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Máire MacNeill
(1904 – 1987)

Folklorist and writer, Máire Mac Neill was born in Portmarnock, County Dublin in December, 1904. She had strong links with County Clare and lived there for more than twenty years. Her parents were Eoin MacNeill and Agnes Moore. The novelist Brian Moore was her first cousin. Her father, Eoin MacNeill, was Minister for Education from 1922-25 in the first Irish Free State government. He was also a founding member of the Gaelic League and Professor of Early Irish History at UCD. It is not surprising, therefore, that Máire grew up in a bilingual household in Dublin, speaking Irish and English fluently and developing a strong knowledge of Gaelic culture.

With the arrest of her father after the1916 Rising, Máire and her sister Roisin were sent to school on the Aran Islands for a time. Following that, she went to boarding-school in Muckross College, Dublin. She continued her education in UCD, graduating with a BA degree in Celtic Studies in 1925. Máire also took a business course and worked as clerk/typist in the Cumann na nGaedheal Office. She then worked as a secretary, journalist and sub-editor until 1935 when she joined the staff of the new Irish Folklore Commission. There she met the great folklorist, Seamus O Duilearga. With his guidance, she worked for several years with a team of people collecting and recording an enormous wealth of folklore. In 1946 she published Wayside Death Cairns in Ireland, which describes the custom of adding a prayer and a stone at death sites. In 1949 she left the Folklore Commission when she married John Sweeney, a Harvard University academic, art collector and poet.

Máire and John went to live in Boston, USA and she found employment in the Department of Celtic Studies at Harvard University where she became a well-respected lecturer. Her book The Festival of Lughnasa was published in 1962, following many years of dedicated research. The second edition was published in 1983. It is recognised as being a major work in the field of Irish folklore. It is a comprehensive study of the Celtic Harvest Festival in which Máire explores Celtic myths hidden in the legends and customs of the festival. She was awarded a D.Litt. from the National University in recognition of her valuable work.

Máire and her husband settled in County Clare in 1967 and moved to a house beside Lake Inchiquin near Corofin. Máire renewed her ties with the Commission and continued with her research. She went on to write several journal articles and essays. She also translated two books – Fairy Legends from Donegal which was published in 1977, and Sean O Conaill’s Book, published in 1981. Her book Maire Rua; Lady of Leamaneh was published posthumously in 1990.

John Sweeney died suddenly in 1986. Máire MacNeill died the following year on May 15, 1987. Her generous bequest of a collection of modern art to the National Gallery of Ireland was believed at the time to be worth ten million pounds. It is known as the Sweeney bequest and includes paintings by Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, Gerard Dillon and Barrie Cooke.

Máire’s enormous contribution to the study of Clare folklore and tradition, and to Irish folklore scholarship in general, is now widely recognised.

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Máire MacNeill