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Contribution of Ballynacally and Coney Island National Schools to the Schools’ Folklore Scheme 1937-1938
by Mary Hester


This article was first published in 'The Other Clare’ Volume 38. Clare County Library is grateful to Mary Hester for donating this article.

Coney Island National School, 2012
Coney Island National School, 2012. Photo: Eric Shaw

This article presents and discusses the contribution of two national schools, Ballynacally, and Coney Island, to the Irish Folklore Commission’s Schools’ Folklore Scheme, which ran from October 1937 to December 1938. In both the schools being studied, the teachers were enthusiastic and the suggested topics were adhered to. The schools in question are situated in the parish of Clondegad in the barony of Clonderlaw in mid-west Clare. Ballynacally, a village about ten miles south-west of Ennis had in 1937 a two-teacher school with Tomás O Cuinneagáin as principal teacher. He later became a part-time collector for the Department of Irish Folklore.[1] On Coney Island, there was one teacher – Marcella Crowe. She herself wrote a very descriptive account of the history of the island and the life lived by the inhabitants in the 1930s. There are also contributions from two named students. The collection from Ballynacally is much more extensive and was written by five named students.

UNESCO defines folklore as the totality of tradition-based creations of a cultural community. It has been suggested that folklore can be presented under four headings: oral literature, physical folklife, social folk custom, and performing folk arts.[2] Using these suggested categories the contributions of the students of Ballynacally and Coney Island national schools are examined below.

Oral Literature
The title story or comic story is one of the most extensive sections of the Ballynacally school manuscript. Story–telling played an important part in the social life of the time: “When the king heard the story he spared the life of the man.”[3]

There are over twenty stories in the Ballynacally school collection. Two of these stories recount a legend of gold hidden near Dangan Castle.[4 ] In two others, a tunnel connecting Inisdea to Cannon Island is mentioned, as is treasure in both places.[5] A chieftain’s wife was said to have dreamt of gold hidden in the ruins of Kilchreest church.[6] Other stories recall the bottle of renowned Clare wise woman Biddy Earley and cures attributed to her are written about in a number of entries.[7]

‘Taking the produce’ from a neighbour is also noted.[8] There is a report of a woman crossing the Shannon “to gather the earth... as a charm for taking the produce of her neighbour’s cows.”[9] In the Coney Island manuscript two of the teacher’s stories refer to people who drowned in the river and of how their ghosts returned.[10]

Riddles, verses and proverbs are also part of the manuscript. Many of these reflect the type of life which was lived by the children at the time “I went to the wood and I got it, I sat down to look for it, I brought it home with me because I couldn’t find it. Answer:- A thorn in a person’s foot.” “Patch upon patch without any stitches. Riddle me this and I’ll buy you a pair of breeches. Answer:- A head of cabbage.”[11 ]“Don’t throw out the dirty water until you have the clean water inside.” “For the want of horses, asses must plough.[12]

Physical Folklife
There are many references to food in the manuscripts. The making of butter and the filling of the firkins of butter was an important occupation. “Five or six women used to gather together to fill a firkin of butter.”[13 ] In an interview on Clare FM on 30 July 1999, Mrs Kathleen Casserley, born on Deer Island in 1913, refers to butter making and how important butter was to the economy of the people and especially to the economic role of women.

The reliance on the potato is evident in that recipes are given for the making of stampy, potato cake and starch cake.[14]“A number of boiled potatoes are peeled, then they are grated with a homemade grater. Flour and butter are then mixed with the potatoes and the cake is set to bake on a griddle. The cake when baked is very palatable, especially when butter is spread on it, while it is hot.”[15] When making stampy the starch that is squeezed from the potatoes is used to make a starch cake. “The starch is mixed with the potatoes and the cake is baked on a griddle.”[16]

Descriptions are given on the making of straw mats, scuttles, calf baskets and piggins.[17] “The old people used to make piggins which were timber vessels for holding milk. A big piece of timber was got, five or six splits were cut in the timber, about five inches apart. Then it was bent to form a ring, this was the top of the vessel. The sides were fitted together by means of grooves cut in the timber, nails were never used in the making of these vessels.”[18 ]“The islanders also spent much of their spare time in carpentry.”[19]

Flax was grown on Deer Island and one writer describes the “cloving of the flax into linen.”[20] Wool, flannel and frieze were used for making clothes. Different colour dyes were used and we are told how these colours – yellow, crimson and black – were achieved. “The roots of Felestroms with a little bogwood mixed dyes a crimson colour.”[21 ]“A stuff called logwood was used to dye wool black. The tops of briars or dock leaf roots must be mixed with the logwood. One pound of logwood must be put to six pounds of wool.”[22]

To provide light before oil lamps, the people used a “splinter of bogwood... replaced by another.”[23 ] Candles were also made and the people were ingenious in the making of oil lamps.[24]

Social Folk Custom
Cures reflect common ailments of the time and how they could be treated using what was available locally. The cures described were for personal use or for animals, in particular cattle. All the plants referred to were growing in the locality: slán lus (literally the healing herb) for wounds,[25 ] juice of the hemlock root for boils,[26 ] the juice of the sorrel mixed with vinegar for ringworm,[27] penny royal for chicken pox,[28 ] flowers of barley with dandelion or the cuckoo flower for jaundice.[29 ] Rheumatism could be cured by drinking the juice from boiled nettles and dandelion, by rubbing boiled seaweed to the stiff joints[30] or by boiling worms and rubbing the oil to the stiff joints.[31 ] The presence of bogs in the locality is clear from the use of Cromica Fiadh, the mullen plant and bog onions.[32 ] Blackquarter, murrain, lubara piasta, black water, white scour, all conditions suffered by cows and calves are also dealt with.[33]

Five holy wells in Clondegad parish and one in Kildysart parish are mentioned. The belief in the power of these wells is documented.[34 ] How the round originated is explained. “A woman in Frure dreamt three nights in succession that if she dug in a certain part of her land she would find a well. Accompanied by a few neighbours she went in search of the well. After a short time digging, the water gushed up with force and hit the man full on the face. They then continued digging until a deep well was made. The neighbours went home but the woman remained to fix the well. She knelt beside it to pray and as she was praying a woman dressed in grey appeared to her. She walked around a portion of the field with her before she disappeared. This was how the round originated.”[35]

Customs and traditions associated with matchmaking, walking the land, picking the gander and weddings are written about by one girl from Ballynacally school. She describes the strawboys at the wedding celebration. The “backus or strawboys would come in... They were supposed not to take any refreshments.”[36 ] A similar description is given in the Coney Island manuscript.[37 ] Here however they had refreshments. Customs associated with wakes and funerals are given, such as the taking of snuff and the passing around of a clay pipe at a wake and making sure that two doors in a house shouldn’t be open at the same time at a wake or funeral.[38 ]It was held that no relative of the dead person should carry the coffin and that “the same persons that brought the coffin to the church were supposed to bring it to the burial ground on the following day.”[39 ] A custom practised today is explained. “It is an old custom when a corpse is brought into a graveyard it is brought around the graveyard once and then brought into the burial ground and buried facing the head towards the west.[40]

Performing Folk Arts
The filling of firkins as mentioned above was a communal and therefore social occasion. “Then they would sit down and have a seancas for the night.”[41 ] The word ‘seanchas’ refers to traditional lore and knowledge and those skilled in the collection and delivery of this lore were known as seanchai. Another occupation which also had a social side to it was the cloving of flax. “At nightfall the house was cleared... They continue on like this until the cloving is finished.”[42 ] At weddings “They would start dancing sets, jigs, reels and hornpipes. They used always invite the best musician or violin player... then the singing and dancing would go on until about four o’clock in the morning. Then they would have breakfast. After breakfast they would dance until daylight.”[43] The Coney Island manuscript tells us that marriages usually took place during Shrove or on St Patrick’s Day and it describes one such wedding which the writer witnessed. “On the day of the wedding a royal reception was given – tar barrels lighted on the quay and bugles blown. A dance was then held in the farmer’s house until 7.30 am.”[44]

Functions of Folklore
William R Bascom suggests that folklore has four functions – amusement, validation, education and conformity.[45 ] This is evident from the manuscripts from both Ballynacally and Coney Island schools. One can discern the amusement value in the articles entitled ‘Story and Hidden Treasure’. Here is an attempt to escape from the mundane and often harsh conditions of the environment and to live in the hope of finding gold or treasure. Riddles provide amusement but also have an educational value in helping to sharpen the intellect.

The stories justify the rituals and institutions of a community and of those who perform and observe them. Morality and discipline are enforced. We are warned against taking gold which is not ours and also to be home early from the cuaird. Children are also disciplined in this way. Tradition is endowed with value and prestige. A community passes on the rituals and stories of former generations like visiting holy wells at certain times of the year and not interfering with fairy-forts. Folklore also has an educational value – in the Ballynacally school document there are five pages of Irish words in common usage at that time. These are in alphabetical order and also include blessings in Irish some of which are still used in the locality today.[46 ] Proverbs, which can be characterised as the distilled wisdom of past generations,[47 ] were often used as a threat or to advise on a course of action in a diplomatic way: “poverty is no excuse for dirt”.[48 ] Proverbs teach us a lesson – “never wait for your ship to come home, row out to meet her”.[49] An educational and historical value is evident in the listing of place names. The meanings of Ballynacally[50] and Coney Island[51] are given.

Social approval and conformity is also a function of folklore.[52] Songs, rhymes, verses and proverbs may be used to express disapproval. Rhymes were employed to control and influence. One such rhyme suggests the best times to marry.[53]

Local history is primarily about people in places over time.[54 ] The schools’ folklore manuscripts briefly examined here reflect the lives of the people of Ballynacally and Coney Island at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Coney Island manuscript is a social history, written by the teacher, of life on the island. She writes about the island’s location, its insularity, the livelihood of the inhabitants and the wild animals. It was written over time as she describes the bad condition of the school at the beginning[55 ] and the story ends with the opening of a new school.[56 ] This writer found the Ballynacally school document interesting as not only were the scribes named but also the people who gave the information – sometimes their parents or neighbours and also other children in the school. Historical events were referred to including the Terry Alts in Clondegad, the Vandeleur and Bodyke evictions, and the Land League.[57]

It is interesting that there is no reference to the famine in the locality even though there was a food depot in Clondegad.[58 ] Similarly neither the War of Independence nor the Civil War are dealt with even though a police constable was killed at Cooga Cross.[59 ] Is it likely that the perpetrators were still alive, maybe even living locally? Some of the old cures, customs and traditions are known to older people still living in the community. Whatever their weaknesses as historical documents the contribution of both Coney Island and Ballynacally National Schools to the Schools Folklore Scheme is extremely valuable to a student of local history and especially the social history of the locality.

1. Lysaght, Patricia, ‘Documenting the tradition: The work of the Irish folklore commission and some of its collectors in County Clare’ in Matthew Lynch and Patrick Nugent (eds), Clare: history and society (Dublin, 2008).
2.Dorson,Richard M. R M, Folklore and folklife (London, 1972).
3. IFC, S MS 176: 17.
4. IFC, S MS 176: 6 and 36.
5. IFC, S MS 176: 19 and 132.
6. IFC, S MS 176: 98.
7. IFC, S MS 176: 21.
8. IFC, S MS 176: 146.
9. IFC, S MS 176: 140.
10. IFC, S MS 176: 175.
11. IFC, S MS 176: 82-83.
12. FC, S MS 176: 83-86.
13. IFC, S MS 176:85.
14. IFC, S MS 176:86.
15. IFC, S MS 176: 88.
16. IFC, S MS 176:88.
17. IFC, S MS 176: 172.
18. IFC, S MS 176: 84.
19. IFC, S MS 176: 90.
20. IFC, S MS 176:90.
21. IFC, S MS 176: 86.
22. IFC, S MS 176: 87.
23. IFC, S MS 176: 58.
24 IFC, S MS 176: 62.
25 IFC, S MS 176: 63.
26 Ibid.
27 IFC, S MS 176: 64.
28 IFC, S MS 176: 65.
29 IFC, S MS 176: 61.
30 IFC, S MS 176: 60.
31 IFC, S MS 176: 64.
32 IFC, S MS 176: 94.
33 IFC, S MS 176:95.
34 IFC, S MS 176: 98
35 IFC, S MS 176: 170.
36 IFC, S MS 176: 52.
37 Ibid.
38 IFC, S MS 176: 56.
39 Ibid.
40 IFC, S MS 176: 56.
41 IFC, S MS 176: 83.
42 IFC, S MS 176: 85.
43 IFC, S MS 176: 98.
44 IFC, S MS 176: 170.
45Bascom, William R, ‘Four functions of folklore’ in A Dundes (ed), The study of folklore (New Jersey, 1965) pp 279-298.
46 IFC, S MS 176: 74.
47 Bascom, William R, ‘Four functions of folklore’ in A Dundes (ed), The study of folklore (New Jersey, 1965) p. 294.
48 IFC, S MS 176: 47.
49 IFC, S MS 176: 45.
50 IFC, S MS 176: 113.
51 IFC, S MS 176: 164.
52 Bascom, William R, ‘Four functions of folklore’ in A Dundes (ed), The study of folklore (New Jersey, 1965), p. 295.
53IFC, S MS 176: 145.
54 Raymond Gillespie, ‘A historian and the locality’ in Raymond Gillespie (ed.) Doing Irish local history (Belfast, 1998), p. 16.
55 IFC, S MS 176: 167.
56 IFC, S MS 176: 176.
57 IFC, S MS 176: 111.
58 Godolphin Osborne, Hon & Rev S, Gleanings in the West of Ireland (London, 1850), p.170.
59 Abbott, Richard, ‘Police casualties in Ireland’ (Cork, 2000), p.246.


Primary Sources
1 Manuscripts
Irish Folklore Commission, Schools’ Manuscripts Collection, University College Dublin
IFC, S MS 176

2 Interviews
Kathleen Casserley, 30 July 1999.

Secondary Sources
1 Abbott, Richard, ‘Police casualties in Ireland’ (Cork, 2000).
2 Bascom, William R, ‘Four functions of folklore’ in A Dundes (ed), The study of folklore (New Jersey, 1965).
3 Ballard, Linda May, ‘The folklorist and local history’ in Raymond Gillespie and Myrtle Hill (eds), Doing lrish local history: pursuit and practice (Belfast, 1998).
4 Bourke, Angela, The burning of Bridget Cleary (London, 1999).
5 Casey, Michael, Finding folklore (Bray, 1988).
6 Dorson, R M, Folklore and folklife (London, 1972).
7 Egan, Maura, ‘The Schools’ folklore scheme: a valuable source for the local historian’ in The Other Clare, vol. 26 (Shannon, 2002).
8 Godolphin Osborne, Hon & Rev S, Gleanings in the West of Ireland (London, 1850).
9 Lysaght, Patricia, ‘Documenting the tradition: The work of the Irish folklore Commission and some of its collectors in County Clare’ in Matthew Lynch and Patrick Nugent (eds), Clare: history and society (Dublin, 2008).
10 MacMahon, Michael, ‘Customs, lore and legend of other Clare days’ in The Other Clare, vol. 20 (Shannon, 1996.)
11 McWalter, Patricia, Collecting and preserving folklore and oral history, Galway, 2006).
12 Murphy, Randa, ‘Folklore collection scheme 1937 – 38’ in Irisleabhar Fiach Rua (Ennis, 1994).
13 O’Dowd, Anne, Spalpeens and tattie hokers (Dublin, 1991).
14 O’Suilleabhain, Sean, A handbook of Irish folklore (Dublin, 1963).
15 Westropp, Thomas J, Folklore of Clare (Ennis, 2000).

Folklore of Clare