Folklore: leprechauns, legends and fireside stories, right?

Not quite. If you go down to UCD today, you’ll find a very different story. From its origins with Irish folklore collectors who, from the 1920s, scrambled around the country on a mission to record traditions, the National Folklore Collection (NFC) has grown into one of the biggest and most impressive collections of folklore and oral traditions anywhere in the world. The collection itself consists of almost 4,000 volumes of bound folklore, much of it handwritten and a substantial portion of it collected by schoolchildren during a special project that was undertaken in the late 1930s. There’s also a sound archive and a collection of art.

The NFC is ground zero for the academic staff of the UCD Delargy Centre for Irish Folklore, as well as students and researchers who come from all over the world to explore its treasures. But what is folklore?

Far from being a relic of the past, folklore is all around us, and it relates to all of us

UCD's Irish Folklore Centre - Dr Bairbre Ní Fhloinn.

Dr Bairbre Ní Fhloinn

Dr Bairbre Ní Fhloinn, the head of Irish folklore at UCD explains. “Folklore is a way of looking at the world which gives you an insight into what you see around you. It includes human stories; traditions around healers and folk healing; festivals such as Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day; the games and sports that we play; traditions at weddings such as speeches, clothes and food and how we sometimes want to keep some of them and jettison others; stories, legends and myths about the supernatural including ghosts, banshees and fairies; narratives of great heroes such as Cúchulainn and Fionn; folktales for children and adults; traditional boats and tools; oral histories about everything from the Vikings through to modern political events; the clothes we wear; how we behave at funerals and so much more.”

Indeed, far from being a relic of the past, folklore is all around us, and it relates to all of us. Every human being who has ever lived has felt some silent hand guiding them, from the womb to the grave (and, according to some folk beliefs, beyond that). It is the study of tradition and what traditions we reject and modify to fit our own lives.

“It is the history that we don’t learn in school and how people, both now and in the past, relate to their social, physical, cultural or economic environment,” says Ní Fhloinn. “It is the history and culture of ordinary people. And, whereas anthropology focuses on human culture, folklore has the added dimension of human history.”

There are over 200 students studying undergraduate folklore or modules in folklore at UCD and popular courses include ‘Introduction to folklore’, ‘Folklore and the imagination’, ‘Traditional storytelling, ‘Calendar custom’, ‘Healers and healing’ and ‘Vernacular architecture. It is, in particular, a hugely popular course with international students who are drawn to the subject because it gives them a unique and hugely valuable insight into Irish life and culture.

An old hawthorn fairy bush - Image courtesy of the National Folklore Collection.

An old hawthorn fairy bush – Image courtesy of the National Folklore Collection

The academic staff working in Irish folklore at UCD may be small, but it is hugely dedicated. As well as Ní Fhloinn, other lecturers include Barbara Hillers, Kelly Fitzgerald and Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh. There’s also Ian Lynch who lectures in traditional music and is a member of the band Lankum (formerly Lynched) who have appeared on Jools Holland’s TV show.

All of these researchers rely on the NFC archive, located in the same building as them, to carry out their research. “A huge amount of our teaching work comes from the archive, so the teaching and research are inextricably linked,” explains Ní Fhloinn. “We are really very lucky to have this extraordinary resource at our disposal. In recent years, the launch of the website Dú means that the general public can check out the digitised manuscripts which were collected by schoolchildren in 1938.”

Folklore is a way of looking at the world which gives you an insight into what you see around you

There are still tens of thousands of pages of collected folklore which have not yet been fully explored by either researchers or the general public, but the collection is still growing and the folklore all around us is still being gathered and documented. In the 1980s, Patricia Lysaght, a now retired professor of folklore, gathered contemporary supernatural stories, while the NFC and lecturers working there carried out research into urban folklore. Music has been continuously recorded from the 1940s onwards while Ní Fhloinn, Mac Cárthaigh and her colleagues gathered stories, customs, beliefs and traditions around maritime culture such as seals, boats, fishing and much more. Ní Fhloinn herself has a particular interest in the traditions, stories, language and music of Ireland’s Travelling community and her work has played a part in the preservation of this indigenous culture’s traditions.

A bride with a 'Straw Boy' - Image courtesy of the National Folklore Collection.

A bride with a ‘Straw Boy’ – Image courtesy of the National Folklore Collection

“I’m also interested in contemporary traditions such as those of Dublin’s “breadmen” (that is, men who deliver bread to the shops) because they carry the trays of bread on their head; it’s a uniquely Dublin tradition,” says Ní Fhloinn. “I am also looking at the tradition of Women’s Christmas, which historically was seen as a “day off” for women where men were expected to take over the household chores but, in recent years, has been revived and re-imagined as a day to explore women’s issues and concerns as well as a chance for women to get together. Another Irish folklore graduate, Kelly Fitzgerald, is working with the Dublin Tenement Museum on Henrietta Street to record the stories of the people who lived there.”

In this decade, one of the most exciting pieces of research has been a project, led by Irish folklore graduate Deirdre Nuttall, which is gathering hundreds of stories about the life, experiences and traditions of Protestants in the Republic of Ireland since the foundation of the State. Nuttall has received hundreds of contributions from all over the country, with people telling stories of how they were forbidden from attending the weddings of Catholic friends, what they experienced during the notorious boycott of Protestant businesses in Fethard-on-Sea (Co Wexford) back in 1956, what life was like for working-class Protestants in Dublin’s inner city, how it felt to be excluded from community life on occasion and to what extent there were divisions – and connections – between the Catholic and Protestant communities. It is a fascinating piece of work that also spans folk history, supernatural and medical traditions, relations with Catholic neighbours, social diversity and what traditions were uniquely Protestant.

In September 2017, the Delargy Centre will launch a new postgraduate masters in folklore studies, which can be studied full or part-time. It is a new departure for Irish folklore studies at UCD and it is one which will be suitable for people with or without a background in folklore. Modules will include the folklore that is transmitted by children, gender perspectives in folklore, and maritime folklore, among others. Crucially, it will include the option of a work placement with possibilities including an internship in the NFC, the Irish Traditional Music Archive or the National Museum of Country Life in Co. Mayo.

Our work here touches on so many aspects of life and has so much to tell us about Irish society

“In the past few months, the NFC has launched Folklore Fragments, a new monthly, bilingual podcast series which explores a variety of topics across Irish and European folk tradition and is hosted by Jonny Dillon and Claire Doohan of the NFC and the UCD Delargy Centre,” says Ní Fhloinn. “Postgraduates are exploring topics including the Wren Boy tradition (which is undergoing a revival) and the Skellig lists, which was an old Munster tradition that, rather cruelly, composed lists of all the unmarried people in the area coming up to Lent – when marriage was prohibited – so that unmarried people could be proverbially ‘sent to the Skelligs’, where the monks were believed to use the old calendar and marriage could take place later.

“Our work here touches on so many aspects of life and has so much to tell us about Irish society,” says Ní Floinn, “not just in the past but in ways which have a unique relevance for the present as well.”

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Peter McGuire is a freelance features and news journalist. He also works a researcher and editor. He is a regular contributor to The Irish Times and the Huffington Post, and has also written for the Irish Examiner, Sunday Business Post and Irish Independent.

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