Popular lore in field and street

Popular lore in field and street Photo: Alejandro-luengo
Mainly About Books
By the books editor

Among the many institutions that derive from the 1920s that still survive to this day the Folklore Department of University College Dublin is the most interesting, and perhaps the most culturally significant.

Its productions, such as a recent work on the folklore of our coast-wise fishing communities, often make for austere and academic reading. The basis of its work is less literary than scientific, in a model derived from folklife experts of Scandinavia.

Yet the people involved in its work, such as Kevin Danagher, Séamus Ennis and Seamus Ó Catháin, were decidedly human. More of the human side of folklore collecting is revealed in a book by Bríd Mahon, who was on the staff of the department for many years, while Green Grass Grows (1998) is subtitled ‘Memoirs of a Folklorist”’.

A medieval clerk in England once expressed the sentiment Sustine modicum: ricolae melius hoc norunt, “a wait a bit: let us ask the country folk”. Or as the poet Ezra Pound re-expressed it in The Decade of Sheng Min: “Ask the fellows who cut the hay”.

And that is what so many people think folklore was and is: the wisdom of rural families and communities. The Irish folklore collectors concentrated on this, rightly seeing that the long looked for economic improvement would change rural life internally, as it has.


But it raised the question: did the city folklore have not lore of their own? It was all too easy to say, as emigration drained both country and city down to the 1960s, that the folklore of the city was merely that of displaced country people. But it was not as easy as that.

A chapter of Bríd Mahon’s book deals briefly with the folklore of the city, a mere seven pages out of two hundred. Writing of Seamus Delargy she remarks: “One thing I shall always regret is his lack of interest in urban traditions, more especially in those of Dublin. Our main task lay in gathering up the folk traditions of Gaelic Ireland before it was too late. Everything else must take second place. Unfortunately, in those years I was the only woman folklorist and the only Dubliner on the staff.”

She goes on to make some remarks on the games she played when small, including ‘The Priest of the Parish has lost his Considering Cap’, one of the city games played at wakes in the Liberties, which “was a runaway favourite with its daring forfeits and sexual overtones”. This game is described in O’Sullivan’s Irish Wake Amusements, such as echo in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.

Iona and Peter Opie later showed in the brief gathering they collected from Dublin schools in The Language and Lore of Schoolchildren (1959), just what has been lost.

Bríd Mahon alludes a page or so later that now even the belief in ghosts has waned, though flying saucers and other UFOs were on the increase – what are now referred to by American folklorists as ‘urban myths’. But aside from this manifestation there would also have been folklore associated with marriage, childbirth, life events and death, which well merited the attention of folklorist but never got it.

Our main task lay in gathering up the folk traditions of Gaelic Ireland before it was too late. Everything else must take second place”

That is why Bairbre Ní Fhloin’s Cold Iron: Aspects of the occupational lore of Irish fishermen (Four Courts Press, €20.00) is so interesting in the part dealing with the fishermen out of Howth.

However, Yeats, who lived there as a child, felt (as he says in The Celtic Twilight) that Howth was the most haunted palce in Ireland.

It is interesting that these aspects of urban or urbanised lore interested the women workers in the Folklore department.

Can it be that they were more sensitive to some matters which the male colleagues bound up in trying to preserve their real past, neglected the urban mast of the new generations in Ireland?

As urban Ireland changes all the time with the advent of new cultures, the folklorist would need to be alert not just to the folklore of the past as in the fields and cottages of the west, but the folk life of the present around us in the streets and flats of Dublin as well.