Leo Corduff: Collector and Photographer

Chuir Leo le cartlann fuaime Roinn Bhéaloideas Éireann ar go leor slite mar bhailitheoir agus mar chartlannaí, áit a ndearna sé clárú ar an ábhar agus a raibh sé ábalta a mhéar a leagan láithreach ar pé ábhar a bheadh ag teastáil. Chuir sé go han-mhór leis an gcartlann grianghraf chomh maith, mar a bhfuil grianghraif a thóg sé de na daoine a mbíodh sé ag bailiú uathu, dá muintir, dá dtithe, dá nósanna agus dá dtraidisiúin. Ní raibh teora le réimse a shuime i saol na ndaoine.

Leo contributed to the sound archive of the Department of Irish Folklore in many ways – as a collector and as an archivist, where he would catalogue the material and where he could always lay his hand on whatever material was needed. He also contributed much to the photographic archive, where there are photographs taken by him of the people he collected from, their families, their houses, their customs and traditions. There was no limit to his interest in the lives of the people.

Leo Corduff interviewing John Cadigan, Holyoke, Massachusetts (1982). Photographer: Séamas Ó Cathain. National Folklore Collection, UCD

So Bo Almqvist described Leo Corduff in the ‘In Memoriam’ published in Béaloideas after Leo’s death in 1992. Leo was first hired by the Irish Folklore Commission (IFC) as a microfilm operator in 1950, though he soon took over responsibility for the Commission’s mobile recording unit in 1952, a role previously held by Caoimhín Ó Danachair. He was to continue in the role of audio technician, and of the 1,700 acetate discs made in the field, Leo is listed as the collector for 800 discs. He was employed in the sound archive at a pivotal time, as he was to oversee the transition from spring-wound wax cylinder Ediphone machine to acetate plates, wire recorders and reel-to-reel tape, adopted in the mid 1950s. He also took an interest in the technical aspect of recording, and would often be on hand to fix any of the tape recorders and other recording equipment that needed caring for. In a talk given by Leo in 1988 in the sound archive of the Department of Irish Folklore (which succeeded the IFC in 1971), he describes recording with the mobile recording unit:

When making those disc recordings you see, you had to have the machinery in the van, and then you had the microphone in the house. Then you had to have somebody else inside the house – the collector – and he had to communicate with you through the microphone, but you had no other communication with him. And he would say “we’re ready to go now”. So you’d set up your machine, put your disc down and then you’d start. And when you were ready to start, you’d beep the horn on the car to give him the signal to go. But then, the trouble might be with the man inside who was about to tell the story. He’d say “Oh, I want to light my pipe first you know? I’ll have a smoke of the pipe.” So you’d hear that over the earphones, and you had [to] stop the machine. And then all of a sudden he’d say, “Ah no, forget about the pipe, I’ll start talking.” And there you were, and you hadn’t the machine ready at all! So you had to give another beep on the horn, and so it went on.

Leo was raised in Ros Dumhach, Co. Mayo, and was not the first of his family to work for the IFC. His father, Micheal Corduff, and his brother, Anraí Corduff, collected for the Commission as part-time collectors, primarily in Ros Dumhach and the surrounding areas of the Erris Gaeltacht. Anraí Corduff, who would be known later for his continued advocacy for the rights of Gaeltacht inhabitants, particularly those of his own community of Ros Dumhach, contributed material to the Irish Folklore Institute, the predecessor to the IFC, in 1934. Two more manuscripts contain material collected by him in 1935 and 1936, with his last contribution dated February 1937. The next correspondence the Commission received was penned instead by Michael Corduff, the father of Anraí and Leo, in response to a questionnaire on the folklore of prehistoric monuments:

I hope you will excuse my butting in on this work. As the matter was in English (I cannot, unfortunately, write Irish) and having a liking for this kind of work, as well as a better local knowledge and a wider acquaintance with the local topography of the surrounding country than has Harry [Anraí], it was agreed that I would substitute for him on this occasion.

From this point onwards, Michael Corduff continued to collect for the IFC until 1959 and Leo took great pride in the extensive work his father had collected for the Commission. Leo would also collect material in Ros Dumhach (including several recordings of his father) during his years of employment for the IFC, though his responsibility as audio technician also took him to many different areas around the country. In 1953, for example, he spent time collecting the repertoire of singer Róise Ní Ghrianna in Árainn Mhór, Co. Donegal. Some years later, in 1982, his work would take him to the United States, to accompany Séamas Ó Catháin in recording Irish emigrants in Holyoke and other areas of Massachusetts.

Schoolchildren, Inis Oírr, Co. Galway (1957). Photographer: Leo Corduff. National Folklore Collection, UCD
House and family of Tomás Ó Súilleabháin, Baile an Tobair, Corr na Móna, Co. Galway (1955). Photographer: Leo Corduff. National Folklore Collection, UCD

As noted by Bo Almqvist, Leo Corduff also made a large contribution to the Photographic Collection of the Department of Irish Folklore (now the National Folklore Collection, UCD). There are over 1,000 photographs attributed to him in the collection, containing striking images of those he recorded, images of local children, craftspeople working, local monuments, landscapes and many other aspects of life in the latter half of the twentieth century. 350 of the photographs taken by Leo Corduff have recently been digitised and launched, along with a pamphlet containing biographical information and a select sample of photographs. This material is available to view on duchas.ie, and some of these newly digitised photographs are included with this blog post.

An Factory’: sock knitting, Inis Oírr, Co. Galway (1957). Photographer: Leo Corduff. National Folklore Collection, UCD

This post was written by Ailbe van der Heide, Cúntóir Leabharlainne | Library Assistant, Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann | National Folklore Collection.

Further Reading:

Almqvist, Bo, ‘Leo Corduff, 1929-1992’ in Béaloideas vol. 60/61 (1992-93) pp. 287-290

Briody Mícheál, ‘The Irish Folklore Commission 1935-1970: History, ideology, methodology’ (Helsinki, 2007), pp.343-349.

Corduff, Leo, ‘From Cylinder to Open Reel’ (video V0132a, National Folklore Collection 1988).

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