“Your name must, and will always be, associated with the rescue at the last moment of Irish tradition.”
Praise indeed when one considers that the author of such words was Séamus Ó Duilearga, honorary director of the Irish Folklore Commission (1935-1971), who was himself credited by many as being the driving force in the race to preserve the fading oral tradition of the Irish people.
The question today then is how many people recognise the figure of whom he writes? Máire MacNéill – folklore scholar, archivist, academic, and writer – who dedicated her life to scholarship and the preservation and cultivation of the rich folk culture of her forebears.
Born as the second daughter to the noted Irish historian, activist and politician Eoin MacNeill and his wife Agnes Moore, Máire’s life was unlikely to be marked by mediocrity. Forged by the adversities of her early years, as her family suffered separation and tragic loss during the revolutionary period, grew a character marked by passion, empathy and conviction.
A graduate of Celtic Studies at University College Dublin (1922-25), and an ardent advocate for culture, language, and history, it was unsurprising when Máire was hired by Séamus Ó Duilearga to work as office manager in the newly-formed Irish Folklore Commission in 1935. She would remain with the Commission for 14 years, until her marriage in 1949.
Her years with the Commission would be remembered as some of the happiest of her life; during which time the proverbial seeds of a lifelong vocation were sown. Possessing a scholar’s unrelenting curiosity, alongside a commitment to rigorous research and a careful articulation of knowledge, Máire’s potential was soon recognized, and her role duly expanded. She studied for a time in Sweden (Dec 1937- Feb 1938), in Lund and Uppsala, under Professor Carl Wilhelm von Sydow, the renowned folklorist, and acquired a solid foundation in archival methodologies.
This training would bare fruit upon her return to the Commission. She worked alongside archivist Seán Ó Suilleabháin to carefully index the countless manuscripts arriving from across the country from full-time and part-time collectors – thousands of handwritten pages requiring expert categorisation, encompassing folk customs, traditions, material culture, local history, beliefs and narratives.
An experienced archivist and scholar, Máire also acted as a folklore collector and samples of her own fieldwork remain in evidence in the National Folklore Collection holdings. Returning to Fearann an Choirce in Inishmore in 1942, where she had once stayed as a young girl with her sister Róisín during her father’s imprisonment in 1916, she collected a variety of interesting material. Her notebooks show a keen ear for the language of the island, capturing as she does various vocabulary groupings, those detailing crafting terms, animal names, and utensil descriptors. She also documented marriage customs, death customs, clothes, proverbs, and prayers, as well as painting colourful vignettes of her informants.
Running parallel to this work was her emerging personal scholarship. She had taken a particular interest in the popular Irish harvest festival of Lughnasa, and in 1942 she would work with Ó Duilearga and Ó Suilleabháin to issue a questionnaire on this very topic, beneath the title Domhnach Crom Dubh or Garland Sunday. This exercise elicited 1073 pages of material, now bound in four volumes in the National Folklore Collection. This would form the basis of her magnum opus The Festival of Lughnasa (1962), in which she examined 195 sites associated with Lughnasa festival gatherings – pilgrimage trails, lakes, mountains, rivers, fairs and holy wells. A masterful study, it showcases Máire’s expert grasp of early Irish history, pagan and Christian tradition, and contemporary folk custom and lore. For this she gained her D.Litt in 1964.
Upon her marriage in 1949, to John L. Sweeney, Curator of the Lamont Poetry Room at Harvard University, Máire moved to Boston and found herself in the rarefied environs of the literary elite. She and John would number T.S. Eliot, Robert Fitzgerald, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, and many others, amongst their close correspondents. Máire would also come to be known during this time as a gifted lecturer and teacher, educating the first wave of Celticists at Harvard University (Guest Lecturer 1965-66). Her publication schedule would continue unabated with articles exemplifying her breadth of knowledge and wide-ranging interests, and it was during this period that she completed and published The Festival of Lughnasa. She and John returned to Ireland in 1967 and settled permanently in Poulivan in Co. Clare, where she undertook two major translation projects, translating Seán Ó hEochaidh’s Síscéalta ó Thír Chonaill (1977) as Fairy Legends from Donegal (1977) and Leabhar Sheáin Uí Chonaill (1949) by Séamus Ó Duilearga as Seán Ó Conaill’s Book (1981), opening this vital folklore scholarship to a new audience.
She immersed herself in the folklore of Clare, and worked again to collect and document the area’s folk traditions. An in-depth study of the historical local figure Máire Rua O’Brien followed in 1990.
Máire would often speak at local, national and international conferences – forever firm in her abiding conviction as to the value of folklore in research, and how it may continually illuminate hidden aspects of our history.
History and folklore – history recorded, and history remembered. Dr. Máire MacNeill’s legacy weaves both threads in a magisterial tapestry.
Dr. Máire MacNeill’s books and papers are held by the National Folklore Collection, alongside the Garland Sunday questionnaire (1942). The John ‘Jack’ and Máire Sweeney Collection of correspondence, books and ephemera resides in UCD Archives. The couple also donated nine paintings and five drawings to the National Gallery of Ireland.
Almqvist, B. (1988) Dr Máire MacNeill Sweeney (1904-87): In Memoriam, Béaloideas Vol. 56, pp.220-223
Murphy, M. (2004) Máire MacNeill (1904-1987) Béaloideas Vol. 72, pp. 1-30
Uí Ógáin, R. (2005) Máire McNeill (1904-1987) – Scoláire Béaloidis, Scolirí léinn: Léachtaí Cholm Cille xxxv, pp. 159-190