Books Erris History

Mayo stories of devils, drunks and princes on new Irish folklore website

In 1937, the Irish Folklore Commission, in collaboration with the Department of Education and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, initiated a revolutionary scheme in which schoolchildren were encouraged to collect and document folklore and local history.

Now with the launch of the Dú, a new Irish folklore repository, some 64,000 pages of hand-written folklore and local history recorded in 1937-38 by Irish schoolchildren in counties Dublin, Mayo, Donegal, and Waterford, is accessible online.

The children collected this material mainly from their parents and grandparents and other older members of the local community or school district.

The topics about which the children were instructed to research and write about included local history and monuments, folk tales and legends, riddles and proverbs, songs, customs and beliefs, games and pastimes, traditional work practices and crafts.

Sarah Gunning’s class of 1939

Here, Ballina man, Daniel Hickey, a Dublin-based journalist, writes about how his great-grandmother got her young pupils in Geesala National School to record the folklore, poems, and pishogues of the Barony of Erris.

On New Year’s Day, a few years ago, I visited Holmes’ pub in Doohoma, where Breda, the owner of the pub, told me about my great-great-great-grandfather, Martin Caldwell.

Caldwell was a cobbler and a poet, she said. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, he taught in a school on one of the Inishkeas, a couple of islands off the coast of Blacksod, abandoned since the 1930s. There he married an island woman, Brid de Burca, and they returned to the mainland, setting up home in Doohoma.

Back home, in Ballina, I googled the name: Martin Caldwell. An old newspaper article said that one of his poems was in the National Folklore Archive at UCD.

A fortnight later, having returned to Dublin, I visited the archive.

The National Folklore Commission began collecting stories and poems in the 1930s. Employees of the commission, folklorists, would travel the country, speaking to the people, recording and transcribing the stories that would otherwise have been lost.

One of the archive’s books is devoted to the folklore of Erris. I opened the book randomly and there, on the page I’d opened, was the poem, An tAthair Padraig O Maoileoin, written by my ancestor.

Recurring theme

The poem had been transcribed by Sarah Gunning, my great-grandmother, principal of Geesala’s national school in the 1930s.

One aspect of the Folklore Commission’s work was to encourage local children to collect stories, poems, old proverbs, etc.

Each Friday, Sarah Gunning would give an assignment to the children: over the weekend, the children would talk to the old people of the parish and write down their stories, poems and pishogues.

The sensation upon looking at that book and realising when and by whom it was written was both strange and for some reason comforting: way back, in 1939, my great-great-grandmother had written into that book which I was now reading, sixty-nine years later, in a room in UCD.

Carefully turning the pages, and looking at the decades-old ink, I felt part of something much bigger, much deeper, than myself alone; I felt rooted.

Once, it was only the Americans – second and third-generation Irish, etc. – who traced their roots. Now, however, in a media-soaked global village, we, too, seek roots.

The stories from Sarah Gunning’s class of 1939 were populated by devils and drunks, princes, kings and gigantic, man-eating eels – would have been told beside fires, in pubs and cottages, entertaining the listeners, distracting them awhile from their worries.

Like many traditional narratives – fairytales, fables, parables – the stories appear to have an instructive or moral function as well.

Reading them, I am struck by the recurring theme of the desire for gold or for material wealth.

Another recurring theme – evident in Sean Scéal, The Three Hags and Willie the Blacksmith – is that of the layabout, the man or woman who never works a day in his or her life.

A couple of questions probably worth bearing in mind when reading the stories are: What type of behaviour is rewarded? And what type is punished?

Also worth bearing in mind is the form of both reward and punishment. How are people rewarded? How are they punished?

The answers to those questions perhaps give an indication of the moral preoccupations of the people of Erris who told and listened to the stories

By Anthony Hickey

Follow writer and photographer, Anthony Hickey, as he travels around his native Co. Mayo, Ireland.