Secret Map

[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.

Local heroes
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.

Severe weather
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?

Famine times
Have the old people stories about the Great Famine of 1846-47?

Local poets
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?



Filed under Ireland, The music of what happened

53 responses to “Secret Map

  1. Am I dreaming this, or did I suggest a link that might interest you in this regard sometime last year?
    I was amazed to learn last year of a German Prisoner of War camp near Toome. We were sitting round the kitchen table and talk turned to little wooden toys the prisoners had carved for local children.
    I have no idea how many of these places there were, or how widely spread.

  2. Hello Isobel. If you did suggest a link, I’m afraid I can’t remember what it was.

    In some respects the North really is another country. I think US soldiers were based there in the Second World War, for example. I never had any reason to know that; I probably found out by chance. I would say that most people in the North don’t know about POW camps etc. either.

    Toome as in Toome Bridge? I learned a stirring song called ‘Rody McCorley’ at school … ‘Rody McCorley’s going to die/On the bridge of Toome today’. 1798, probably.

  3. Toome as in Toome Bridge.
    New modern structure. Ballinderry Bridge features far more in Mother’s memories!
    Blood thirsty song to learn at school!
    I’ll dig back in my memory or ask Cousin in July for local history contacts again.
    ‘In some respects the North really is another country’ well, sometimes the things you write do not sound like the Northern Ireland I know, so maybe that’s you writing as more of a foreigner there than I am!

  4. Many folk songs are quite graphic, Isobel. 🙂

    It wouldn’t be the NI you know as you and I would mainly have associated with people on opposite sides of the Great Divide. Neither perspective is wrong … they’re just different. I’ve probably spent more time there than you … hundreds of days and nights … but that’s not relevant.

    McCorley may well have been a Protestant, incidentally … most of the 1798 rebels in the north were. Must check it out.

    Thanks for the comments.

  5. Cymbeline

    When I have spoken elsewhere about the ‘folklore trap’, I am referring to the commercialized use of culture. I also think that at its base, the word ‘folklore’ carries all sorts of condescending baggage about quaint natives.

    In short, I do not like the word ‘folklore’. To me, the 1938 project detailed above, is about culture.

  6. Fair point, Cymbeline. To me ‘folklore’ is still a serviceable word notwithstanding some people’s baggage, though.

  7. Cymbeline

    Dreadful word. Almost as bad as ‘patois’.

  8. Or Patwa. My Dads lot are experts on leprachaunach if that interests you. Yanks in the 6 counties? Yes, navy in Derry, army everywhere else. Welsh folklore (i.e “national dress”) was invented by an English Duchess who “thought the Welsh ought to look like that”.

  9. RB … yes, that does interest me, so any info would be welcome.

    ‘Folklore’ here is derived from an entire self-regulating belief/social system … must write something about that, with reference to Bridget Cleary.

  10. Let’s declare a fatwa on ‘patwa’, then.

  11. Sipu

    In South Africa, folklore comes under the heading, ‘Tradition’. Tribal traditions allow the indigenous people to get away with all sorts of nonsense – the slaughtering of cattle in the garden, the taking of multiple wives, the singing of ‘Kill the Boer’ songs and the misappropriation of public funds. They have successfully transformed the relatively recent arrival of the blowing of the vuvuzella (from the late 1990s) into an ancient tradition whereby warriors were called to war. In those days, apparently, kudu horns were used and were known as kuduzellas. Its utter nonsense of course, though one dare not say as much. But it does add to the atmosphere and the tourists like it.

    I suppose the danger is that any story can become part of folklore once an authority has proclaimed it as such. I can imagine a child from 1938 Ireland inventing a tale about a local mermaid or leprechaun and managing to have it included in the anthology, its authenticity being thereby confirmed. But why shouldn’t it be? If its a good story, what does it matter if it has been around for 60 years or 600?

  12. True, Sipu. But certain stories have been around for centuries, and handed down. The 1938 resource is massive.

  13. Did you ever read “The Golden Bough”? I can type up some stuff and leave it somewhere. Achtung, Haslam is vatching!

  14. Cymbeline

    I ‘ave a dictionary of ethnology and anthropology, compiled by Pierre Bonte and Michel Izard. The Bonte-Izard is a reference book for students of anthropology.

    According to this book, the term ‘folklore’ was invented by someone called WS Thoms in 1856. The term is no longer in scientific use.

  15. I think I skimmed through it, RB.

    An interesting yet moot point, Cymbeline, I think. There is, for example, a Department of Folklore at UCD; a long entry on ‘folklore’ in the Oxford Companion to Irish Literature; a journal called Folklore in a stable of learned journals.

    The term may well be seen as flawed, but clearly the material it embraces does exist as a body of sorts, and it is not synonymous with culture – so, if ‘folklore’ were abolished, an alternative term for what we understand by it would have to be coined, I would have thought?

  16. Cymbeline

    It was not meant to be a ‘point’ of any sort, Brendano. Simply a piece of information.

    According to what I have just read, the sort of material in the 1938 project would be viewed nowadays through disciplines such as structural anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis.

    Such material IS viewed as culture – dominated culture.

  17. Cymbeline

    The word ‘folklore’ is to do with a nineteenth century English way of looking at people. If you wish to use that word while writing in a modern context (line 13), that is your prerogative.

  18. Cymbeline, ‘dominated culture’ seems far more condescending to me than ‘folklore’ … it seems loaded. Whom or what is dominated, and who or what is dominating?

    ‘disciplines such as structural anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis’ seem to me to be in the gymnasium of calloused academics* … the actual handed-down lore of the ordinary people precedes, and does not depend on, the consideration or study thereof, I would have thought. So to me the term ‘folklore’ as a subset of ‘culture’ seems entirely harmless.

    *a phrase I encountered in a paper on soil mechanics by an Italian author, which stuck in my mind.

  19. Cymbeline

    I think that it is more condescending to see dominated culture as a ‘subset’ of culture. The concepts of dominated and dominant culture have nothing to do with intrinsic worth. The dominated culture can be far more civilized than the dominant culture.

    The word ‘folklore’ is far more loaded – for the reasons I have outlined.

  20. OK, Cymbeline … I understand what you’re saying, but my perception of the word is different. ‘Subset’ as I use it here just means ‘constituent part’ of culture. There are aspects of culture that are not ‘folklore’ … culture is the bigger entity. I’m not talking about worth, or degrees of civilization.

    Many collectors of ‘folklore’ in Ireland, such as Seamus Ennis, were not removed socially from those they collected from … it was not elitist. Earlier collectors such as Augusta Gregory were more elitist and condescending, though they meant well.

    You see the matter in terms of levels and domination; I don’t (although I see how it can be approached in those terms, I don’t think that’s the only approach). You are talking about analysis; I’m talking about something that exists whether or not it’s analysed. What else to call the stories, beliefs and legends of the oral tradition?

  21. Cymbeline

    In ordinary speech and writing, for the material above, I would not use the term ‘dominated culture’ any more than I would use the word ‘folklore’. I would probably speak about recorded oral traditions.

  22. Cymbeline

    My sister(a different one) once asked an older member of the family to speak in Staffordshire dialect about the stories and things he knew about the countryside. It was for a university paper. She had the tape-recorder at the ready. He rolled his eyes and said that her university education didn’t mean much, if that was all she was doing there.

  23. Cymbeline

    Very funny. Well, we thought it was.

  24. Yes … I’d find it difficult to do that kind of thing.

    A few years ago, as I’ve mentioned, I helped produce a book containing inter alia memories of their school days from 80 local people of all ages. One fairly elderly man came my house then as he was concerned to know that his memories, which he had given to someone else, would read as he had intended.

    Yesterday I met him for the first time since then. He remembered me; I didn’t remember him at first. He helped me to rebuild an old wall … part of a communal effort.

    Another local man described him yesterday as ‘the brains of the parish’ … he is regarded as being very intelligent. He lives the isolated life of a bachelor farmer, beside the lake, and is a real gentleman.

  25. Cymbeline

    Very interesting. Beside the lake – that is where your father kindly took hitch-hikers, I think.

  26. Yes, Cymbeline, except that that was a different lake.

    How typical of you to remember that.

  27. Local dialects are important. Look at Frisian (technically a language). It’d be lost without the humble taprecorder. Keep this message up, play with Degsys “brain”. Noswaith dda!

  28. Cymbeline

    Sipu says ‘if it’s a good story, what does it matter if it has been around for 60 years or 600’? Interesting question.

    The greatest literary hoax of all time is surely the Ossian affair – ‘Fragments of Ancient Poetry collected in the Highlands of Scotland and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language’ – and made up by James Macpherson. The book was published in the 1760s, and was behind the romantic passion for seeking out remnants of an older culture.

    Much that might otherwise have been lost, was recorded and saved for posterity. Romanticised and folklorised too, of course.

    It is good that culture was recorded and saved for posterity, but I also think that literary honesty is important. What James Macpherson did is highly reprehensible, in my opinion.

  29. Cymbeline

    I came across this book :

    I thought the reference to Dr Johnson would interest you, Brendano. I didn’t listen to the video clip of Dr Curley. The Yank accent put me off. And why ‘catalog’?

  30. Cymbeline

    Post 30, line 7. Would you be kind enough to change ‘traditional culture’ to ‘an older culture’ please, Brendano?

  31. Hen cwltwriau? No that is just me messing. In a good mood. Tug has been castrated (?) I am a gentleman (ulchelwyr?) and will not divulge here! Party at mine? OK off to watch fillum.

  32. Cymbeline

    Helo Meistr Broxted. Gobeithio fydd y ffilm yn dda xx.

  33. Cymbeline

    Re post 15. 1846 is in fact the correct date. Sorry.

  34. Hello, RB and Cymbeline. I’ve been out rebuilding a wall again, then a couple of glasses of wine in someone’s house. It’s a marvellous midsummer here.

    Of course I’ll make the change, Cymbeline. Will reply properly to comments tomorrow … thanks.

  35. Cymbeline

    Delighted that you are having a fine midsummer evening, Brendano!

    Enjoy the poetry of what is happening; I know you will.

  36. Cymbeline

    ‘AN older culture’ please, Brendano.

    After all, the Enlightenment chappies were the ones looking at older culture – the culture of Greece and Rome.

  37. Cymbeline

    Perhaps we will be speaking about Islam as an essential ingredient of European thought, one day.

    I sincerely hope not.

  38. Cymbeline

    And now I am orff too 😉

  39. Cymbeline

    Cheers for the ‘an’.

  40. Cymbeline

    Concerning post 38 – there were no Romans in Ireland, so perhaps Ireland does not feel particularly bound to those traditions of thought.

  41. There may have been a small outpost in what is now County Louth. There was minimal Roman influence in Ireland. Swss.

  42. Cymbeline, it certainly looks an interesting book. I agree with you re McPherson.

    I have a book called Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland, by Thomas Crofton Croker (1825), that takes a patronizing view of the peasantry … the author sees himself as superior, but doesn’t always come across as such.

    ‘Catalog’ because it’s the US arm of CUP … based in New York, I think.

  43. I’m going to do a post about Bridget Cleary, a woman who was burnt to death as a ‘changeling’ in 1895.

  44. Maybe I will, RB. Up to my eyes at the moment, though. 😦

  45. Cymbeline

    My father remembers English chaps coming to his village in Snowdonia to measure the Welsh children’s skulls. That would have been as late as the 1950s.

  46. Colouring was another one. Dark hair, Celtiberians.

  47. Cymbeline

    Re 43, Mr Broxted. Interesting that there may have been a small Roman outpost in Ireland. There is a Welsh feel for the Roman. After all, the Romans were in Wales and they are the ones who introduced the new religion of Christianity. Latin words also went directly into the Welsh language at that time.

    There is a sadness about the druidic culture that was destroyed by the Romans in Ynys Môn, but I do not think that there is a literary longing for pre-Christian Celtic times. The Welsh quite like the Roman, I think.

  48. Your 48 is amazing, Cymbeline. That sort of thing went on here in Victorian times.

    I’m not sure that there’s firm evidence for a Roman outpost in Ireland, though of course it’s possible … more for trading links.

  49. Cymbeline

    Not many Romans, but a great deal of Latin?

  50. Sipu

    Cymbers,” My father remembers English chaps coming to his village in Snowdonia to measure the Welsh children’s skulls. That would have been as late as the 1950s.”

    And were their suspicions confirmed?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s