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The Joys of Fieldwork

Ailbhe Nic Giolla Chomhaill

Life, Lore and Song: Essays in Irish tradition in honour of Ríonach uí Ógáin / ‘Binneas an tSiansa’: Aistí in onóir do Ríonach uí Ógáin, by Kelly Fitzgerald, Bairbre Ní Fhloinn, Meidhbhín Ní Úrdail & Anne O’Connor (eds), Four Courts Press, 348 pp, colour ills, €49.50, ISBN: 978-1846828102

This bilingual Festschrift for Ríonach uí Ógáin, professor emeritus of Irish folklore and former director of the National Folklore Collection (NFC), is a fitting tribute to a scholar who has contributed so much to the study of Irish and international folklore throughout her career. Since joining the Department of Irish Folklore (now the School of Irish, Celtic Studies and Folklore) in University College Dublin as a collector and archivist in 1979, uí Ógáin has earned a reputation as a distinguished scholar, an esteemed colleague, a devoted mentor to students, and a generous guide and adviser to visitors to the NFC, previously the Irish Folklore Commission (1935-1971) and the Department of Irish Folklore UCD (1972-2005).

Among uí Ógáin’s most notable professional achievements are the extensive fieldwork she conducted over many years ‑ the recordings of which are now part of the NFC ‑ and the many publications she has authored and co-authored, including several monographs which are counted among the classics of Irish folklore studies, for example An rí gan choróin: Dónall Ó Conaill sa mbéaloideas (1985), Immortal Dan O’Connell in Irish folk tradition (1995), and Mise an fear ceoil: Séamus Ennis dialann taistil, 1942-1946 (2007), a pioneering study of musician, broadcaster and folklore collector Séamus Ennis’s field diaries. It is also worth noting that during uí Ógáin’s tenure as director of the NFC a large part of the collection was made accessible to the public through the digitisation of Bailiúchán na Scol (the Schools’ Collection), a joint collaboration between the NFC, the National Folklore Foundation and UCD Digital Library, Fiontar & Scoil na Gaeilge, Dublin City University, and the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht; this important work is still ongoing and the digitisation of large sections of the Main Manuscript Collection and the Photographic Collection has recently been completed.

Comprising twenty-seven essays by maithe agus móruaisle (a who’s who) of folklore, traditional music, and Irish-language studies, this collection serves as a timely reminder of the enormous contribution by scholars in these fields to humanities scholarship in Ireland and further afield. Many of the essays will appeal to a general audience, as well as to a more specialist readership of folklorists, ethnomusicologists and Irish language scholars. The essays are divided into five parts and each one explores an aspect of folklore and tradition studies in which uí Ógáin herself was keenly interested, for example the pleasures and perils of folklore collecting; multifaceted approaches to the study of material culture and traditional festivals; the hidden gems of tradition archives; the deep meanings which can be gleaned from close reading of oral songs and narratives; and the collaboration between Irish folklore scholars and their European counterparts which played an important role in the development of folklore as an academic discipline in Ireland, Scotland and the Nordic countries in particular.

Ríonach uí Ógáin’s accomplishments as a professional folklore collector and as a scholar are emphasised in Part One, where her field recordings, publications and the extraordinary photographic archive of over two thousand images she compiled during her career are outlined by Anna Bale, Kelly Fitzgerald, and Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh. A selection of uí Ógáin’s photography concludes Part One and the subjects of these images give readers a glimpse of the passion she had for her craft and the mutual respect she fostered with the people she worked with over many years. Unsurprisingly, the craft of the folklore collector also features prominently in the essays which follow in Parts Two to Five. Angela Bourke, for example, draws on the diaries and letters of Alma Curtin, wife of American folklorist Jeremiah Curtin, to give insight into the visit of the Curtins to Connemara, Co Galway, in 1892-93, where they collected folktales from well-known local storytellers such as Seán Ó Briain and Colm Ó Guairim; Liam Mac Mathúna explores the collecting activities of Douglas Hyde in his teenage years and into his early twenties in his native Co Roscommon, as they are reflected in a manuscript compiled by Hyde in the late nineteenth century; and Meidhbhín Ní Úrdail discusses five manuscripts which were compiled by Pádraig Feiritéar of Corca Dhuibhne, Co Kerry, at the turn of the twentieth century, and which include folk songs, poetry, folktales and traditional narratives collected by Feiritéar in his native Co Kerry and in the USA, where he emigrated to in 1856.

Ireland’s traditional song and music tradition is also given due consideration and the essays in Part Three of this collection, in particular, acknowledge uí Ógáin’s outstanding work as a researcher, producer and editor of traditional Irish song and music. This section includes a compelling study by Nicholas Carolan of a manuscript from the Royal Irish Academy which is possibly the first collection of Irish-language traditional songs to include both music and words; a detailed account by Fionnuala Carson Williams of music and dancing in Co Antrim in the early nineteenth century, as recorded by the fieldworkers of the Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland; a discussion by Lillis Ó Laoire of four female singers from Co Donegal from whom folklore collector Seán Ó hEochaidh collected folksongs; and an incisive analysis by Cathal Goan of a previously unpublished version of the iconic folksong Róisín Dubh, collected by Mícheál Ó Domhnaill from singer Neilí Ní Dhomhnaill of Ranafast, Co Donegal, which raises intriguing questions about the allegorical meaning of Róisín Dubh. The search for meaning in traditional customs and folk narratives is also explored by the distinguished folklore and ethnology scholars whose essays feature in Part Four, including Bairbre Ní Fhloinn, Pádraig Ó Héalaí and Anne O’Dowd. Barbara Hillers’s essay is a fascinating exploration of humour and ethnic stereotyping in Irish versions of an anecdote known as “Daniel O’Connell and the Jew”, an antisemitic tale which raises pertinent questions about the role of storytelling in validating prejudice against so-called “strangers”. Diarmuid Ó Giolláin sheds fresh perspective on Irish legends about the man in the moon, reminding us that the meaning of such narratives is intricately connected to the vibrant cultural context in which they were told. Stiofán Ó Cadhla, in his contribution, draws on an impressive body of anthropological, sociological, philosophical literature in his reappraisal of superstitions relating to death, concluding that “The superstition par excellence exists in the interstice of the worlds, Christian and indigenous, communitarian and individualistic […] Incidentals, anomalies and peculiarities in the ragbag of collection hold valuable and investigable units of knowledge. They become an ancillary archive in the seams and borders of evolutionistic, progressivistic calculation. Piseoga become eloquent and elegant.”

The eloquence and elegance which often emerge from folklore archives is a narrative thread which connects each of the essays in this collection. This thread is particularly striking in the essays of Tom Sherlock, Séamus Ó Catháin, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne and Anne O’Connor, in which the authors reflect on some of the most memorable tradition bearers with whom they have worked over the years. Each of these authors gives his/her own unique insight into the “doing” of fieldwork which, as illustrated beautifully by Ní Dhuibhne, is both “a vocation and an addiction”:

A small number of people are drawn to our subject, and I am not sure if we know precisely what attracts them to this esoteric discipline, to the extent that they devote their lives to its study [...] Folklorists are few. But they are lucky people, and the joy of fieldwork cannot be over-estimated.

The editors of Life, Lore and Song / Binneas an tSiansa deserve the highest praise for this outstanding Festschrift. It is difficult to imagine a more fitting tribute to Ríonach uí Ógáin, whose spirit, generosity and scholarship are a continuing source of inspiration to folklore studies both nationally and internationally.

1/5/2020

Ailbhe Nic Giolla Chomhaill is a lecturer in Irish at the University of Limerick, where she teaches courses on Irish folklore, modern literature, Celtic civilisation, and sociolinguistics. Her first book, An Chaora Ghlas agus Scéalta Eile as Seanadh Farracháin, is an edited collection of international folktales collected in Shanafaraghaun National School, Co. Galway. It was published by Leabhar Breac in 2016. 


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