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James Delargy and the Storymen of North Clare by Michael MacMahon


James Delargy

Before proceeding further to explore Delargy’s experience in North Clare it seems appropriate to say something about the man himself, to whom we are indebted for recording at the eleventh hour the last native speakers of Doolin, and preserving for posterity some measure of their rich oral traditions.

James Hamilton Delargy was born at Cushendall in Co. Antrim in 1899.[3] His father died when he was only two and a few years later the family moved to Glenarriffe where he first attended school. In 1907 the family moved again, this time leaving the north forever and coming south to Dublin. The young Delargy finished his primary education in a convent school in Kilcoole, Co.Wicklow, and later entered Castleknock College where his Irish teacher, Frank Fahy, afterwards Ceann Comhairle of Dáil Éireann, instilled in him a love for the Irish language. After gaining an M.A. in Celtic Studies in University College, Dublin, in 1923 Delargy was appointed assistant to Dr. Douglas Hyde, who held the chair of Modern Irish in the college. Hyde had been heavily involved with the language revival movement and with attempts to create a modern literature in Irish. In 1893 he helped to found the Gaelic League and went on to become one of the leading lights in the Irish Literary Renaissance. Delargy himself had been formed in the Gaelic League and was deeply conscious that the Irish language was a vast storehouse of tradition, the leafdrift of an old Gaelic world whose boundaries had once extended to the Hebrides and the Atlantic edge of Scotland. His passion for this tradition and his desire to see it preserved is revealed in his Sir John Rhys memorial lecture to the British Academy in 1945:

‘In the unwritten literature and tradition of the Gaelic speaking countrymen are echoes out of the vast silence of a still more ancient time, of which hitherto the archaeologist has been the only chronicler. …….the loss of the language over most of Ireland brought about the destruction of the oral literature enshrined in it, leaving a gap in our knowledge of Irish folk-lore which can never be filled……soon the time will come when the sources of tradition will dry up in the shifting sands of progress and the voice of the storyteller and tradition-bearer will be stilled forever. In our own time and before our very eyes the last stronghold of an ancient civilisation is slowly disintegrating and will soon pass away forever. In the tradition of that old Gaelic world which stretches from Lewis and Uist to the coast of Kerry there remains the tattered but still recognisable fabric of a culture which at one time belonged to the whole Atlantic area.’[4]

It was the desire to save the dying embers of that culture that prompted Delargy and others to set up the Folklore of Ireland Society in 1927. Douglas Hyde was elected president and Pádraig Ó Siochrú (“An Seabhach”) was made treasurer. By the end of the year 450 members had enrolled and new members were joining daily.[5] In June came the first number of the society’s journal Béaloideas edited by Delargy, a task he would perform for the following forty-six years. In the following year he visited Sweden and other Scandinavian countries where folklore studies and archives had been long established.

State Assistance
In 1930 the society received the first official recognition for its work in the form of a small government grant which resulted in the setting up of the Irish Folklore Institute with Delargy at its head. With the aid of this and other grants from the Rockefeller Foundation (1930) and the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust (1931) some collections were made by part-time field workers and three volumes of tales were published.[6]

Delargy and his collaborators found a friend, too, in De Valera when he came to power in 1932. De Valera saw the work of the Folklore Institute as very much in accord with his government’s policy for the promotion of the Irish language and the re-invigoration of the Gaeltachts. Folklore, as Ó Giolláin has pointed out, has an aura that gives it a certain emotional resonance. ‘It has to do with the past or at least the residual. It has to do with the countryside, in Ireland particularly with the West and even more so with the Irish-speaking West’.[7] This concept of folklore sat easily with de Valera’s vision for the new nation - ‘a folk or peasant-type society’ grounded in the ideals of the Gaelic League.[8]

And, so, in the mid-1930s the government once again showed its approval in a tangible way. This time it established Cumann Béaloideasa Éireann (the Irish Folklore Commission) giving it an annual grant-in-aid of £3,200 for the purpose of ‘collecting, cataloguing, and eventually publishing the best of what remains of Irish oral tradition’.[9] Delargy, who had been appointed lecturer in folklore at UCD in the previous year, was seconded to the commission as honorary director. He held the chair of folklore in University College, Dublin from 1946 to 1969, though a department of folklore was not established there until 1971. He died in 1980 having founded, and directed for thirty-six years, ‘one of the most important cultural projects in Irish history’.[10] His legacy is the archive of the Irish Folklore Commission, the largest and most important of its kind in Western Europe.




Delargy and Co. Clare