[First posted on MyT]
I’m currently reading a fascinating book called A Secret Map of Ireland, by the Irish Times journalist Rosita Boland. The book has 32 chapters, one for each county. In each chapter the author visits a county and investigates some unusual, quirky or little-known feature, usually but not always historical (this is where I ingested a fact that I disgorged onto the site earlier … that there are 200 million eels in Lough Neagh).
Boland is a very good writer, who travelled widely in her youth (she’s not very old now … younger than me). I remember her telling once that when she was hitchhiking around the coast of Ireland for the purpose of writing a travel book, she got a lift from the Australian writer Thomas Kennealy … as it turned out, he was writing a travel book about Ireland too.
Anyway, one chapter in A Secret Map of Ireland that took my fancy involves a 1938 project whereby the Folklore Commission asked the children in every primary school in the Irish state to write down folklore and stories from their immediate area (I have some of these from my area in a local history book … they’re still available for scrutiny by interested members of the public.)
The good people of the Folklore Commission issued guidelines to the teachers, which are almost as interesting as the stories they evoked. The following extracts hint, for example, at the high respect that poetry and poets have always been accorded in Irish life. In ancient Ireland poets were the most powerful people in society, because the kings and nobles lived in constant fear that a satire would be written about them that would expose them to laughter and ridicule, and hence were very keen to keep on the poets’ good side.
Here are some of the topics and guidelines.
Accounts of local men who in former times or even recently won fame in some field of activity. Swift runners. Feats they accomplished. Distances run. Races between human beings and horses. Men who could catch horses and rabbits by running after them.
Accounts of great storms of former times given by old people. Are any accounts available locally of the Big Wind of 1839? If so tell how it affected your district. Heavy snowfalls. Portents.
The care of the feet
At what ages did people begin to wear boots in former times? Are there accounts of people who never wore boots or shoes? Do children at present go barefoot in summer or all the year round?
The leipreachan or mermaid
By what name or names is the little leipreachan known locally? How tall is he? How is he dressed? Where does he live? What is his usual occupation? Shoemaking? What else? Are stories told of local people who caught him and endeavoured to get him to give up his gold? Did they succeed?
Are stories told about the mermaid in your district? What description is given of her? Has she human faculties such as speech etc.? Has one ever been brought ashore? What happened to her? Are any local families connected in any way with mermaids?
Have the old people stories about the Great Famine of 1846-47?
Give the names of any poets who lived in you district formerly. Did poets compete with each other in song-making or did they attack each other? Could they read and write? Were great powers attributed to poets? Did they ever try to banish rats from a house? How did they attempt this? Did they succeed?