As wonderful a woman as ever I did meet

In this time of uncertainty UCD Cultural Heritage Collections will continue to post blogs about the historical gems in our collections. Hopefully these will provide you with a little ray of sunshine in this dark time.

From the work of the Irish Folklore Commission’s first full-time folklore collector of the Donegal Gaeltacht, Seán Ó hEochaidh, we receive an account of a remarkable scéalaí (storyteller), Anna Nic a’Luain (1884–1954). Anna was raised and lived her life in the foot of the Blue Stack Mountains, Co. Donegal, where Ó hEochaidh would first encounter her in 1947.

By the time Ó hEochaidh and Anna met, she was in her mid-60s, and living with her husband Seán. Anna recited over 200 songs from memory, as well as an array of stories and lore for the IFC collector. He refers to her in his diaries as “as wonderful a woman as ever I did meet”/“Tá sí ar bhean comh hiontach is a casadh orm ariamh”. In the two years that Seán spent in the region, he claims that he spent at least one whole year collecting folklore from Anna alone. In his diaries, Ó hEochaidh explained that he would leave in the evening, thinking that Anna had run out of stories to tell, and would return in the morning to find her brimming with more.

Anna Nic a’Luain

Anna Nic a’Luain (1884-1954)

While Anna never had children herself, the children of the locality were very much part of her captive audience. Ó hEochaidh remarked that on one of those evenings when he thought she was finished, he put his head in the door to say goodbye, only to find her telling riddles to them. He started to jot them down each night, in the end, having collected almost 120 riddles or tomhasanna. Give these riddles recorded from Anna a go – answers at the end!

  1. Caidé a thig liomsa a fheiceáil nach dtig leatsa a fheiceáil? What can I see, that you cannot see?
  2.  Droichead ar loch. Gan sail nó cloch. A bridge on a lake. With no beam or rock.

One of the other traditions Anna spoke of was a form of song called a “cumhdach” or “cumhdachaí” (plural). Cumhdachaí were songs that young women would compose on days where they would gather for knitting and sewing. Later in the evening, around 10pm, they would finish their activities and locals would gather in the household for merriment. Here the songs composed earlier in the day would be sung – songs in which jovial lyrics would pair up local girls and boys by name! Ó hEochaidh recorded some of these songs from Anna. However, by the time they had met, what was once a frequent activity in the Blue Stacks had long since come to an end. What little of the songs Anna could remember serve as a poignant example of the need for the IFC to actively record oral tradition.

In 1949, the Irish Folklore Commission received a generous donation from a Donegal patron, with the caveat that it be used to hire two part-time staff to collect specifically Ulster folklore. One of those new hires was Simon Coleman, RHA (1916–95) . This was the first time the IFC had sent an artist to sketch items of interest, and the informants themselves. As part of this, Coleman kept his own diaries, from which we get an insight into Anna’s life.

Simon had only a few words of Munster Irish, and could not understand the locals of the Blue Stacks – something he says saved an argument between himself and Seán Mhic a’Luain, who was quite bemused that someone had come to draw his wife. However, in his time there he gives life to Anna and her home in a way that the recordings alone could not. He speaks of Anna sitting by the fire, seemingly unbothered as the roof of her home leaked beside her. The rain entered the home so much that Coleman says his copy-book bore brown water stains – as he says himself, no better proof that he did drawings in situ!

Anna's cottage

Painting of the inside of Anna’s cottage.

The work of Ó hEochaidh and Coleman have ensured that the aptitude of Anna as an Irish female scéalaí has lived on long past her days, as has the breadth and wealth of the folklore of Na Cruacha (the Blue Stacks).

You can see more of Simon Coleman’s sketches of Anna and her home by clicking here  nó má tá Gaeilge agat, léigh cuid den ábhar a breacadh síos ó Anna Nic a’Luain ag an nasc seo!

Freagraí na dtomhasanna/Riddle answers:

  1. Cúl do chinn! The back of your head!
  2. Leac oighir! A sheet of ice!
  • This post was researched and written by Laura Ryan, Library Assistant, UCD Special Collections and National Folklore Collection.

Further Reading

Coleman, Simon. Ms 1615, National Folklore Collection.

Ó hEochaidh, Seán. “Tomhasannaí ó Thír Chonaill.” Béaloideas 19, no. 1/2 (1949): 3–28. Accessed March 18, 2020.

Uí Ógáin, Ríonach, and Thérèse Smith. “Cumhdachaí.” Béaloideas 66 (1998): 199–216. Accessed March 18, 2020. doi:10.2307/20522498.

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