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Feast and Famine – The National Folklore Commission

Hidden in the halls of the ground floor of the University’s Newman Building, The National Folklore Collection is located. Surrounded by leather-bound books and manuscripts, you can’t help but feel like you’re somewhere special. And you are. Jonny Dillon, one of the Collection’s archivists says this is ‘a holy place’ for many.

Séamus Ó Duilearga, one of the founders of the Irish Folklore Commission, as it was then, aimed to accurately record Irish life as it was. Ó Duilearga understood the pace at which European culture was changing and what was being lost. Ireland’s history in the context of the world at large is captured in the written word, the voices of those who have gone before us and an extensive collection of photographs.

Visitors can expect to witness daily habits, from farming to festivities, as well as the momentous events such as trauma of The Great Famine. These events and how the Irish people came to terms with the world around them make the Collection a history like no other.

In recognition of its “world significance” and “outstanding universal value to culture”, the Irish Folklore Commission Collection 1935-1970 at UCD has recently been inscribed into the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Other items on the World Register are the Magna Carta, the Diary of Anne Frank, the Bayeux Tapestry and the Book of Kells (the only other item from Ireland).

The Irish Folklore Commission was established in 1935 to collect and preserve Ireland’s declining oral tradition and vulnerable cultural heritage. Government provided £100 to every county in order to employ full-time and part-time folklore collectors. These collectors travelled around the country collecting folklore, prioritising weakening Gaeltacht areas like Tyrone and Antrim. Collecting their stories on paper and voices on wax cylinders, their work was then sent back to Dublin to be archived.

The staff of the Commission trained in Sweden, where Folklore work had begun previously. This training ensured every piece of material has been accurately recorded and is still in use in the Collection. From his learning in Sweden, Seán Ó Súilleabháin, one of Folklore’s foremost scholars published The Handbook of Irish Folklore, ‘the Bible’, as Jonny fondly calls it.

Despite being one of the most comprehensive and well renowned collections in the world, omissions have been identified in the Collection. The archive reflects Irish society in the era in which it was collected, therefore women’s voices, for example aren’t as well documented as men’s. At the beginning, rural folklore was collected with a sense of urgency and as a result, urban folklore was incomplete until 1979 when The Urban Folklore Project was initiated. Work continues to this very day in preserving the people’s history of Ireland.

Amongst those who come to visit the Collection are students, schoolchildren, writers and artists – usually seeking information on their predecessors and their local area. The team behind the Collection is conscious of those members of the public who are interested in the Collection but can’t pay a visit. For this reason the digital project, Dú was created. This is a partnership project between The National Folklore Collection, UCD and Fiontar & Scoil na Gaeilge DCU, whereby some of the Collection has been digitised and made available online.

The Schools’ Collection, under the direction of Séamus Ó Duilearga and Seán Ó Súilleabháin makes up part of the collection available online. This pioneering project set schoolchildren collecting folklore from their parents and grandparents in both English and Irish in 5,000 schools during the period 1937-1939. The contents of what was collected reveals post-Civil War society coming to terms with its identity, through the eyes of children.

Jonny says the public’s interest in the project hasn’t been a surprise as this information fills ‘a void’ in contemporary society. Appetite for the Collection’s content suggests how deeply its contents resonate with the public.

Fairies and other worldly forces are often the central topic of conversation around folklore and whilst these are important features of the Collection, there is a whole world gone by on the shelves of the Collection. Place names and their origins, descriptions of clothing, food, songs, music, poetry and much more besides feature alongside trauma, efforts to cope with grief and memories of the Great Famine. It is impossible to gauge the value of The National Folklore Collection; it is the history of our people, our collective past, in our own words.

Criostóir Mac Carthaigh and Jonny Dillon were in conversation with Siún Ní Dhuinn, (BA 2006 and MA 2007) journalist with RTÉ

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