Collecting Folklore by Questionnaire

While visiting Scandinavia in 1928, a visit which influenced him greatly, Séamus Ó Duilearga was introduced to the many approaches to collecting and cataloguing folk tradition already pioneered by scholars there. The Swedish model in particular would continue to influence the systems of classification employed by the Irish Folklore Commission when it was founded seven years later in 1935, with Ó Duilearga as honorary director. Among the many inspirations taken from Sweden, the idea of a postal questionnaire was to appear in the toolbelt of the Commission from the late 1930s, and remained a useful tool for the purposes of collecting folklore even after the Commision was disbanded and succeeded by the Department of Irish Folklore in 1970.

The idea of collecting folk tradition via questionnaire had already been in practice in Sweden and other countries for quite some time before Ó Duilearga’s visit and had proved very successful. Ó Duilearga, however, was not the only Irish folklorist to receive training in Sweden. Seán Ó Súilleabháin, archivist of the Commission, travelled to Sweden in 1935, as did Máire Mac Néill in 1938. These three staff members, as well as Caoimhín Ó Danachair, were the primary head-office staff in the earliest years of the Commission and would all work with the questionnaire system to some degree.

Seán Ó Súilleabháin, Swedish scholar Carl W. von Sydow and Séamus Ó Duilearga at Kenilworth Square, Dublin in 1949. National Folklore Collection, UCD.

The first challenge in employing the questionnaire system was the acquisition of a pool of correspondents willing to respond to questionnaires sent out by the Irish Folklore Commission. Luckily, this question was quickly solved, as the number of correspondents was soon bolstered by the many teachers involved in the Schools’ Collection, who continued to correspond with the Commission after the scheme ended in 1939. Questionnaires, when they were sent to these correspondents, contained a list of questions on a particular subject. Though some questionnaires were longer and more detailed than others, an attempt was usually made to keep the questions as open as possible, in order to give the correspondent(s) every opportunity to provide relevant information. The questions were also provided in English and Irish, in order to ensure that the material was preserved in its original language.

The earliest questionnaire responses received by the Commission contained information on holy wells. This questionnaire had not been distributed by the Commission, however, but by the Irish government through the Department of Education in 1934, a year before the Commission was founded. The responses were presented to the Commission and later bound into the Main Manuscript Collection, where they are now accessible online on dú The first questionnaire issued by the Commission in 1936 was on bataí scóir/tally sticks, which were used to discourage the use of the Irish language among children in National Schools during the nineteenth century. Ó Duilearga, however, considered the questionnaire on Martinmas/Lá Fhéile Mártain, issued in November 1939, to be the real beginning for the questionnaire system. Indeed, this particular questionnaire was very successful, resulting in over 2,000 pages of material.

Responses to the questionnaire on Martinmas, National Folklore Collection, UCD, CBÉ 674 – CBÉ 684.

Questionnaires proved useful for collecting material on a particular subject very quickly and they were often distributed at the request of a researching scholar, with findings subsequently published. A wide spectrum of material was collected via questionnaire, with questionnaires on material culture, such as on the dwelling house and on clothing, and subjects relating to oral literature, such as wellerisms and modern legends. Social tradition is also well represented in questionnaire responses, particularly in regards to festivals. All four of the quarter-day festivals have an impressive number of responses to questionnaires regarding them, as do most of the other major annual celebrations. 

Since the establishment of the system, questionnaires have been distributed on a long list of different subjects. Some questionnaires were detailed, such as the questionnaire distributed in 1945 on the centenary of the Great Famine. The many responses to this successful questionnaire have since been used in many different studies on the subject. Other questionnaires were shorter, as is the case with the questionnaire on the different names for the dragonfly, which only asks one question: What is the name for the creature pictured? This question received many interesting answers, including snáthaid mhór, flying lizard, spearadóir and the devil’s darning needle.

Questionnaire on the names for the dragonfly, National Folklore Colelctions, UCD, CBÉ 1830: 96.

The questionnaire responses held in the archives of the National Folklore Collection are a valuable resource for researchers and can serve as an accessible starting-point, before diving into other resources in the Collection and elsewhere. In total, material collected by questionnaire amounts to about 40,000 pages, bound into 166 manuscripts. Visitors interested in these questionnaires and the responses to them are always most welcome to get in touch to explore this body of material.

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

Further Reading

Briody, M. (2008) The Irish Folklore Commission 1935-1970: history, ideology, methodology. Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki.

Ní Fhloinn, B. (2001) ‘In Correspondence with Tradition: The Role of the Postal Questionnaire in the Collection of Irish Folklore’ in Ó Catháin, S. (ed.) Northern Lights: Following Folklore in North-Western Europe. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 215-228.

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