Angus Matheson Memorial Lecture: “Forty Years of Gaelic Revival: An Irish Storyteller and his Editors” by Prof. Angela Bourke

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Blog author: Kathleen Reddy

On Thursday, December 5th, 2019, Celtic and Gaelic at the University of Glasgow hosted the fourteenth annual Angus Matheson memorial lecture, given by Prof. Angela Bourke of University College Dublin.

This annual lecture series is held in memory of Prof. Angus Matheson (1912-1962), first professor of Celtic at the University of Glasgow. This year’s lecture featured opening comments by Jane McCulloch, Consul General of Ireland in Scotland. Ms. McCulloch spoke about an initiative to review relations between Scotland and Ireland and encouraged collaboration between academics in the two countries.

Prof. Bourke was introduced in Scottish Gaelic, English and Irish by Dr. Geraldine Parsons of Celtic and Gaelic. Dr. Parsons commented on Prof. Bourke’s wide-ranging career as one of Ireland’s foremost academics whose diverse range of publications cover Irish folklore, oral history and literature with a focus on the recovery of Irish women’s voices and experiences.

The subject of Prof. Bourke’s lecture was the Connemara storyteller, Seán Éadbhaird Ó Briain (1852-1934). Prof. Bourke placed Ó Briain in the context of his rural community on the west coast of Ireland, which was marked by aesthetic, spiritual and physical self-sufficiency, while at the same time existing in proximity to the estates of the wealthy. Prof. Bourke commented that Ó Briain’s storytelling reflected both the frugal lifestyle and the landscape in which he was immersed. Ó Briain was a master teller of long, complicated hero tales with strong visual and surreal elements. Many of these tales were derived from late medieval literary tales which could be found in Irish manuscripts of the eighteenth century. In Ó Briain’s tellings, these tales served to exemplify proper behaviour for young men and to teach life lessons such as thinking before acting.

Unusually, Ó Briain’s stories were collected and edited over a forty year period by three different editors. This period, from the 1890s to the 1930s, was a significant time of change in Irish history, encompassing the establishment of the Irish Free State. Accordingly, Prof. Bourke pointed out, political and cultural change was reflected in the reception of folktales in local communities and by the collectors themselves during this period. A comparison of different versions of the same tales told by Ó Briain over this period reveals transcription errors and censorship of texts.

Ó Briain’s first editor was Jeremiah Curtin (1835-1906), an Irish-American folklore collector who visited Connemara in 1892. It appears that Curtin’s Irish was not up to transcribing Ó Briain’s tales directly and he employed the services of the parish clerk as translator. Both men were paid two shillings per day for their services and Curtin then sold the stories on to the New York Sun newspaper for $50 each. Ó Briain’s tales also featured in Curtin’s popular book Hero Tales of Ireland, published in 1894.

Almost forty years passed before Ó Briain’s stories were collected again. In 1929, Seán Mac Giollarnagh (1880-1970), a founding member of the Folklore of Ireland Society, met Ó Briain and subsequently collected tales from him, three of which were published in 1936 in a collection entitled Loinnir Mac Leabhair agus Sgéalta Gaisgidh Eile. Ó Briain’s final editor, Séumas Ó Duilearga (1899-1980), who was to become the director of the Irish Folklore Commission, collected tales from Ó Briain in his last years and declared Ó Briain “the finest storyteller I have ever met.” Delargy published Ó Briain’s tales in Béaloideas, the folklore journal which he edited.

As an interesting postscript, Prof. Bourke pointed to evidence that after Ó Briain’s death, some of his tales were collected from others in the 1937 Schools Collection scheme, for which Irish schoolchildren were tasked with documenting items of local folklore. It seems likely that Ó Briain’s own young granddaughter, Áine, served as the scribe in this instance.

Dr. Sìm Innes of Celtic and Gaelic provided an appreciative response to Prof. Bourke’s lecture, citing the impact that Bourke’s publications have had on students of folklore at the University of Glasgow. He also recognised the importance of placing traditional tales in context, including the teller’s personality and the social and politicial situation in which tales were told and collected, as Prof. Bourke had demonstrated. He also noted the ethical questions raised by Prof. Bourke’s account of Curtin’s payment of Ó Briain and his translator. These issues are pertinent not just to the examination of the work of previous tellers and collectors, but also in the field of folklore studies today.

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