Games I Play

‘… the children, at the first hint of Spring, cast down the toys bought for them at Christmas, and came out to play in the open air — out to play all the games I knew so well. I noticed how little the games and rhymes had changed since I played here, the tunes remained exactly the same. This may, perhaps, be due to the fact that it is the children themselves who hand on the games to the younger ones. It is a familiar sight to see a game in progress and two or three prams with infants in them parked close by, the infants alert and responsive to the gaiety and excitement. Toddlers are encouraged to join in a game whenever possible; older children take a special delight in initiating them into the intricacies of the various games.’

So observes Eilís Brady in the introduction of All In! All In!, her popular book on Dublin children’s traditional street-games, first published in 1975. Indeed, when we consider the transmission of folklore, we often imagine information that is transferred by the older generation to the younger. While folklore often is transmitted in this fashion, Eilís Brady’s example above further illustrates the complexity of oral tradition, as it is the young who retain and practise tradition here, as these games take place among a group of children, without the influence of adults. The National Folklore Collection contains various examples of children’s games, collected from children and adults alike.

The final chapter in A Handbook of Irish Folklore by Seán Ó Súilleabháin, archivist of the Irish Folklore Commission, is titled ‘Sports and Pastimes’, and it begins by encouraging collectors of folklore to make a note of the particular games and amusements practised in the local area. It lists many genres of games, as well as names of individual games, to aid the collectors in their search. Collectors were instructed to make a note of the particular occasions games were played, such as games played at wakes, and to account for games played at particular times of the year, like Hallowe’en. When making these notes, collectors were to ‘give details in every case of the local name for the game, the terms or rhymes used when playing it, the number of players, method of play, actions employed, stages of the game, marking of scores, and any other aspects of the game.’ (Ó Súilleabháin, pg 667). This detailed approach to collecting games was employed by the collectors, though often their informants were senior members of the community and, therefore, many of the responses to the questions above are memories of childhood games, rather than contemporary experiences.

Adult recollections are indeed valuable in their documentation of games over time, but children have also made significant contributions to the archives of the National Folklore Collection, and have offered a rich selection of games from their own repertoires, through several different collecting schemes. There is no question that children were instrumental figures in the 1937-1939 Schools’ Collection, where they acted as collectors of folklore, noting local information from family members and neighbours. Like the collectors employed by the Irish Folklore Commission, the teachers and students taking part in the scheme also used a guide with suggested prompts compiled by Seán Ó Súilleabháin to help them collect this information. Short booklets for this purpose were distributed to participating schools; Irish Folklore and Tradition to schools in English-speaking areas and Béaloideas Éireann to Irish-speaking areas. The paragraph dedicated to games, under the heading of ‘Games I Play’/‘Cluichí’, invited the schoolchildren to answer these prompts using their own knowledge, and indeed, many did. Accounts listing and explaining the many games played by schoolchildren in the 1930s can be found in their hundreds in the Schools’ Collection, including skipping rhymes, counting-out rhymes, ball games and chasing games, to name but a select few.

Noel Gallagher, from Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal, writes:

‘In Spring we have games peculiar to that season. Skipping is the game girls indulge in then and boys enjoy their marbles. In Summer, cycling is popular for both girls and boys. Bathing, swimming, and tennis are played a lot in this district. In Autumn, nut-cracking and blackberry gathering are favourite pastimes. In Winter, sleighing and snow-ball throwing are our games. At parties in Winter when out-door games cannot be played, ‘Blind-man’s-buff’ is very popular. One of the players is blindfolded and he or she goes around the room trying to catch someone.’ [NFCS 1028: 190]

Ethel Leavy, from New Grove, Co. Meath explains how she plays skipping and gives an accompanying rhyme:

‘You skip with a rope, and you have two people winding it for you. You can do a number tricks in the rope while you skip, such as:

Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear turn around

Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear tip the ground

Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear show me your toe

Teddy Bear, Teddy Bear out you go.

Then you run out, without stopping the rope.’

[NFCS 703: 459]

Interest in games and rhymes continued throughout the years of the Irish Folklore Commission and into those of the Department of Irish Folklore, which succeeded the Commission in 1970. Several questionnaires on games were distributed during the lifespan of both institutions, including questionnaires on single games such as ‘hurly burly’/‘trom trom’ and hopscotch, as well as questionnaires on riddles and skipping rhymes.

Another later scheme in which children’s games became the focus of much attention was the 1979-1980 Urban Folklore Project. This project, instigated by Professor Séamus Ó Catháin, Archivist of the Department of Irish Folklore at the time, aimed to collect folklore from urban areas that had been previously overlooked in the earlier years of the Commission. As such, a group of 15 graduate students proceeded to collect the folklore of inner-city Dublin and of the wider Dublin area, resulting in a timely and rich haul of oral history and folk tradition. Children’s lore was just one of the subjects that gained particular attention from the collectors and many riddles, rhymes, games and jokes were collected from schoolchildren from Co. Dublin and from Bray, Co. Wicklow. An audio recording featured on the UCD Digital Library website was taken by George McClafferty of girls from Ravenswell National School in Bray, speaking about the games they play, including skipping, hopscotch and elastics.

Children’s games will continue to be passed on, adapted and reimagined by the children who play them and children of future generations will no doubt add to the repertoire of games already held in the National Folklore Collection. The existing collection, however, is of value to anyone wishing to investigate children’s games of 20th century Ireland and visitors are very welcome to visit the Collection to further explore this fascinating aspect of our cultural heritage.

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

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