Caoimhín Ó Danachair: The Ethnographer’s Eye

Caoimhín Ó Danachair — or Kevin Danaher, as he was more widely known — was collecting folklore in his home town of Athea, Limerick, on behalf of the Institute of Irish Folklore from as early as 1934. In 1935, while Ó Danachair was still a student of archaeology, the Director of the National Museum of Ireland, Adolf Mahr, suggested that he accompany the Swedish ethnologist Åke Campbell on a field work trip to Galway and Mayo that summer. This trip was to have a lasting effect on Ó Danachair, who dedicated much of his subsequent career to the study of traditional architecture, a subject in which Campbell excelled. Following his graduation in 1937, he spent time in the universities of Berlin and Leipzig as a Humboldt scholar, where he expanded his knowledge of the two related disciplines of folklore and folklife.

The collector Seosamh Ó Dálaigh and Caoimhín Ó Danachair, bearing a 16mm Kodak cine camera and telescopic stand, Dún Chaoin, Co. Kerry, 1946. National Folklore Collection, UCD.
Haystack at Port, Co. Donegal, 1949. National Folklore Collection, UCD.

He was first employed by the Irish Folklore Commission in 1940 as a ‘material culture specialist’, but his employment was cut short by a call to serve in the Irish army, which he did until after the end of WWII. He completed his MA thesis in Irish vernacular architecture during this time, and returned to work for the Commission in 1946, where he began an intensive programme of field recording and photography. He travelled to many parts of Ireland during this period, recording and photographing the speakers, singers and storytellers known to the Commission.

House interior, Ballyhorgan, Co. Kerry, 1969. National Folklore Collection, UCD.

While Ó Danachair mastered the challenge of recording to technically difficult media such as gramophone and lacquer disks, he had a particular skill for photography. He shared this skill with his father, William Danaher, who had captured images of life on a family farm in Rathkeale, Co. Limerick from 1904-1932. For his photography, Caoimhín Ó Danachair used a large format Hasselblad camera and a 35mm SLR Leica which he had bought in Germany in the late 1930s. The smaller Leica was particularly useful for capturing close-up images with details of objects or structures.

The collection of photographs amassed by him amounts to over 20,000 images, mostly in the form of black and white negatives, which he formally presented to the Department of Irish Folklore shortly after his retirement in 1985. Writing in 1977, Ó Danachair explains the purpose of amassing a ‘body of visual material’ in the context of the Commission and its successors, namely the importance of conserving the visual aspects of tradition, providing visual aids for written and audial material and providing teaching materials.

Indeed, the collection of photographs taken by Ó Danchair is an invaluable resource for scholars of folklore and ethnology. His abiding interest in vernacular architecture is clear in his photographs, as is his care to capture rare and indigenous farming and craft processes, such as a series of photographs of a potter at work, a series documenting the making of baskets and a series capturing the baking of bread. More than 3,000 of his images can be found on duchas.ie, and a new batch of 250 images will soon be made available on the site. This blog post contains some of these newly digitised photographs from Ó Danachair’s collection, taken over a career spanning fifty years of field work, research, lecturing and broadcasting at home and abroad.

Further Reading

  • Lysaght, Patricia, ‘In Memoriam: Caoimhín Ó Danachair/Kevin Danaher’, Béaloideas 70 (2002), 219-226.
  • Lysaght, Patricia, ‘Caoimhín Ó Danachair and his Published Work’, Gold Under the Furze, Studies in Folk Tradition, Presented to Caoimhín Ó Danachair, (eds.) Alan Gailey & Dáithí Ó hÓgáin (The Glendale Press, Dublin 1982), 12-26.

This post was researched and written by Ailbe Van Der Heide, National Folklore Collection.

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