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That epic folklore collection

County View

That epic folklore collection


John Healy

It is entirely fitting that the now almost forgotten Schools Folklore Collection of some 75 years ago is to be commemorated here in Mayo. The project was one of the most imaginative in the history of Irish education, and the enormous wealth of folklore which it compiled and recorded remains a prized, if neglected, national treasure.
The Schools Folklore Collection was a joint initiative of the Department of Education, the I.N.T.O., and the Irish Folklore Commission, under which the nation’s schoolchildren were encouraged to collect and document, in their own handwriting, as much local history and folklore as they could before the riches of folk memory disappeared forever.
Well over 250 Mayo schools took part in the research, from Belmullet to Ballindine and from Achill to Charlestown, and the collection of original manuscripts are now available on the Duchas website. From this, Mayo County Council hopes to organise a commemoration later this month to honour all those who contributed to that epic project.
Given that those who were school going children when the collection was compiled in 1938 would now be in their mid eighties, the number of survivors has no doubt diminished greatly. But that is all the more reason that the county pay tribute to those whose work will ensure that our folklore is preserved for this and future generations.
There are stories of old customs and cures, butter making and matchmaking, ghosts and giants and hauntings and strange apparitions in the dead of night. There are repeated tales of hidden treasure, of witches and sorcerers, of evil landlords finally getting their comeuppance for their cruelty to evicted widows and poor destitute tenants, and of clever peasants getting something over on the rich and powerful.
Many of the stories were collected by the children from grandparents or elderly neighbours, which means that the recorded stories themselves go well back into Famine times and beyond. Frank Moran, a pupil of Kilmeena school, told the story of hidden treasure which he heard from Mrs Maria Ryan, then in her nineties. John McDonagh in Manulla recalled the cures which he heard from his grandmother, and Martin Naughton in Cregduff, Ballinrobe wrote the stirring tale of the Two Mac Sweeneys, which he got from his father.
Desmond Hopkins of Ballina school recorded his parents’ story of ‘The Bad Woman of Nephin Mountain’, while a young Willie Fair of Gloshpatrick, a pupil in Lecanvey, told of the hidden treasure which lay waiting to be found on the island of Inishtaugh, nearest to Bertra beach. There was still more treasure, a ‘Pan of Gold’ in the convent grounds of Balla, according to Patrick Masterson, while the salutary tale of the fate of the Cloonacashel Landlord, as told in Ballinrobe, should serve as warning to the wealthy and greedy.
There are fairy stories aplenty, but few as dramatic as that told to Maire ni Ghrodain by the renowned Murrisk mariner, Austin Burke, (referred to here in another context not so long ago) of his experience of the phantom fishing crew he encountered in dead of night at Rosmalley, as he himself and his neighbours chased the herring shoals across Clew Bay in the midnight darkness of a long ago October.