The 1938 Essays of
The Irish Folklore Commission

by Aine McNeely

The essays written for the Folklore Commission in 1938 are available on micro film in the county library in Castlebar. Even though at the time, the National School integrated boys and girls in the classroom, the essays were recorded according to those written by boys and those written by girls.

This experiment in collecting folklore was unique and has not been repeated on a national scale. In the directions which were sent to every school in the country, set procedures were laid down and teachers were expected to insist their pupils adhere to them. During the 1930's there was an urgent sense that so much heritage had already been lost and the lack of any documentary evidence of what had been retained had to be remedied. The appeal was based on the grounds that the "story of the Irish countryman will never be known" unless the real tradition was recorded in every townland throughout Ireland. Teachers and children alike were asked to approach their traditions as if "it is the first time and perhaps the last time they will be recorded". Nothing was to be excluded. Children were encouraged to speak to the oldest living member of their family and their community and to record everything in the big book "as if nothing had been recorded in the district".

A set of 5 instructions were given, the most important stressing the value of what was obtained locally. Also provided was a list of subjects for compositions and these were adhered to very strictly. Under the suggestion "Hidden Treasure" pupils were told that "many tales of this character current in Ireland are of great antiquity and when hundreds of such narratives are recorded (and their exact location given) an important source of scientific material will be made available." This was the purpose of the scheme - to make available to scholars a vast amount of material which hitherto had been dispersed and at times, undervalued as a source for social and cultural history.

Brief History of Folklore Collection

It is not true to say however, that Irish folklore had been previously ignored. As a field of study it had, in the 19th century, attracted the attention of the American anthropologist and linguist, Jeremiah Curtain, who published folk tales he had collected in the New York newspaper "The Sun" during the 1890's. European philologists had been attracted to Irish folk tradition from the 1870's and of course many Irish speaking writers worked in this field, most notably Douglas Hyde, President of Ireland and Lady Gregory. However, it wasn't until 1927 that the Folklore of Ireland Society (Cumann le Bealoideas Eireann) was set up. The society took on board the collection and publication of Ireland's past, or what remained of it, through it's journal Bealoideas. In the early editions it published items of specialist interest in Irish such as anecdotes, tales, prayers, proverbs, riddles and songs. It also included some articles of general interest in English. The journal is still being published today.

In 1930 the government grant-aided the foundation of the Irish Folklore Institute. A Rockefeller foundation grant of £500 provided further financial help and within 5 years the institute had built up a collection of over 100 manuscript volumes. In 1935, the government, again for a term of 5 years, set up the Irish Folklore Commission with the primary job of collecting material. For such a task it is obvious that planning and method were very important, especially if the material was ever to be classified and made available to students. In this the Irish Commission drew on the experience of Sweden who were to the fore with the most up-to-date methods of collection. In 1937-38, with the help of the Department of Education, a collection of folklore was initiated throughout the National Schools of the 26 counties. The net result - 4,574 official note books were returned to the Commission - these have continued to be used by students of social history both here and in Europe.

What the Essays Tell Us

For the local historian, the essays of 1938 provide a very valuable source. What is striking here in Mayo Abbey, is that in a parish with a history of international importance because of its Monastic site, there is very little reference to it. The instructions given for compositions on local ruins are very precise. Students were asked to write about traditions surrounding local ruined churches or monasteries and to cite any carvings or ornamental stones in the vicinity. With the school so closely situated near a site of such antiquity and archaeological richness, it remains surprising that there is so little mention of it. This, I think, reflects more on the national education system itself than on the local community. Mayo Abbey school children were not unusual in knowing little about their locality - the emphasis in the teaching of history was more national rather than directing students' attention to events in the history in their area. Many who were at school in the 1930's and 40's would agree that they simply weren't taught anything about their area, and what they knew came from sources such as their family or neighbours. This emphasis is no longer the case. Research into the folklore of Mayo Abbey continues today, already some members of the community have taken part in the scheme to collect and record stories, poems, place names and the history of the parish.

For the reader in the 1990's these essays continue to enchant. They hark back to a period in our society which has all but disappeared. As a key to how our forefathers' thought about themselves and their world, the essays reveal a very different way of life. Their way of living was closer to the natural world. They relied on weather lore and they examined the activity of birds, sometimes to help them anticipate the future, more times to interpret present conditions. These essays reflect the concerns of the people from whom the information was collected. What they tell us of Mayo Abbey is that it was an agricultural community. The pieces on the weather are longer and more detailed than the others. eg. those on emblems and objects. The extracts on riddles and "pisreogs" are by far the longest and this, I think, reflects a superstitious approach to life on their behalf. Behaviour was governed by signs. The following is a typical example recorded by Paddy Delaney from Walter Hughes, Mayo Abbey:"

"If a person sees the first young lamb of the year with his face towards him, good luck will follow. If his tail is towards him it means bad luck for the year. If a person saw a new moon over his left shoulder and blessed themselves 3 times they would never get a toothache."

Folklore, the study of the folk-mind and the investigation of the world and ways of ordinary people, continues to attract students. The culture of the ordinary citizen and the traditions of the past remain significant. To quote the historian Francis Shaw - writing in the 1940s, just after the publication of Sean O' Suilleabhain's "Handbook of Irish Folklore" (1942) -"When truth and beauty and goodness cannot be found in modern civilisation, we are forced to seek for those values in other places......we must retrace our steps to where we strayed from the road.

Excerpts from the 1938 manuscripts collection have been reprinted with the kind permission of the Irish Folklore Commission, Belfield, Dubiln.

If you have any bits of folklore concerning Co Mayo please let us know.

We will be publishing extracts from the Mayo Abbey Folklore over the coming weeks.

The 1938 Essays ofThe Irish Folklore Commission