Part-time Collecting for the Irish Folklore Commission

In general, I may say that these part-time collectors have been excellent, because we do our best to pick them carefully.

Seán Ó Súilleabháin, 1950

On walking into the archive of the National Folklore Collection (NFC), you are greeted by walls of numbered manuscripts. To your right are the rolling shelves holding the bright green manuscripts of the Schools’ Collection. On the wall to your left are the light brown volumes of the Irish Folklore Institute (1930-1935), which quickly give way to the darker green volumes amassed by the Irish Folklore Commission. The shelves holding these volumes continue all along the back wall of the archive, and hold thousands of pages of transcribed interviews, in English and Irish, which were collected by the Commission between 1935-1970. 

When considering the collectors of this material, we might first picture Donegal-native Seán Ó hEochaidh, or Kerryman Seosamh Ó Dálaigh, or any number of other collectors who worked for the Irish Folklore Commission full-time. Often working in their own native areas, and sometimes for many years at a time, the contribution of these full-time collectors to the archive is immense. Not all of the information collected by the Commission was the work of full-time collectors, however. The Commission also relied on questionnaire correspondents, and on a large number of part-time collectors, as well as accepting voluntary contributions. In fact, from the early years of the Commission until the outbreak of WWII, the amount of material amassed by part-time collectors exceeded the amount collected by full-time collectors, though tightening finances during the War meant that the Commission had to rely on its core team of full-time collectors, and the pool of part-time collectors diminished.

Unlike full-time and special collectors, who worked on a fixed salary, part-time collectors were paid £5 for every notebook of 96 pages, if the material they collected was of a high quality. The Commission supplied their part-time collectors with these notebooks, as well as the gummed slips used to note the relevant details about the informant; their name, age, address, etc. As it would have been too expensive to supply every part-time collector with a copy of A Handbook of Irish Folklore, they were given a mimeographed list titled ‘Items for the collector’, in order to provide some subject prompts which they could use to interview their informants. The Commission had far less control over these part-time collectors than they did over their full-time collectors, as they could collect as they pleased. Some part-time collectors retained close contacts with the Commission over a number of years, however, and made impressive contributions to their collections, both in terms of quantity and quality.

Seán Mac Mathúna, of Luogh, Co. Clare, was one such collector. His work collecting folklore predates his role as a part-time collector for the Commission, as he was already collecting folklore for An Cumann le Béaloideas Éireann prior to its foundation. When Séamus Ó Duilearga visited the area in 1929 he was impressed with Mac Mathúna, and understood the importance of collecting in an area where the Irish language was dying out at an alarming rate. Though the Commission offered him the role of full-time collector, Mac Mathúna refused, on the grounds that he wouldn’t have adequate time to dedicate to the role. Instead, he worked tirelessly from 1935-1941, collecting valuable material from his local area, as well as contributing his own knowledge of various traditions. In all, Mac Mathúna’s collected work amounts to 11,000 pages of manuscript material. 4,000 pages of this number are from diaries kept by Mac Mathúna between 1937-1942. The Commission was continually impressed and pleased with his work, and they requested that Mac Mathúna keep a diary alongside the information he collected, a responsibility usually only asked of full-time collectors. Seán Mac Mathúna was the only part-time collector asked to do so, and though he expressed some uncertainty at first, he diligently recorded his activities in collecting folklore, providing a valuable insight into his work in the county.

Also collecting from the very earliest years of the Commision was Bríd Ní Ghamhnáin, also known as Bridie Gunning, or in later years, Bridie Mulloy. Though she primarily collected in Co. Sligo, it seems that in the 14 years she corresponded with the Commission that she also collected in Waterford and in Mayo. She collected material in Irish and in English, and she includes important contextual information even in her very earliest material, such as this addition to a story about Diarmuid and Gráinne;

Old historians of the district say that Diarmuid is buried on Benbulbin and that Grania is buried on the hill of Keash facing him. 

It is also said that before Diarmuid and Grania made their home in Benbulbin, they lived for a while on Keash hill.’

The quality of her collected material was praised by Seán Ó Súilleabháin, the archivist of the Irish Folklore Commission, and correspondence between Ó Súilleabháin and Ní Ghamhnáin from the period of 1936-1950 reveals that Ó Súilleabháin often advised and supported Ní Ghamhnáin on her collecting work. In turn, Ní Ghamhnáin endeavoured to ensure that her work was of the quality sought by the Commission. After a pause in collecting from 1938-1946, it seems that Gunning returned to collecting folklore, whereupon Ó Súilleabháin sent her a copy of A Handbook of Irish Folklore, which greatly impressed the collector. Again, her work receives a positive response from Ó Súilleabháin, who calls her a ‘first-class collector’. In all, Ní Ghamhnáin’s contribution amounts to 2,000 pages of handwritten material, a significant contribution from one part-time collector.

Máire Mac Néill was hired by the Irish Folklore Commission to be office manager in 1935, where she contributed to the work of its head office as an archivist and an administrator, along with numerous other roles. Among her many achievements as an archivist and a scholar, Mac Néill also collected oral material. The majority of her work was collected from Co. Galway, and is bound in the manuscripts of the National Folklore Collection, amounting to over 1,000 pages in total. Mac Néill collected material from Inis Mór, in the Aran Islands, when the Second World War confined her summer months to Ireland. She had a prior connection to the area, having spent some months there as a child, when her father, Eoin Mac Néill, was imprisoned for his association with the 1916 Rising. Returning as an adult in the 1940s, she collected folklore from the people of the island, communicating effectively through the medium of Irish and carefully noting the specific vocabulary used by her informants.

Pádraig Mac Gréine, from Co. Longford, acted as a part-time collector on behalf of the Irish Folklore Commission, though he was also collecting before the Commission was founded. An early example of his collecting work appears in the third issue of Béaloideas, the journal of The Folklore of Ireland Society, in 1932. The article illustrates the rich traditions of the Travelling community and lists some terms from the language spoken by Travellers, known as ‘Cant’ or ‘Shelta’. Mac Gréine’s interest and effort in collecting the traditions of Travellers continued throughout his time as a collector, and his works contain descriptions of Travellers’ livelihoods, as well as some of their customs. He collected from the talented storyteller Oney Power and her son John, whose stories were to be published in To Shorten the Road: Traveller Folktales from Ireland in 1978He also took photographs of Traveller families in his hometown in the 1930s, two of which are pictured below. 

Though he had a long-standing interest in Traveller culture, Mac Gréine also collected material of high-quality from the settled community in Co. Longford, including long international folktales as well as many songs. In total, 13,000 pages of material collected by Mac Gréine can be found in the Main Manuscript Collection, though he did also contribute to the 1937-1939 Schools’ Collection, overseeing the work of the children in Lislea, Co. Longford, as he was the schoolteacher there at the time. Like Seán Mac Mathúna, Pádraig Mac Gréine was considered a good candidate for the role of full-time collector for the Irish Folklore Commission, which he refused on the grounds that the work would take him away from his family life.

Unlike full-time collectors, we do not have diaries from most part-time collectors. In many cases, we cannot understand their lives and their work to the same extent that we might understand those who worked for the Commission full-time. A glimpse at the work of some part-time collectors allows us to appreciate the diversity of the Main Manuscript Collection, however, as the part-time collectors compiled material from areas where the Commission could never afford to employ full-time collectors. In doing this, they also collected from informants who may never have been recorded otherwise, adding greatly to the wealth of material held in the Collection today.

  • This post was researched and written by Ailbe van der Heide.

One thought on “Part-time Collecting for the Irish Folklore Commission

  1. Emma Cownie says:

    This is a fascinating insight into how the folklore collection was collected. The work these people did was invaluable for recording and understanding social and folklore history. Pádraig Mac Gréine’s work on the Irish traveller community must be of particular interest as the Traveller community tend to rely on oral rtaher than written transmission.

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