On receiving an offer to accompany a former Royal Navy fisheries protection vessel for sea trials in July of 1947, Taoiseach Éamon De Valera took the opportunity to go on holiday. On this voyage he visited the Blaskets, The Aran Islands and Tory Island off the coast of Ireland, but he also paid a visit to the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides, stopping on the way in Iona and the Isle of Man; his first trip outside the Irish Republic since declaring that Ireland would be neutral during World War Two. While his visit was certainly significant in terms of relations between Ireland and Britain at the time, his one-day visit to the Isle of Man was to have an unexpected outcome for the Irish Folklore Commission, the Manx Museum and the Manx language.
De Valera was given a tour around the island by Attorney General Ramsay B. Moore and Director of the Manx Museum Basil Megaw and his wife Eleanor. While visiting the open air folk museum in Cregneash, the Taoiseach met Ned Maddrell, curator of the museum and one of the last native speakers of the Manx language. They conversed in their respective languages, with Maddrell speaking to the Taoiseach in Manx and De Valera replying in Irish. On learning that there were no good recordings of native Manx speakers, the Taoiseach offered to send a delegation from the Irish Folklore Commission to record the speakers, and after consulting Yn Cheshaght Ghailckagh – the Manx Language Society – the Manx Museum accepted his offer.
Having promised the Commission’s mobile recording unit to the Manx Museum, when De Valera returned to Ireland he was soon informed that, in fact, the Commission had no suitable equipment for this kind of recording. As Kevin Danaher writes, he and Séamus Ennis had previously experimented with collecting in the field via disc recording, but that this had been made possible by using a combination of borrowed material and ‘oddments of electrical apparatus’. With De Valera’s blessing, however, the Commission promptly set about acquiring a gramophone recording device and following that, a van to transport the equipment. The unit was ready for use by April 1948 and Danaher was to take charge of its operation.
Danaher came to the Isle of Man in a cattle boat and then continued on to different, often remote, areas of the island to record some of the last native speakers. Indeed, some areas were so remote that extra petrol rations were sought from the Manx Petrol Rationing Commission to ensure that the van could reach them. The recording trip lasted from 22 April to 5 May, during which Danaher recorded 26 double-sided acetate discs, amounting to just over four hours with eight native speakers (five men and three women).
Aiding Danaher on this excursion was a small team of enthusiastic Manx-language students who helped introduce and interview the speakers, and while some of the speakers found it difficult to recall their native language, the students’ prior relationships with them were helpful in overcoming some of their trepidation. The recorded material varied, from stories to conversation, song fragments, hymns and versions of the Lord’s Prayer.
The working relationship between the Commission and the Manx Museum did not end with the success of this two-week trip, however. The recordings made by Danaher were vital for preserving the voices of native speakers, but the material collected was also impressive, and the decision was taken by the Manx Museum to embark upon a survey to further collect information on the traditions of the island. In November 1948, Basil Megaw and Eric Creegan visited the offices of the Irish Folklore Commission in Dublin, where Séamus Ó Duilearga and Danaher assisted them and helped them prepare for what was to become the Manx Folklife Survey. As Creegan would be charged with looking after the manuscripts and indexing, he returned to Dublin in December 1948, where Seán Ó Súilleabháin showed him the methods employed by the Commission. Leslie Quirk, one of the language students who had assisted Danaher in his recording on the Isle of Man, was appointed as full-time collector for the survey. His first two weeks of employment were spent in training with Seán Ó hEochaidh in Donegal, before returning to the Isle of Man to continue his work there. The Commission also lent Quirk an ediphone for the purposes of this work.
The entire collection of material recorded during those two weeks in the Isle of Man was published in Skeealyn Vannin / Stories of Mann in 2003, containing all of the digitally restored sound recordings, as well as full transcriptions and translations of the material. A delegation from the Isle of Man also visited the Department of Irish Folklore, UCD, to present the department with a plaque in memory of Kevin Danaher and his work on the island. It reads:
‘Ayns cooinaghtyn jeh Caoimhín Ó Danachair (1913 – 2002) son e obbyr niartul as eh recortyssey loayrtee dooghyssagh jeh’n Ghaelg ayns Mannin sy vlein 1948. Bee pobble Vannin booisal son dy bragh son shoh.
Mie Mannin, Mie Nerin’.
‘In memory of Caoimhín Ó Danachair (1913 -2002) for his great work and his recording of native speakers of Gaelic in Mann in 1948. The people of Mann will be forever grateful for this.
Good for Mann, Good for Ireland’.
This post was written by Ailbe van der Heide, Cúntóir Leabharlainne | Library Assistant, Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann | National Folklore Collection.
Briody, M. & Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, The Irish Folklore Commission 1935-1970: History, Ideology, Methodology, Finnish Literature Society, Helsinki, 2008.
Harrison, S., Reed, D. & Manx Museum and National Trust, 100 Years of Heritage: The Work of the Manx Museum and National Trust, Manx Museum and National Trust, Douglas, 1986.
Manx National Heritage & Irish Folklore Commission, Skeealyn Vannin: Stories of Mann: The Complete Collection of Manx Language Archive Recordings made by the Irish Folklore Commission in 1948, Manx National Heritage, Douglas, 2003.