National Folklore Collection (NFC) and its collections

The objectives of the National Folklore Collection (NFC) are to collect, preserve and disseminate the oral tradition of Ireland. The NFC, which is located in UCD, includes the following records:

  • c.2 million manuscript pages
  • c.500,000 index cards
  • c.12,000 hours of sound recordings
  • c.80,000 photographs
  • c.1,000 hours of video material

The original holdings of the NFC are divided into collections:

The Main Manuscript Collection

The body of material that makes up the Main Manuscript Collection, assembled by the Irish Folklore Commission and its successors, preserves an important record of Ireland’s oral tradition and material culture. It is recognized as one of the largest collections of its kind in Western Europe. It features folklore recorded from across the 32 counties of Ireland, in both Irish and English. In recognition of the ongoing decline of the Irish language, and the likely loss of tradition associated with this process, the Commission directed considerable resources to recording Irish-language tradition bearers in the early years of its operation. It also recorded significant amounts of material in Scots Gaelic and Manx.

The Main Manuscript Collection consists of 2,400 bound and paginated volumes - approximately 700,000 pages of material. The bulk of the Collection was assembled by full-time collectors working for the Irish Folklore Commission, for example Seosamh Ó Dálaigh in County Kerry and Seán Ó hEochaidh in County Donegal. These collectors were thoroughly familiar with the dialect and lore of their respective districts. A large proportion of the material taken down by full-time collectors consists of verbatim transcripts of field recordings made on Ediphone (wax cylinder) recording machines and, in subsequent years, on gramophone disks and tape recorders. All full-time collectors were expected to keep a diary, documenting contextual information about recording sessions, their informants and their working day in general. These diaries are also included in the Main Manuscript Collection. They include valuable contemporary descriptions and biographical information relating to informants.

The Collection can be said to encapsulate the following 14 key subject areas of Settlement and Dwelling, Livelihood & Household Support, Communications and Trade, The Community, Human Life, Nature, Folk-Medicine, Time, Principles and Rules of Popular Belief and Practice, Mythological Tradition, Historical Tradition, Religious Tradition, Popular Oral Literature, and Sports and Pastimes. The Main Manuscript Collection features transcribed tales from some of Ireland’s most famous traditional storytellers, including Peig Sayers, the Great Blasket, Co. Kerry; Éamon a Búrc, Carna, Co. Galway; Anna Nic a’ Luain of the Blue Stack mountains, Co. Donegal, and many others besides. The Collection also includes in-depth descriptions of the Famine period in Ireland (1845-1849), first-person recollections of the historically significant 1913 Lockout and the 1916 Rising, as well as oral traditional accounts of historical figures such as Daniel O’Connell (1775-1847), making it a valuable primary source for scholars and educationalists.

QUESTIONNAIRES

In addition to its team of full-time collectors, a great many part-time and voluntary collectors contributed to the work of the Commission. A number of these were school teachers from throughout Ireland who had developed an interest in, and an understanding of, folklore in their local districts from their participation in the 1930s Schools’ Folklore Scheme. In addition to submitting occasional items of local folklore recorded by them, these men and women also sent detailed responses to more than a hundred different Commission questionnaires concerning a variety of topics. The topics investigated varied greatly, the earliest questionnaires dealing with subjects as varied as Holy Wells and ‘Tally Sticks’ (‘Bataí Scór’). Other subjects included The Feast of St Martin, The Last Sheaf, The Blacksmith, Roofs and Thatching, Ball Games, Matchmaking, Hurling and Football, The Great Famine, Funerary Custom, Food, Dress etc. The replies to the questionnaires comprise an important element of the Main Manuscript collection.

The Schools’ Collection

Approximately 740,000 pages (288,000 pages in the pupils’ original exercise books; 451,000 pages in bound volumes) of folklore and local tradition were compiled by pupils from 5,000 primary schools in the Irish Free State between 1937 and 1939.

This collecting scheme was initiated by the Irish Folklore Commission, under the direction of Séamus Ó Duilearga and Séan Ó Súilleabháin, Honorary Director and Registrar of the Commission respectively, and was heavily dependent on the cooperation of the Department of Education and the Irish National Teachers’ Organization. It was originally to run from 1937 to 1938 but was extended to 1939 in specific cases. For the duration of the project, more than 50,000 schoolchildren from 5,000 schools in the 26 counties of the Irish Free State were enlisted to collect folklore in their home districts. This included oral history, topographical information, folktales and legends, riddles and proverbs, games and pastimes, trades and crafts. The children recorded this material from their parents, grandparents, and neighbours.

The scheme resulted in the creation of over half a million manuscript pages, generally referred to as ‘Bailiúchán na Scol’ or ‘The Schools’ Collection’.

There are 1,128 volumes, numbered and bound, in the Collection. A title page prefaces each school, giving the name of the school, the parish, the barony, the county and the teacher. A further collection of approximately 40,000 of the children’s original copybooks are stored at the NFC.

More information is available in this article (in Irish):

Ó Cathain, Séamas (1988), ‘Súil siar ar Scéim na Scol 1937-1938’. Sinsear 5: 19-30. [pdf]

Weekly pick:

Some of the most interesting stories are shown as the ‘Weekly pick’ on this site; you can browse through them here.

The Photographic Collection

The National Folklore Collection’s photographic collection consists of some 80,000 photographs, the majority of which were taken by members of the Irish Folklore Commission (1935-70) and its successors, including staff of the National Folklore Collection. The Commission’s ethnologist, Caoimhín Ó Danachair, who conducted field work throughout Ireland over many years, is responsible for a significant portion of the photographs presented here. Other Commission members, including its Director, Séamus Ó Duilearga, Michael J. Murphy, Leo Corduff, and many other field workers also captured important images of folklore informants and Irish folklife.

The images are preserved in a variety of film formats: positives and negatives (including some 6,000 nitrate negatives), both black & white and colour, ranging from 35mm to larger format film. The collection also contains a significant number of early glass plates and lantern slides alongside a large number of photographic prints, drawings and art works which have been photographed. The collection continues to grow through the activities of staff and supporters of the National Folklore Collection, and the contribution of valuable historic photographs by members of the public.

The process of digitizing and conserving the collection continues apace; some 10,000 images are presented here for the first time. They are arranged thematically in accordance with the subject headings in Seán Ó Súilleabháin’s A Handbook of Irish Folklore (1942). Themes include vernacular dwellings and other man-made features, livelihoods, crafts, commerce, transport, the sea, education, the practice of religion, food, dress, festivals and rites of passage, storytellers, musicians, pastimes and sport. Reference numbers of photographs are prefixed with a letter A-N indicating the general category of tradition assigned to them:

A. Settlement and Dwelling

B. Livelihood and Household Support

C. Communication and Trade

D. The Community

E. The Person/Human Life

F. Nature

G. Folk Medicine

H. Times and Feasts

I. Popular Belief and Practice

J. Mythological Tradition

K. Historical Traditions

L. Religious Tradition

M. Oral Literature

N. Sports and Pastimes

Accessibility:

Low and medium resolution images can be freely downloaded by users. Those seeking to obtain high resolution digital copies of individual images should contact the National Folklore Collection at bealoideas@ucd.ie. A handling charge of €10.00 per image is charged for such copies.

Weekly pick:

Some of the most interesting photographs are shown as the ‘Weekly pick’ on this site; you can browse through them here.

The Audio and Video Archives

There are over 12,000 hours of audio recordings and 1,000 hours of video recordings in the archives. Most of the sound recordings are on tape but other formats are also included. These audio recordings describe all aspects of Irish folklore and tradition, and contain material from every county, in Irish or English. The earliest recordings in the archive date from 1897, recorded on wax cylinder at the Belfast Feis Ceoil. The majority of recordings date from the 1940s onwards. There is also material recorded by international folklore and language scholars such as Olaf Melberg and Heinrich Wagner.

Folk Music Archive

This collection includes 3,000 pages of music manuscripts, a specialist library, and c.2,000 hours of original field recordings. In 1974 the Folk Music Archive was placed under the direction of Breandán Breathnach. Collectors recorded many thousands of songs in English and in Irish, as well as instrumental music from most parts of Ireland.