Fireside songs they are gone

Through the centuries the Irish have been referred to as storytellers, poets and singers. But where do these poems and songs come from? In UCD Archives there is a small fragmentary collection that belonged to a collector and translator of Irish manuscripts. Eugene O’ Curry was born in Dunaha, Co. Clare on 2 November 1794. He received little formal education but his father ‘Eoghan Mor’, a collector and seller of Irish manuscripts, taught him to read and write in Irish. O’ Curry held a number of different jobs including farmer, labourer and teacher before joining the staff of the Ordnance Survey. He was employed as a researcher in the historical department studying Irish manuscripts for historical and topographical information.

Through his growing knowledge of the Irish language and Irish history, O’ Curry encountered the antiquary John O’ Donovan. They collaborated on several publications relating to Irish manuscripts, became lifelong friends and married sisters from the Broughton family. In 1842 he was employed by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) to catalogue their collection of manuscripts and he compiled the catalogue of Irish manuscripts in the British Museum in 1849. O’ Curry was also involved in the founding of the Irish Archaeological Society in 1840 and the Celtic Society in 1845. His pioneering work on early Irish law manuscripts led to the creation of the Brehon Law Commission in 1852.

The personal correspondence in this collection not only gives us an insight to the person O’ Curry was and how he interacted with his friends and colleagues. There are also priceless nuggets of Irish oral history relating to songs, lullabies and folktales long since lost from the collective memory. The letter above reiterates this loss of rich Irish musical tradition. Michael O’ Reilly of Ennistymon in Co Clare wrote to O’ Curry on 28 June 1843 and in his letter he stated that a parcel was on it’s way to the RIA with ‘109 herbs together with the song you required’. O’ Reilly goes on to say that it took him so long to make the collection he regrets that ‘some of the herbs are too much faded’. Bearing in mind this letter was written during the mass emigration of native Irish speakers due to the Famine, it is his words regarding the demise of fireside songs that are particularly poignant ‘as to fireside songs they are gone English is bearing down the Irish, and the growing generation will know nothing of it’.

Two years later in 1845 O’ Curry received a letter from James McCurtin in Lahinch, Co. Clare. McCurtin included a love song entitled By the light of the moon which was written by Michael Comyn. He translated it to Irish for O’ Curry. He also included an unnamed Irish poem which he has translated into English. O’ Curry must have asked McCurtin about the possibility of gathering traditional Irish music from the locale because McCurtin wrote ‘I can answer most of your enquiries in the affirmation – I could procure love songs and elegies enough’.

The last letter to be featured dates to 28 April 1869 and was written by John O’ Daly of Anglesea Street, Dublin. O’ Daly sent a transcription of a fairy lullaby called An Seoithin which he received from a friend in Waterford. This version is ‘barbarously corrupted’ compared to the version O’ Daly heard from his own mother. He then goes on to tell his version of the lullaby which is quite violent and ends with the carcass of the ‘amadán’ being thrown into a bog hole.

O’ Curry was appointed the first Professor of Archaeology and Irish History by John Henry Newman, Rector of the newly established Catholic University in Dublin, in 1854. Less than ten years later Eugene O’ Curry died suddenly in Dublin on 30 July 1862. O’ Curry is known and revered in the field of Irish manuscripts research but now his small archival collection could also be of huge benefit to those studying the origins and traditions of Irish songs, poems and lullabies.             

  • This post was researched and written by Meadhbh Murphy, Archivist, UCD Archives.

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