Dear Diary…

One of the greatest sources of information we have in Ireland is the Ordnance Survey Books, which were made about a century ago by three men, John O’Donovan, Eugene O’Curry, and George Petrie. They went around and took down all the place names of the country and recorded material of very great importance. But the greatest importance lies in the diaries kept by these men, because these diaries give the atmosphere in which the work was done. Now we are doing the same thing and are asking our collectors to keep a diary.

Here we find Irish Folklore Commission archivist Seán Ó Suilleabháin (Four Symposia on Folklore) speaking in 1953 of how the collecting methodologies adopted by the Commission were heavily influenced by the efforts of 19th century Irish Ordnance Survey fieldworkers, and their novel documentation tools.

Particularly inspired by their use of personal diaries, the Commission had thus come to realize that not only would it be vital for their own collectors to record individual items of folklore, but also equally important to document the ‘collecting context’ involved in securing those individual items; what Ó Suilleabháin termed as the ‘atmosphere in which the work was done.’

Scandinavian folklore scholars, many of whom had been instrumental in the foundation of the Folklore Commission in 1935, were also long-time proponents of this concept of context. They argued fervently that in order to truly understand the folklore material being collected you also had to understand the social, political and personal context in which it emerged. As Dr. Micheál Briody has noted in his history of the Commission, the interactions of collectors with informants, the collector’s own background, alongside that of the informant, all contributed towards the ‘creation of a collecting context and to some extent ultimately determined or shaped the text collected.’ Without this context, as Professor Ríonach Uí Ógáin has written, ‘any single item of folklore must remain, at best, bare, isolated and unrelated.’ And so the concept of the folklore collector’s diary, or leabhar cinn lae, was born.

Now housed in the archival collections of the National Folklore Collection UCD, these diaries run to over 120 volumes, and offer an unparalleled glimpse into the reality of daily life as a folklore collector in 20th century Ireland. Commencing in 1935 all full-time collectors with the Commission were advised to keep a diary, in which they were to record their daily activities. As Ó Súilleabháin states,

Owing to the nature of the work the diaries would fall into two types. The days when he was writing at home he [the collector] would just mention that in a couple of lines. But, on the nights he went out to visit an old storyteller for the first time, or to do recordings, he might devote perhaps twenty or thirty pages of his diary to a description of the whole atmosphere of the house, how he went there, who gathered around, who was in the house, how he questioned the old man, what kind of person he was physically or otherwise, and tell how he got the tales recorded. Now those diaries will, I think, be of great use later when our tales will be published.’

The diaries of Michael J. Murphy, a full-time collector working in Northern Ireland (1949-1983) offer a candid insight into a tumultuous political environment, in which the work of the collector was often carried out against a backdrop of suspicion and fear, on the part of both collector and informant alike.

In June 1974 he writes,
Alice [Michael’s wife] uneasy: she has been upset by the sight of British troops with blackened faces and festooned with belts and bandoliers of heavy bullets… They called at dusk. Believed they were around the house at night. The next morning at 4.40am the British Army in strength raided the houses in this area…

His diary material, running to some 4,000 pages, offers a unique perspective on this historical period in the run-up to, and during, The Troubles, as well as revealing the great humanity of the writer:

But little heart today to make a proper record. The nineteen-year old son of my neighbour has been killed in an explosion with another young fellow on a land mine. A quiet, unassuming, intelligent and self-effacing lad, I am astounded to realize that he was a leader in the provo IRA. He is one of a family of six or seven, with one brother, a mannerly pleasant and bright family. The gloom of such an event falls like the ash of a great mountain fire on everyone.’

Despite the hardships he must have experienced, his diaries are equally infused with a lighthearted view of life, with such beautifully rendered entries as these two below, from his time collecting on Rathlin Island, Co. Antrim in June-July 1955 . From his pen emerge vivid vignettes of post boat deliveries, and hospitable hostelries, around which circle a coterie of colourful characters.

Having this social and political context captured in Murphy’s diaries becomes hugely important for contemporary students of his collected folklore materials, as it allows them a greater critical appreciation of his volumes. When assessing his texts they must also question the context of the collecting environment, and how this may have affected the material offered by informants, as well as seeking to unpick the subtext contained within his own diary entries. Thus the student has a rich stream to investigate – from text to context to subtext.

Equally adept at capturing vital contextual data was Donegal collector Seán Ó hEochaidh. Below, on the 17th May 1940, he writes of a thoroughly unproductive collecting day. But even in this seemingly uneventful entry there is much for the contemporary folklore scholar to digest.

In the morning we see Seán travel many miles to visit a close friend and informant only to learn on arrival that this gentleman is not at home. All at once the reality of poor telecommunication infrastructure in mid-20th century rural Ireland becomes all too apparent. A landline or mobile phone was but wishful thinking at the time. Such arduous journeys, with little to show for them, were a common pitfall for our Commission collectors. To add salt to the wound, a later visit to an older informant found this gentleman lacking in material, and only interested in discussing the war. Age was no determinant of riches for our collectors. Many individuals were passive rather than active tradition bearers and could yield little material of value. Turning to his efforts on the 18th May, we find him transcribing material recorded on his ediphone machine into his Commission notebooks. He knows that there is no point in venturing out to collect as the local people are too busy preparing their fishing nets and boats for an upcoming expedition. This is indicative of a skilled collector who knows his environment, knows its practices, and through experience and instinct knows how to function most effectively within its parameters.

His final almost throwaway line is particularly telling of the value of these diaries. He says that ‘nothing interesting or spectacular happened’ except that ‘a few planes flew overhead and frightened the old people’. With one eye on the diary date, all at once we realise that we are in the midst of war, and that despite Irish neutrality, the effects of this war were still being felt on Irish shores. These planes may most likely have been flying to/from British RAF airfields across the border in Co. Fermanagh. So used are we today to overhead flights in peacetime that it is difficult to imagine what sensations these occurrences must have created in these quiet villages.

Alongside the political and historical insights offered by our collectors’ diaries, we are also regularly thrilled by the more lighthearted and thoughtful cultural touches they reveal. Take Seosamh Ó Conchúir’s sketches of noted Kerry storyteller Seán Ó Conaill in his home in Baile an Sceilg below for example.

Or what of Seán Ó hEochaidh’s inclusion of a photograph of his landlady Sádhbha Bean Mhic Eiteagáin with whom he stayed whilst collecting in Downings, Co. Donegal in 1940, seen below.

Seán Ó hEochaidh's photograph

Seán Ó hEochaidh’s photograph of Sádhbha Bean Mhic Eiteagáin (NFC 727/2)

In a similar vein, when music collector Liam de Noraidh was meeting his informants for the first time, he would often note down their musical repertoire on this first occasion, in his diary, to act as an aide memoire for subsequent visits, as we saw above in his very first diary entry from Co. Waterford on the 27th May 1940 when he meets Bríghid Ní Ghadhra.

Máire Mac Néill, daughter of Eoin Mac Néill, and a gifted folklore scholar in her own right, also acted as a sometime folklore collector, whilst employed with the Irish Folklore Commission as an office manager and cataloguer. She too has left colourful accounts of her time in the west of Ireland, as evidenced by these far-ranging entries, taking in sporting events, holy wells, local saints and curses, poteen-making, and characters of interest.

Her keen observation of the ‘sublime indefiniteness as to time’ witnessed in rural Ireland may raise a smile amongst those of us with country connections.

And on that timely note, we bid you farewell and urge you to make the trip to the National Folklore Collection to investigate these intriguing volumes, for both their literary and historical pleasures. See you down the road…

We here at the UCD Cultural Heritage Collections would also like to give huge thanks to our colleague from the National Folklore Collection, Claire Doohan, for all her wonderful contributions and to wish her the best of luck in her new adventure.

Go n-éirí an bóthar leat!!

Collectors on the road

Collectors travelling to informant’s house.

  • This post was researched and written by Claire Doohan and Jonny Dillon, Assistant Archivist, National Folklore Collection.

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