One of the amazing treasures of archival folklore in Ireland is the so-called Schools Collection. A rich and varied stockpile of handwritten notations of folklore collected in 1937 and 1938, the collection was produced by school children interviewing their parents, elder relatives and neighbors to find out what traditions, beliefs, customs, or narratives were known at the time in their locales. The resulting collection contains, according to the Irish National Folklore Collection website, a mind-bogglingly massive 250,452 stories.
In a learned and weighty dissertation written by Mícheál Briody (whom I had the good fortune to get to know many years ago, when I was studying at the University of Helsinki!) you can read about the Schools’ Collection and other ambitious projects of the Irish Folklore Commission, the organization that undertook the project with the cooperation of schoolteachers from across Ireland and the avid participation of children aged 11 to 14 in fifth and sixth grade.
If you are a student of Irish folk culture of any kind, or you are interested in the sometimes grand collecting projects that took place in the early decades of the twentieth century in Ireland as well as the United States, you should read Mícheál’s fine book, which is available for download.
Bríody, Mícheál. 2016. The Irish Folklore Commission 1935-1970: History, Ideology, Methodology. Studia Fennica Folkloristica 17. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society.
Section on Schools Collection: 260-270.
Of the Schools Collection of 1937-38, Bríody writes:
Each week the teacher would chose a particular heading from [Sean] Ó Súilleabháin’s booklet, reading out the questions under that heading and transcribing them on the blackboard. The children would copy these questions ‘and then when they went home they would question their people or the neighbours’ about these matters, writing down in their jotters the traditions or information they could obtain. On ‘composition day’ in school, they would write down in their copybooks ‘in the form of a composition the customs, beliefs, and tales which they had collected.’ Subsequently, the teacher would get ‘the best children in the school, the best at writing and spelling, to transfer this material into the standard notebook which the department issued to each school.’ (264)
This work took the place of language arts class in all Irish schools for the two-year period of the project and was seen as a national duty and exciting local project.
At a site called Meitheal Dúchas.ie, the Irish National Folklore Collection has now made available as digital pdfs every page of this rich and varied collection. They are also soliciting volunteer help in transcribing the pages from English or Irish. Here is what NFC writes about Crowd-sourcing the transcription:
“About the Meitheal
We are inviting users of the site to transcribe, on a voluntary basis, the stories that were collected as part of the Schools’ Collection. We hope that this work will increase community participation in the project and that it will improve accessibility of the material as well.
This will also result in the ability to search the text of transcribed stories in their entirety as opposed to viewing the manuscripts as images only.
Crowdsourced transcription is a recognised approach that helps digital humanities projects to make valuable archive material more accessible to the public. As a result of the Meitheal’s efforts these texts will become available to researchers and others across the globe in a fully searchable format. Crowdsourced transcription is a team effort and Meitheal members will be working together to open up this treasure trove of folklore. Participants will be able to access each others’ work, and improve it if appropriate, while there will also be opportunities to discuss aspects of the project on social media. The Irish Folkore Commission was reliant on the goodwill and generosity of the public while the Schools’ Collection and others were being compiled. Meitheal Dúchas.ie continues that tradition.”
I wanted to give my students—”researchers and others across the globe”—a chance to explore these archival materials, and also to gain some experience in the sometimes frustrating but often thoroughly engrossing process of transcription. Students in my course on Irish and Irish American folklore have to contribute to the crowd-sourced transcription process. And then they have to use what they learned from the experience to write a short digital essay on the topic.
The following is an example of what a student might learn from doing such work. I present just a short exploration of the writings of one boy, interviewing one man of the townland of Skiddernagh in the vicinity of the village of Manulla in the County Mayo (The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0095, Page 233ff). A young Michael Armstrong reports on stories and lore he has gained from an elder member of his family, James Armstrong, aged 50 at the time. Perhaps James is his father, but the notebook does not supply those details. The fascinating site Irishgraveyards.ie indicates that in one of the several graveyards used by the people of Skiddernagh—Elmhall—there is a gravestone for a James Armstrong who died at the age of 72 in 1954, and that a Michael Armstrong is buried next to him. Michael died in 1996 at the age of 75, making him 16 in 1937, the year of the Schools’ Collection. Michael is the last member of the family buried in the plot that contains mostly older relatives who died in the 1950s, including a Margaret Armstrong who also (like James) died in 1954. Her age at death is listed as 65, and perhaps she was James’s wife and Michael’s mother. It is chilling that one of the items of local lore James reported to Michael in the Schools’ Collection was the hesitance of local people to use this new graveyard at Elmhall. “The new grave yard is in not in use in Elmhall is [sic] because there is an old belief that the first corps that goes in to a new grave will be follow by five of his relations.” In June of 1954, seventeen years after the Schools’ Collection, when James was interred at Elmhall, he followed his brother William, who had been buried in 1949. Margaret was buried in July of 1954, just a month after James. Perhaps a mourning Michael remembered this piece of local lore as he visited the family plot at that time.
All of the reports Michael submitted for the collection came from James, as one can learn from looking at a tabulation of Michael’s contributions, automatically generated by the software that manages the Meitheal. The elder Armstrong supplied the pupil with examples of old sayings, noting, among other pieces of wisdom, that one should “never sell your hen on a wet day,” something which, in an Irish context where most days are wet, means that selling hens must have been pretty rare in the County Mayo at the time. James also declares: “Never send a pup on a dog’s message,” an interesting piece of wisdom given the fact that the Schools’ Collection scheme did just that: making pups carry the messages of their older and wiser relatives. It is interesting to think about the power dynamics of the project: of young people coming home each day with new questions for their elders to answer, all couched in the nostalgic discourse of “past beliefs and practices.”
James was clearly a hard-working farmer, and he provided Michael with a detailed account of how to plant and tend potatoes as well as how to plant and grow oats. There are clear details for how to plough, harrow, manure, and lime in order to get a good crop. But there are also items of custom or belief mixed in: The account of potato planting states: “People say Friday is a lucky day for sowing lea land.” And we read of seasonal customs that tie the potato harvest to St. John’s night, Midsummer (June 24):
“Early in June when the stalks appear above the ground the potatoes are moulded, and fresh soil is put around them. The first of the new potatoes are dug on St. John’s day. On St. John’s night a coal from the bonfire is thrown into every potato garden. They say this coal keeps away blight and disease from the potatoes.”
Of the 218 accounts of customs performed on St. John’s night visible and transcribed so far in the Collection (57 of which come from the County Mayo), one can find other notations of throwing coals to the potatoes, as in Mary T. Gallagher’s account from Dooleg, Ballina. Many of these accounts are still untranscribed, making it exciting to see how common this custom will prove once all the texts have been made machine-readable through transcription.
Similarly, James details the process of butter churning, including enumeration of the forms and terms of butter churns used in the village, but also noting in passing the actions one should take in order to ensure good butter and good neighbor relations. While explaining the meaning of the term “joggler,” for instance, James notes:
“If you go into a house, whilst a person in churning, it is not right to go without taking a while of the churn. When people have churned they make the sign of the cross with the churn-dash over the lid. People go out of a May morning before the sun rises to get a new handle for the churn dash. If you get a drink of milk in a house it is right to say “God bless the cows.”
In addition to telling Michael about graveyards in the vicinity, and details of wearing or not wearing shoes, James describes the form and characteristics of housing in the locale. James’s account oscillates between details of “long ago”—when houses were of stone, thatch, and mud—and the present. He begins his account: “Long ago people used never make houses out of cement but always out of stone,” a detail that tells us that concrete housing had become established in Manulla by this time. He admits to knowing of old beliefs, like that of the cailleach, a supernatural hag that inhabits the house: “There was always a cailleach in the old houses.” And he knows of making windows out of sheep’s skin, and bringing cows indoors to help warm a house in winter. But he always describes such details as belonging to the past. In a collecting scheme focused on finding remnants of a vanishing past, James seems intent on distinguishing this past from the thoroughly modern present that he shares with young Michael.
At the same time, when it comes to discussion of fairy forts, James’s accounts seem less remote. He tells of a fort on the road leaving Skiddernagh and headed for Belcarra. Of it, he writes:
“There is a high bank around the fort because in the olden times these high banks prevented the enemy from going in. There are three ways going in. On top of the bank there are a lot of bushes. In the middle of the fort there is a cave. Long ago this cave was closed because the man who owns it was afraid his sheep would go down in it. One day two men were working with a horse in the field where the fort is. The horse saw something in the fort. The horse got frightened and Ran away. The two men were hurt and when they got up they could see nothing.”
For an American, this is interesting information, but it it also pretty distant. What was Manulla like, and how far of a walk was it for schoolchildren headed to the school in Manulla from the townland of Skiddernagh? Mary Gavin, interviewing Thomas Gavin (aged 56) notes that there were some 17 houses in Skiddernagh at the time. Thinking of the fort described by James and Michael, what is the road like from Skiddernagh toward Balcarra nowadays, and can we still see that fabled fort today? Well, that is where Google maps comes in. It turns out, Manulla is not far from Skiddernagh at all:
(image courtesy Google maps)
And if one looks at the road that leaves Skiddernagh and heads south to Balcarra, one can plainly see along the road a site that is probably the fairy fort Michael and James discussed.
(image courtesy Google maps)
The ring of trees and bushes lies right alongside the road.
(image courtesy Google maps)
And if one switches to “street view” it is even possible to get a glimpse of the place, still covered with lots of bushes, and still surrounded by a productive farm field.
(image courtesy Google maps)
That’s pretty amazing. Of course, we don’t know from this material what locals say about that “fort” today, or whether they point out the ring of trees and bushes to visitors who pass through. Is it still a place horses take fright at? (How many horses are there in the locale these days?) Or more to the point, is it still a place that people tell stories of horses taking fright at? Is it still a place children dare each other to visit and explore and farmers endeavor to close off? In James and Michael’s account, we are not told whether either of them explicitly believed in the notion of fairies residing in this place, although other accounts from Michael’s classmates show that encounters with fairies were explicitly connected with the fort. John McDonagh, interviewing Walter McDonagh (aged 50), recounts the story of an unfortunate man who was lured into the fort one night and ended up leaving the next morning with an extra lump on his back. But the story that James and Michael record is more guarded: they knew stories about mysterious things that continued to happen at the fort, and it is clear that they know that these mysteries have been accounted for in the past through reference to fairies, but they refrain themselves from attributing the occurrences to the fairies.
The archived material, and its digitized shadows, open the door to understandings as they existed in Skiddernagh and Manulla in 1937 and call out to us to investigate what they mean to local people today. That would be the task for on-the-ground fieldwork of the very sort that the Schools’ Collection was meant to facilitate in the ongoing and important exploration of tradition as lived and shared in the Irish countryside. The digitized Schools’ Collection provides a window into a rich jumble of traditions and ideas, all captured as a snapshot in the midst of the profound social, economic, and cultural changes that characterized Ireland in the late 1930s.