National Folklore Collection

“Collect the fragments, lest they perish”. These words, adopted by The Folklore of Ireland Society in 1927, outline their mission to collect, preserve and publish the folklore and folklife of a fast-changing Ireland. Out of the society came the Irish Folklore Commission, who between 1935 and 1970, gathered one of the world’s largest folklore collections from every county in Ireland.

These collections go beyond fragments. They include transcribed tales from Peig Sayers, first-person recollections from the 1916 Rising and questionnaires that describe matchmaking, tally sticks and The Great Famine. 

Jonny Dillon, Archivist with the National Folklore Collection, outlines the background to the collection, how they collected and collated such an enormous body of work and the challenges that come with protecting and utilising this material for our modern age. 

It’s a story that is as interesting and steeped in history as the collections themselves.  

Background to National Folklore Collection - why was it set up?

The National Folklore Collection continues the work of the Irish Folklore Commission, an institution which was established in 1935 with the aim of collecting, preserving and publishing items of Irish folk tradition; the unofficial, informal, traditions and customs, beliefs, narratives, and crafts of the Irish people.

The Commission received government funding throughout its existence – a sum of one hundred pounds was initially set aside for the collecting of folklore from every county in Ireland (including Northern Ireland) and folklore collectors were trained and sent out to conduct fieldwork, the results of which they posted to Commission headquarters in Dublin. The collections they made, consisting of manuscript and audiovisual material, form the basis of our archival collections today. These collections are now known as the National Folklore Collection and held at University College Dublin.  In December 2018, the collections were inscribed into the UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ Register, The Book of Kells is the only other Irish inclusion. 

What was Ireland like at that time? What led to it being established?

Ireland at that time was a newly independent state. The years preceding the establishment of the Commission saw the country racked by the 1916 Rising, the 1919-1921 War of Independence, the partition of the island into separate states and the 1922-1923 Irish Civil War – a conflict which left deep bitterness and political polarisation in its wake.

I think that following this period of great upheaval and discord, the country was seeking to renew and affirm itself; the valorisation of folk culture offered a means through which new visions and forms of national identity could be asserted in order to emphasise our independence as a nation.

The Structure of collecting and collating

Folklore scholars from Britain, Finland, Germany, Norway and Sweden were hugely instrumental in supporting the work of the Commission. International scholars felt that the work being done in Ireland could shed light on the broader European cultural landscape; since Ireland is a peripheral nation located at Europe’s north-western fringe, many customs and traditions which had died out elsewhere still formed part of a living tradition here.

 

The Commission worked carefully to document and collect traditions at a point in Ireland when the Irish language was in serious decline, while the effects of urbanisation and industrialisation had not yet eroded older cultural patterns and practices. Because the material with which the Commission was concerned was part of an oral tradition, it had to be documented through extensive fieldwork collections. In practical terms, this involved a network of folklore collectors travelling townlands the country over and collecting material for the Commission. There was a pressing concern at the time that our folk customs were in danger of passing into oblivion and slipping away without a trace, and so the remaining ‘fragments’ had to be collected as a matter of urgency.

 

In order to coherently arrange material received from the field, Seán O Súilleabháin (Archivist to the Irish Folklore Commission) travelled in 1935 to the Dialect and Folklore Archive at Uppsala, Sweden. Over a three-month period, he made a detailed study of the archival system in use there, familiarising himself with the methods employed to arrange, classify and catalogue fieldwork collections of folklore. The system he adapted for use in the Irish context laid the foundation for approaches to archival arrangement and description still employed at the National Folklore Collection today.

 

The Archival Collections

Our archival collections are broken into several series. The Main Manuscript Collection comprises more than 2,400 bound volumes of interviews in both Irish and English from all thirty-two counties in Ireland. Our Photographic Collection consists of more than 80,000 photographs, encompassing glass plates, prints and film negatives. The Sound Archive features approximately 12,000 hours of audio on early formats such as wax cylinder, wire-tape, magnetic-tape and acetate disc (along with more recent formats).

The Schools’ Collection consists of over 1,200 manuscript volumes containing material collected by senior primary school pupils over the period 1937-1939. Under this scheme, the collecting of folklore was made part of the school curriculum by the Department of Education, and every Friday senior pupils would ask their grandparents and parents questions on items of folklore which were covered in a booklet compiled by the Commission.

We also house a specialist reference library with over 50,000 titles, along with a considerable art collection. In 1970 the staff and holdings of the Irish Folklore Commission were transferred to University College Dublin. Now the National Folklore Collection, we ensure safeguarding, preservation and access to these historic collections, and oversee the implementation of new collection projects. Further, students can now study folklore from BA to PhD level, while utilising the collections at our disposal.

How do you operate and structure your work?

It’s very varied. We always have a very broad array of people looking to consult our collections; academics, students, genealogists, historians, writers, poets, visual artists, musicians, singers, film and documentary makers, radio producers, school children, elderly people, relatives of those recorded in our collections, others with a local interest they want to explore – the list goes on. As a result, you have to be able to shift your focus constantly to best suit the requirements of those you meet in the course of your work.

Some who visit may never have set foot in an archive and can be daunted by the enormous card indices and manuscript tomes (not to mention the considerable scope of the material). Our job is to guide, assist, advise, contextualise, explain and provide access as best we can. It’s a very rewarding process, though not without its own challenges.

Challenges

There are many challenges – time management is one. We are a small team, and meeting the volume of interest generated by these collections can be demanding. Digitisation poses challenges too – traditional archival materials can withstand a certain degree of benign neglect. That is to say, you can close the door on a manuscript and come back in 50 years, and if the conditions are okay, it should still be there on the shelf in decent order. Not so with digital material; once an item has been digitised you need to keep it constantly fed and watered, juggling from platform to platform or format to format. With these challenges though come enormous opportunities; new ways to conceive of and present the collection, along with new entry points and approaches to analysis.

 

In the context of digitisation, ethical considerations also play a very important role. We maintain a keen awareness of the sensitivities of the archival material and its context. These aren’t just pie charts or numbers on a screen, these records deal with real people, with local communities, with people’s parents and grandparents. 

 

As such, we always need to remember our duty of care to those people who are represented in the records, and to the communities from which they were collected.

The Instagram account

If not for COVID-19, I don’t think I would have set the account up. I saw it as a way to reach out to people throughout the lockdown. Personally, I take somewhat of a mixed view of social media, but this experience has actually been really positive, and the material seems to resonate with a broad reach of people. I’ve had people contact me because pictures I’ve put up have shown their late father or grandfather.

Others have found something positive or meaningful in some of the excerpts from our early literature I’ve posted on there. Something as simple as a poem matched with an image, or the description of some event or calendar custom with which people can relate – all of these things can have a positive impact on someone’s day. I think that’s important, especially nowadays.

I want people to know that we in this country are sitting on an enormous treasure trove of native literature and thought; of wisdom, wit and imaginative artistry. Something uplifting, humorous, poignant, sad, whatever – it’s all there.This material is rooted in the past but can help us to navigate the present in a way that is meaningful and uplifting.

Future for the National Folklore Collection – how will It evolve?

I think increased access via online platforms, and digitisation will continue to be of central importance to our work. Our online platform www.dúchas.ie is a collaborative project with our colleagues at Fiontar & Scoil na Gaeilge, Dublin City University – they’ve done fantastic work in developing a technical infrastructure upon which our digitised collections can be hosted and navigated by the public. When this material was first collected in the 1930s there was a great sense of urgency to the overall project, and a fear that all of this material was in danger of being lost forever. Today we can really open up these collections to communities all over Ireland and further afield, allowing people to draw on them freely, to learn from them and use the material in a multitude of different ways. This opens the collection up to a much broader array of people beyond the confines of a University setting, and allows us to highlight the importance of traditional culture and inheritance in contemporary times.

Our modern lives are being documented on camera phones and Instagram, do we need collectors to preserve our history?

Folklore collections, in comparison with records generated on social media, tend to be wrought very slowly. Trust is an important part of the process of recording – these things take time, and when done well, offer insight into the lives and voices of individuals and communities who might not otherwise be heard. Personally, I feel that while social media can have a positive impact and allow for a broad reach, it also facilitates a certain communal loneliness or isolation. So, while it is certainly easier to reach out to like-minded souls online in a way that we couldn’t before, many of the records being generated today seem to me to encourage a sort of collective solitude, atomisation and passivity which has surface appearance as its ultimate concern. 

I think the modern imagination has been stripped of many of the reference points which oriented our forebears and which provided meaning and cohesion to the world. It’s as though in modernity we have ‘liberated’ ourselves from all meaning, and, having heaved memory overboard like ballast now find ourselves lost in a world whose pace is increasingly frenetic and relativistic. Many nowadays are thirsty for meaning, and I think it is for this reason (among others) that folkloric material resonates with people. Our communal traditions, in all their multiplicity, are suggestive of a shared history, which likewise implies a shared destiny.

So, this Instagram account is intended as a vehicle to present the richness and variety of these customs to people. If it has a positive impact on someone’s day, I’m happy.

Visit duchas.ie for more information about the Collections, you can follow the incredible Instagram account here. 

Some favourites from the Instagram account

I love this photograph. It shows James Hamilton Delargy (Director of the Irish Folklore Commission), Seosamh Ó Dálaigh and Micheál Ó Dónaill collecting from Seán Daltún at Cúl na Sméar, county Waterford in 1948.

Halloween observances will be known by many in Ireland and further afield. This striking photograph by Maurice Curtin shows a young boy playing a divination game, in which saucers containing clay, a ring or water foretell death, marriage or travel. The child is blindfolded and spun around before extending their hand over the saucer to divine the future.

I love this photograph by Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, though we have very little by way of contextual detail regarding it. The beautiful poem is from the 7th century, and asks where is God to be found.

This is a favourite of mine. It shows the solemnity a funeral on Inis Mór, and I thought it fitting for the winter. The excerpted poetry is from Thomas Telynog Evans, and the opening line of the piece was rattling around my head all winter. I’d been reading the letters of Rainer Maria Rilke again at the time, and I included a quote of his in there. All three pieces seemed to ‘click’ at the time.

This shot from Ballycastle, county Mayo shows a bride dancing with Strawboys – uninvited male ‘guests’ who would appear at the wedding feast and ceremonially steal the bride for a dance before playing music and providing entertainment. The text reproduced from the manuscripts describes practices on ‘Chalk Sunday’, in which the unmarried were marked with chalk on their way to mass on the first Sunday in Lent.

This was a post I put up containing a few lines from a Kerry poet whose work I like, Micheál Ua Ciarmhaic. In these few lines, the river explains how it will be here forever, flowing slowly in a relaxed and unhurried way. I was delighted to receive a note from Micheál’s daughter, who was glad to see her father’s work on the page. The photograph shows a stream and some dwellings in Dún Chaoin county Kerry, and there’s an easy and relaxed air to the whole scene.

Interview with David Kitt

Meet Dublin Ghost Signs


New Jackson’s City

David Kitt has always immersed himself in all genres of music, which can be heard on releases under his own name. But following ‘The Nightsaver’ in 2009, Kitt realised he had to alter his artistic outputs. He found that merging all his musical influences into one channel was creatively exhausting so he sidestepped to a new project he would call New Jackson. This new avenue allowed Kitt to focus his love for electronic music on New Jackson, while his singer-songwriter work remained under his David Kitt flag. Ironically, by separating the two, he created unity – and has never been busier, with this year seeing the release of ‘Yous’ under David Kitt and ‘From Night To Night’ his debut New Jackson LP.

From the cosmic chaos of Found The One, the subtle smash from Blaze All Day, the intriguing and enchanting Of A Thousand Leaves and the comforting rhythms of the title track, he doesn’t just channel this creativity, he completely owns it.

Key to creating the New Jackson sound was the purchase of an SP 1200 sampler. Kitt explains “It’s a sound I’ve tried to get close to for almost half my life now and the only way to really nail it was to get the machine itself. It’s featured on so many of my favourite records by the likes of Premier, RZA, MF Doom, Daft Punk, Moodyman and Theo Parrish”

I sat down with Kitt to talk creativity, staying focused and what Dublin means to him ahead of his album launch in Dublin on the May Bank Holiday Weekend.

On the New Jackson sound

It’s been a gradual movement since day one, my first release was an instrumental, primarily electronic release and that is nearly 20 years ago, so it’s always been there. If you listen to The Nightsaver, it’s fairly obvious the signpost leading to this album. There are one or two songs in particular that could almost be on the New Jackson album, and there are a couple of songs on New Jackson that could be on The Nightsaver.

Why he’s most creative at night time

I’m just a bit of a vampire – a vocational insomniac. I remember Leonard Cohen saying something like not wanting the day to do down in debt, where you reach that point where you still haven’t got anything from the day and refuse to be beaten.

Overcoming creative blocks and staying motivated

I find that exercise helps you with procrastination, that you run it out of you, you get through the noise. When you come back you have dealt with some of the stuff, rather than having 4 hours of sitting looking at something. It’s a balance.

Even younger people asking me ‘do you have any advice’, it’s just about showing up really. I put in 50-60 hours a week to music most weeks, and that’s really all it is – just showing up. 

His creative process

It’s both structured and playful, there is a thing that Seamus Heaney said about writing poems, that you write your way into something, and then you write your way out of it. And I always find that the more you get on the way in, the better – the easier your job is. I spend a lot of time trying to think of ways to where I will get as much as possible on the way in, because the way in is the initial rush, excitement, the creativity of the eureka moment – when you can kinda see it, but then, actually finishing it…if you don’t get enough on the way in finishing it can be very difficult because it’s not as fun, playful or exciting..and it can take months to finish.

Discovering new sounds and influences

Right now is as good a time for new and old music as I have ever known. They are just reissuing all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff from the past. Undiscovered stuff, and all manner of amazing stuff that maybe wouldn’t have found an audience in its time. With that you have a lot of really exciting new music, like Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, that really blew me away. Having All City as a record shop is a good one for going in, they know your taste and they can recommend stuff. Do I dig in shops or online? It’s a bit of both. I have a couple of sites and blogs that I go to regularly, but you can’t beat going into a record shop, it’s still the best way.

On his studio

It’s a combination of new and old – it’s mainly hardware like old drum machines and samplers, and then some newer modular bits, bits of electron stuff and a lot of old synths and some more modern digital stuff. It’s a hybrid of new and old really and I’m trying to bring some newer sequencing approaches to older equipment, and ultimately trying to make as much of it bespoke and have as much of your personality in it as possible.

On Dublin Bay being the backdrop to his studio

I remember when I was 16 or 17 being in Sandymount and thinking “one day”. My parents were always slagging me saying “you haven’t made a penny but you yet have managed to live in Sandymount”. It was a really, really magical time. Just felt so lucky to be staring at the sea and across Dublin Bay. I think ultimately, everything about the house, my housemates were big music fans, there were records everywhere, you would be working on a track and you would come down and someone would be playing a jazz record that was in the same key and you would think I’ve to sample that. You would be straight back up, and there was this amazing library of music and a constant flow of interesting people coming through the house. And then the view itself, I had a listen back to some of the David Kitt stuff that I did when I was there, songy stuff and you can really hear it lyrically.

What Dublin means to him

With the city, it’s a love/hate thing – it’s where you are from and as soon as you are away from it even for more than a month you miss it so bad. Sometimes when you are here it can be too small, and you can’t get away from yourself or your history or your ghosts on every second corner, but I think the overriding feeling is one of massive love. It’s an amazing place, and you appreciate it more as you get older.

When he finally got that SP 1200 sampler

It was a very big moment, I borrowed one …I’ve always heard it on records and thought “oh my god how do you get that sound” and tried to get it with sample banks that you buy for Ableton or different filters and plugins and stuff like that. It was an aesthetic that really influenced my work but I never quite nailed it because I didn’t have the actual machine itself. I borrowed one from Paudi Ahern, just to make sure because I wasn’t going to buy one because they are quite expensive, I wasn’t going to buy it just on spec. And literally the first day it did exactly what I hoped it would do. I use it every day and it just brings me great joy.

On his other influences for ‘From Night to Night’

It’s a long journey, it goes back all the way to being an 18-year-old going to see Billy Scurry in the Temple of Sound…It’s not like it’s a retro record or anything, it’s a fresh take on some stuff that’s been with me a long time.

Why ‘From Night To Night’ was chosen and the title track

It just summed up the album as a whole. It came right in the middle of making the record, it was after my first time playing in Panorama Bar and there were a lot of friends over for it and my girlfriend and stuff, and it was just one of those magical weekends that kinda sticks out.

I suppose there are certain things with New Jackson that I already feel like I’ve kinda ticked a few boxes, that I wasn’t expecting to ever tick. I’m playing there for the third time in a few weeks, and there is a part of me that wonders how long I can sustain the nocturnal approach, and so and also I kinda was very aware that this is going to be my last time living in a house with a bunch of music freaks. I thought it was a good title – from the night shift to the night people, to my fellow vampires and to the night itself.

The album’s artwork

I bought that picture from an exhibition of Rich Gilligan’s about 8/9 years ago, it’s a polaroid actually of his wife’s parents house in West Kerry. I was struggling a bit with the artwork and I was just sitting at home one day and I just thought that’s it..that’s the cover. And Donal Thornton did this thing with the design that really lifts it as well. It’s a lovely collaboration between everyone. Rich has just done a video for Anya’s Piano, and he’s someone that I’ve been working with for a long time, he did the cover of The Nightsaver too. I’m just really happy for it to be him. It’s one of those things that wasn’t that difficult in the end.

 

On approaching All City Records

I’d been trying to get Olan (All City label boss) to release something of mine for a while, so I was like “ok I really have to make my case” and I think Olan really thought I was giving him stuff in a really willy-nilly way – him and maybe 8 other labels, and seeing what stuck. But it was actually genuinely head and shoulders above any other labels that I wanted to work with and a lot of that is just instinct really. So when you actually start working with someone that’s when you see what it’s all about and it’s been a very fruitful relationship.

It’s actually the first time I think in my whole time working within the music business where I have been more or less left to my own devices and completely trusted as an artist. And there is a level of respect between both people that makes things simple and fruitful; and we actually got quite a few releases planned for David Kitt stuff, New Jackson stuff and another new project that I’m working on. The Lock In is me and Tim Wheeler from Ash and an old friend of mine Conor Creaney, it’s a lot of synths kinda stuff that we did about 3 or 4 years ago that I’ve been sitting on that I just sent to Olan, he really loved it we are going to be releasing some of it on All City Records soon.

Thanks to Sarah Doyle for the fantastic images

Find out more about New Jackson on Facebook and support them on Bandcamp here. 

This article originally appeared on www.thelocals.ie

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