economic transition. As Ó hEochaidh questioned informants, recorded and transcribed their responses, Coleman in many ways undertook a similar process. What Ó hEochaidh captured in the spoken and written word, Coleman captured in beautifully rendered visual tableaus. His deeply detailed line drawings are exquisite in their exactness, showing a deft draughtsman at work.

His second assignment for the Commission would not occur until January 1959, when he spent three months in Co. Galway with fulltime collector Ciarán Bairéad. He returned for a further two weeks later that same year, this time working with special collector Prionnsias de Búrca. Coleman would travel daily with his collector, sketching and drawing, and would then usually complete these pieces in the evenings. Whilst working in Galway, local fishing practices came to feature heavily in Coleman’s work. His pen and ink drawing of Colm Ó Caodháin’s púcán sailing boat is a popular sample.

These three sojourns culminated in six complete sketchbooks by Coleman, all of which are preserved in the National Folklore Collection, UCD, in the Coleman Collection. These have now been digitised and are freely available on duchas.ie for public viewing.

Coleman’s collection also includes the detailed field diaries he was urged to keep, noting his experiences in the field, his working methods, and his immediate reactions to the landscape, people and places he set out to record. These make for hugely insightful reading, not only for the artistically curious but also for the modern folklore scholar. Like the diaries of the fulltime collectors, they offer rich streams of contextual detail against which to view the material he collected in these regions.

Take for example the aforementioned drawing of Colm Ó Caodháin’s sailing boat in 1959. In his diary for this period Coleman describes a number of colourful fishing trips undertaken with local fishermen, capturing descriptions of those in attendance alongside the minutia of hoisting sails and baiting lines.

Or what of the day he and Ciarán Báiread found themselves at a ‘flapper meeting’ in Galway that same year where ‘there was a donkey derby and races for Connemara ponies, and racehorses….’ These did not seem to Coleman’s taste, as he writes,

There was a big crowd present and many motor cars carrying foreign registration numbers, and among these I saw a somewhat luxurious American vehicle looking, perhaps, a little incongruous in this not too ultra-modern racetrack. Personally, I have little use for races at the best of times for they are too slow, and it seems that there is less of the horse about these things than the endless eccentric humans cajoling us to leave our money on their roulette and card tables. Perhaps I am a caviller at heart.’

A talented artist and writer, Coleman’s work sheds light on a way of life now remote in the memory of many. His writings and artworks beautifully complement the written accounts collected by the local fulltime Commission collectors; one adding great shade and colour to the other, creating a vivid understanding in the reader.

Coleman himself proved to be as skilled a storyteller and informant as those he encountered in his travels; his paintings, drawings and diaries continuing to tell their own tales today.

  • This post was researched and written by Claire Doohan, National Folklore Collection.

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