Enter the Tape Recorder

On 15 June 2023, a portion of the Audio Collection held in the National Folklore Collection was launched on dúchas.ie. The recordings now featured on the website were collected throughout Ireland, featuring songs, music and stories in English and Irish. Most of the recordings were made with the help of sound technician Leo Corduff, and the audio added to the site features some of the earliest recordings made on tape by the Irish Folklore Commission from the mid-1950s. While the Commission had been recording since 1935, the entrance of the tape recorder was an important step and changed the way folk material was recorded and catalogued from that date.

The Audio Collection on dúchas.ie

In the introduction to Leabhar Sheáin Í Chonaill, later translated as Seán Ó Conaill’s Book by Máire Mac Néill, Seamus Ó Duilearga describes collecting folktales from the renowned storyteller Seán Ó Conaill:

‘Duine sámh socair ab eadh é. Labhaireadh sé go mín mall réidh nuair a bhíodh sgéal aige á ínnsint dom, agus b’fhuraiste sgrí uaidh, mar faid a bhíodh sé ag cur de, agus é i mbun shuainis ar a chathaoir shúgáin, do bhíodh sé ag féachaint ar an bpeann im ghlaic, agus thugadh sé mo dhóthain aimsire dhom. Dá gcuirtí isteach air aon uair le linn an sgéil d’ínnsint, do leanadh sé ag deachtú go réidh rianta, gan focal a chailliúint ná ruith na cainte a mhille.’

‘He was a mild, steady man. He used to speak gently, slowly and evenly when he was telling a story, and it was easy to write what he said, for, as he was reciting and sitting at ease in his straw-bottomed chair, he used to watch the pen in my hand and give me plenty of time. If he was interrupted while telling a tale, he would continue the dictation in a steady measured way, without losing a word or spoiling the run of the speech’.

Despite this description, the practice of recording long folktales using only pen and paper was not practical for the full-time folklore collectors of the Irish Folklore Commission, and most full-time collectors were soon equipped with an ediphone, a wireless device that could record sound onto wax cylinders. The Commission didn’t have the resources to keep all of these wax cylinders, however, and after each transcription had been checked for accuracy, the cylinder was shaved down and rewaxed so that it could be reused, losing the recording in the process. The ediphone, while a useful aid for transcription, was never intended for creating actual recordings, and the Commission was conscious that sound recordings needed to be made for posterity. 

Tadhg Ó Murchú recording on the ediphone in Spuncán with Pádraig Ó Súilleabháin, An Coireán. Photographer: Kevin Danaher, 1948.
Séamus Ennis using the disc-recording machine in Kerry. Photographer: Kevin Danaher, 1947.

In the late 1940s, the opportunity to acquire a disc-recording machine was presented as a direct result of a trip taken by Taoiseach Éamon De Valera to the Isle of Man, where he promised to send the Commission to record some of the last native speakers of Manx Gaelic. The Commission continued to use the disc-recording machine into the early 1950s, recording samples from Irish-speaking areas, as well as singers, musicians and storytellers, many of whom had already been recorded previously by collectors of the Commission. The Commission wished to gather samples from particular informants, as well as from areas where the Irish language was at risk, so that a sound recording could be preserved alongside the pre-existing manuscript material. 

Caoimhín Ó Danachair in the sound recording studio of the Irish Folklore Commission.

This approach to recording would change completely with the entrance of tape recording in the mid 1950s, when the Commission were able to purchase a Vortexion tape recorder. Due to budgetary issues, however, smaller tape recorders were not supplied to the full-time folklore collectors until 1962, starting with Prionnsias de Búrca in the Mayo/Galway area, and closely followed by the other five full-time collectors. The audio collection grew exponentially from this point onwards, expanding from a collection of samples to hours of collected material. Though collectors still transcribed their material, the Commission now kept each tape, and so pressure to transcribe every recording was alleviated. There were also difficulties with transcription as there was no simple rewind function. In March 1969, just prior to the disbanding of the Commission and the move to the UCD Belfield campus, the collectors were finally equipped with two machines each – a good quality portable machine for fieldwork and a machine with a foot-control device for transcription at home.

Séamas Ó Catháin recording the storyteller John Henry on a portable tape recorder, Cill Ghallagháin, Co. Mayo

This transition was aided by the expertise of Leo Corduff, who greatly facilitated the shift from ediphone and other recording devices to the portable tape recorder. In a seminar on the history of the sound archive, Corduff explained how the early tape recorder still needed to be connected to a source of electricity, as many houses had none. When the Commission had acquired a large tape recorder in the 1950s, they originally tried to record storytellers in the local pub, where they would have access to electricity, but stated that the informants were not as comfortable there as they would be in their own homes, and as such, returned to a method previously employed with the disc-recording device, which was to run the machine via a cable connected to the van outside.

Leo Corduff recording Mary Martin (native of Kerry & native speaker) and John Johnson (native of Gallarus, Ballydavid, Kerry & native speaker), Westfield, Massachusetts. Photographer: Séamas Ó Catháin, 1982

It is these earliest tape recordings that are now featured online. They hold examples of material in the Irish language, such as the sean-nós singing of Caitlín Casey. There is also conversational material, covering different aspects of tradition, including recordings made by Leo Corduff of his father, Michael Corduff, himself a collector in Ros Dumhach, Co. Mayo. Another collector, Seán Ó hEochaidh, can be heard speaking of his experience as a collector in a recording made in 1950. There is also material in English, including a host of traditional ballads recorded by Tom Munnelly. Musicians can also be counted in the number of recordings, including music recorded from the noted singer, storyteller and musician, Colm Ó Caodháin. This material is all available to explore now on dúchas.ie and more will continue to be added to the online platform into the future. Happy listening!

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

Further Reading:

Bale, Anna (2010) ‘Guthaí agus Glórtha: an Chartlann Fuaime’, in Treasures of the National Folklore Collection/Seoda as Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann, ed. Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, Séamas Ó Catháin, Ríonach uí Ógáin & Seosamh Watson, p163-71.

Briody, Mícheál (2007). ‘Creating a Sound Archive’, in The Irish Folklore Commission 1935-1970: History, Ideology, Methodology, p238.

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

van der Heide, Ailbe (2021). Mie Mannin, Mie Nerin/Good for Mann, Good for Ireland. UCD Cultural Heritage Blog

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