The Schools' Folklore Scheme:
A Valuable Primary Source for the Local Historian
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Clare County Library

Background

The Irish Folklore Commission (Coimisiún Béaloideasa Éireann) was established as a State Institute attached to University College, Dublin in April 1935 by the first Fianna Fáil government. Taoiseach Eamon De Valera regarded the preservation of folklore as part of the ‘Gaelicization’ policy of the new state. Séamus Ó Duilearga (1899-1980) from Co. Antrim was appointed director and Seán Ó Súilleabháin (1903-1996) a Kerryman, was the appointed archivist. These two men devised the Schools’ Collection Scheme. The Commission operated under the Department of Education. It aimed to collect, preserve and classify all aspects of Irish folk tradition in a systematic manner. It also aimed to make its findings available to research workers.

The Commission had forerunners. The Folklore of Ireland Society, founded in 1926, was a voluntary body. In 1930 this became the Irish Folklore Institute and received a government grant. The Folklore of Ireland Society instigated the folklore journal Béaloideas. Séamus Ó Duilearga, director of the IFC, edited Béaloideas from 1927-70. The journal still flourishes today.

Many nineteenth century writers published works on Irish Folklore when the study of folklore was in its infancy. [1]. T.J. Westropp contributed much to Clare folklore studies in gathering and publishing in Folk-Lore (the journal of the English Folklore Society) 1910-1913. CLASP Press reprinted this collection in 2000. [2].

In April 1971 the Irish Folklore Commission was transformed into the Department of Irish Folklore at University College, Belfield, Dublin 4. Here it maintains a library of manuscripts and printed material relating to folklore. The original manuscripts of the Schools Collection are housed in the building. The Local Studies Library in Ennis has microfilm copies of the original manuscripts submitted by 188 Co. Clare schools on approximately sixteen thousand pages. The contribution from the selected school is on reel number S180, pages 304-375.

The Schools’ Collection Scheme was voluntary but it has about a half a million manuscript pages of folklore. The high expectations of its developers were realised. It has been described as ‘a monument to the initiative of the Irish Folklore Commission, the co-operation of the Department of Education, the dedication of Irish National Teachers and the scholarship of the children of our National Schools.’ [3]. A booklet Irish folklore and tradition was compiled by Seán Ó Súilleabháin, the IFC’s archivist, and issued to the principal teacher of each primary school. It contained instructions as to how the scheme was to be carried out. In the Foreword he wrote: ‘The collection of the oral tradition of the Irish people is a work of national importance.’ [4]. He used the word ‘urgent’ twice when describing the task.

The senior pupils were invited to participate in this work of ‘rescuing from oblivion the traditions…of the historic Irish nation.’ [5]. Fifty-five subject headings, with suggestions and guidelines, were given for collection purposes (Appendix I). Fifth and sixth class pupils (eleven to fourteen year olds) were exempted from their usual weekly essay so as to allow time for written work on their folklore projects. [6]. The collecting from family and neighbours was done after school hours. This collecting was undertaken ‘at a time when television was away in the future and the seanachie was still part of the furniture of the Co. Clare fireside.’ [7].

The chosen school, Bansha N.S., is in the parish of Killard (Doonbeg). The seaside resort of Kilkee is almost three miles to the south-west. The school, then as now, is a rural two-teacher establishment. Denis McCarthy was principal teacher of Bansha N.S. for the duration of the Schools’ Scheme. His name is on the first page of the folklore collection. [8]. He was born in Inis Mór on the 7 June 1899 and trained in St. Patrick’s College, Drumcondra between 1917-19. [9]. He took up his Bansha appointment in 1926. He married the assistant teacher and they lived in the teachers’ residence beside the school until his retirement in 1963.

Information was gathered under eighteen subject headings (Appendix II). The headings are in Irish but all the folklore, with the exception of a few Irish words and phrases, is in English. Eight contributors, five female and three male, wrote articles. One of the girls and one of the boys wrote one article each. The other six wrote articles on two or more topics. One of these was my aunt, Mary Downes, my father’s only sister. She has lived in West Clare all her life and has very vivid memories of her childhood days. I’ve had several discussions with her on topics related to the Schools’ Scheme as also with my father, Paddy Hanrahan who clarified many details. Most of the articles are factual but there are some short folktales that had been handed down orally in the area. The articles are discussed under Dorson’s four headings. [10]. A fifth called, ‘The Community’, has been added to accommodate topics on local issues. [11].

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