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13 March 2017 Edition

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A grim future for folklore

• John Carey specialised in Celtic folklore and Daniel Corkery was a folk story collector

On nights as black as coal, the hollow was a living nightmare

A LONG TIME AGO, the road from our house to the village dipped and twisted into a sleepy hollow encased by a clump of trees that rustled in a gentle wind and whistled to a soft rain. 

On moonlit nights the hollow emitted a wispy effulgence that warmed the heart. This natural benevolence was contrasted by cold, hard nights when the wind sounded like a banshee and the rain fell like stones. 

And on nights as black as coal, the hollow was a living nightmare – full of unimaginable danger, eerie sounds that chilled the heart, and shadowy movement as real as the elemental trees. 

Eventually, the council erected an unnecessary street lamp at that corner and refused to say why. 

The people of the village passed down stories about this abrupt twist in the narrow road. Some were believable and might even have been based on fact. Some were fantastic and might have been folklore. No one seemed to know the difference between fact and fantasy. No one cared because the stories rooted the people in their place, and that was all that mattered.

Eighty years ago, at the behest of Séamus Ó Duilearga and Séan Ó Súilleabháin in the Irish Folklore Commission, 50,000 schoolchildren from 5,000 schools started to write down the stories about their home place. The task took almost two years and now those stories, originally written on almost three quarter of a million exercise book pages, are available online at www.duchas.ie. 

The Bailiúchán na Scol (Schools’ Collection) embraces the folklore of Ireland in a manner that was and remains unique. The stories were written by the children, who interpreted them from local knowledge, in conversations with grandparents, parents and neighbours.

The folklorists sent a booklet to all the teachers. “The collection of the oral traditions of the Irish people is of national importance,” they announced and set out what they wanted. 

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•  Covers of the Grimm Brothers' fairytales

Stories about hidden treasure, funny tales, riddles, weather lore, local heroes, local happenings, severe weather, old schools, old crafts, marriage customs, penal times, place names, bird lore, local cures, handmade toys, lore of certain days, travelling folk, fairy forts, local poets, games, local roads, home district, holy wells, herbs, potato crop, proverbs, festival customs, care of farm animals, churning, care of the feet, local forge, locally made clothes, holy family, local patron saint, local fairs, landlord, food in olden times, hurling and football, old stories, old Irish tales, songs, local monuments, bread, buying and selling, old houses, giants and warriors, leipreacháns and mermaids, local ruins, religious stories, old graveyards, collections of prayers, emblems, objects of value, historical traditions, strange animals . . .

“The children should remember that very little is known about the traditions of their district and they should record everything which throws a light on these traditions,” they stressed, and the stories came flooding in from all over the country.

A story about pigs: “Long ago in this island the people used to only fatten one set of pigs in the year – these then used be strong tough old pigs about 12 months. Each man would have two or three. There was no market of any good nearer than Cork. Castletown wasn't much those days, so they used have to bring their pigs all the way from Dursey to Cork.”

A story about work: “There was a strange farmer in a certain locality and he was looking for workmen. One morning he went out to see if there was anybody waiting for the position and there were two people waiting. He asked the first man what could he do and he said he could do everything. Then he asked the second fellow what could he do and he said he could do nothing. So the farmer asked why and he said that the other fellow said he could do everything.”

And superstition: “The (people) would not take milk out of the house after sunset without putting salt in it. They used always pray when they saw the new moon. People would not leave a young child in the house without putting the tongs across the cradle. This was done to prevent the fairies taking it away.”

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Robert Allen by the Grimm Brothers' dictionary at the museum

Until the announcement in 2012 that the Bailiúchán na Scol would be digitalised and the words “Irish folklore” re-entered the vocabulary, our traditional oral culture was in a dark place, trapped under the promise of yet another Celtic revival and the instant snap-chat of social media, betrayed by those who saw it merely as a tourist trap.

While King Leonidas and his legendary 299 Spartans were introducing the world to Greek (and Persian) folklore via comic book and film, and yet another Grimm Brothers folktale was finding its way onto the big screen, no one seemed to want to glamourise the deeds of Maeve, Ailill, Conor and Cú on screen (large or small), or tell stories about amazing herbalists, cunning animals, magical birds, the pisreóga (superstitions passed down), rites of passage, soothsayers, war and famine – all subjects of books and films elsewhere in the world. 

Irish folklore had lost its allure. Despite the start made by Ó Duilearga, Ó Súilleabháin and the 50,000 storytellers, it gradually fell into the doldrums and became the preserve of foreign writers, whose interpretations have not always been faithful and more often than not have been inauthentic. 

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Dublin City University’s Gearoid Ó Cleircin believes the digitalisation of the national folklore collection will raise awareness of Irish folklore in Ireland.

“It seems to have inspired the younger generation organically. The Dúchas project has been contacted by educators from primary to third level who use the material as part of class. ‘Macha Media’ have brought a number of stories back to life with the help of some budding young actors and have made the videos available online (https://www.meoneile.ie/sraitheanna/insint-eile. It is also in use in the Threads project on scoilnet: https://www.scoilnet.ie/threads).”

There are two reasons why everyone knows the Grimm Brothers’ folktales – Hollywood (Disney in particular) and the simple fact that the original shreds of stories were embellished as part of a project to unify a collective consciousness. 

The Grimm Brothers Museum in Kassel, in Germany, is a monument to the work these men started, ostensibly to unify the disparate German dialects. They introduced the world to Gothic stories yet that was always a byproduct of their core work – the collection of an oral folk tradition and the dialects that were used to convey those stories. 

Not much different to Ó Duilearga’s project. Many of the stories are written as Gaeilge and hold clues to their origins. 

It’s time to start telling each other stories again. And time to put them into the world.

Ghosts of Knockboy By Evelyn Gallevan

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• Page from the Duchas website

THIS NIGHT that I am going to tell about 

was one of these loveliest of nights that come in September. The moon was full and a gentle peace and serenity were over the whole countryside. 

So beautiful was the night that wishing to linger on the way the more to feel its sweetness I prevailed upon my escort when about halfway to return home.

I came on easily, past the school when I had spent the day “myself against a host”, and hour gentle it seemed in the soft moonlight. At the little bridge I paused a while to see the waters under it “glide like happiness away”.

When I came to the bridge that crosses the stream here again I was startled by the sound of approaching footsteps – knip-knap! knip-knap! knip-knap – many footsteps together and the next moment, Santa Maria! What is this? 

Five women, I counted them, are approaching me, as plainly as the light of the moon. There was no fancy and no deception. The five were of different sizes. The one in the centre was the tallest. They were dressed alike but the colours were different. They wore check aprons and shawls – a style of dress not worn in this part of the country for 40 years past.

My heart beat a bit quicker surely, and I kept well in on the grass. They passed by. They spoke no word, and I spoke no word. Their faces were as pale as the moonlight and, save for the tip-tap of their feet, they were as silent as the dead.

They looked neither to the right nor to the left.

I went my way, scared enough. I did not turn my head to gaze after them. Why? I really don’t know. 

When I came into the house I told of what I had seen. My host and hostess were surprised, but ventured the explanation that it may be a party going to a wake or some such gathering in the neighbourhood – though they could not fit in my description of apparel with anything they knew.

But inquiries the next day showed that there was no wake nor any gathering for miles around further. I cannot explain.

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An Phoblacht
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