Séamus Ó Duilearga’s Leabhar Sheáin Í Chonaill (1948), translated as Seán Ó Conaill’s Book (1981)
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Séamus Ó Duilearga’s Leabhar Sheáin Í Chonaill (1948), translated as Seán Ó Conaill’s Book (1981)

Leabhar Sheáin Í Chonaill was published in 1948 (although the dust cover gives the year as 1949) by An Cumann le Béaloideas Éireann (The Folklore of Ireland Society), in cooperation with The Educational Company of Ireland Ltd., at a retail cost of twelve shillings and six pence. The publication presented the storytelling repertoire of Seán Ó Conaill (1853–1931) as collected from 1923 through 1931 by Séamus Ó Duilearga (1899–1980), then a teaching assistant in Irish at University College Dublin. The book was reprinted in 1977 with a new foreword by the then Professor of Irish Folklore, Bo Almqvist (1931–2013). An English translation by Máire MacNeill (1904–1987), Seán Ó Conaill’s Book, came out in 1981.

The book is a classic because of its content and context, and the methodological approach to folklore fieldwork founded on a long-term collector/informant relationship remains as relevant today as when it was pioneered (see, for example, Morton 1973; Glassie 2006; and Cashman 2016). The fruits of Ó Duilearga’s ethnographic process are monumental, and the book remains essential reading for all students embarking on folklore studies in Ireland.

As a student at University College Dublin, and as assistant to Professor Douglas Hyde (1860–1949) in the Department of Modern Irish in the early 1920s, Séamus Ó Duilearga’s main interest was in the Irish language. Celtic Studies was well developed and Ó Duilearga [End Page 285] had contact with scholars of Old, Classical, and Modern Irish and related Celtic Studies subjects in Ireland and abroad.

Séamus Ó Duilearga was acutely aware that Irish as the spoken vernacular was fast disappearing in a number of districts. In 1923, Kerryman Fionán Mac Coluim (1875–1966) advised Ó Duilearga to visit Uíbh Ráthach and recommended a visit to Seán Ó Conaill of Cill Rialaigh who was “well-known in the district for his excellence as a storyteller and Irish-speaker” (Ó Duilearga 1981, iii). The scholar Osborn Bergin (1873–1950) also advised that Ó Duilearga travel to Munster to improve his Irish, as Bergin had been successful there on a similar mission. As Séamus Ó Duilearga was a native of County Antrim, one might have expected a natural affinity with Ulster, perhaps Donegal, Irish. However, he chose Munster as the place in which to perfect his Irish. Ó Duilearga wrote “there is no better way to learn an Irish dialect than by collecting folklore and writing it down, because the finest Irish is preserved in the fireside traditions, the old folktales and in the talk of the older generation” (1981, v). Ó Duilearga also wrote that he considered material in English to be as important as that in Irish (Ó Catháin 2008, 17), but he perceived the greater urgency of collecting material in Irish at the time. In the course of his visits to Cill Rialaigh, it may be said that he became even more aware that he “was assisting at the deathbed of a civilization” (2008, 106). Ó Duilearga made twelve visits to Cill Rialaigh between 1923 and 1931. His fieldwork would both complement and shape intellectual trends and collaborations of the time.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a growing international interest in folklore across Europe. A number of individuals, in Ireland and elsewhere, spearheaded this interest. The Scandinavian contribution was to prove central to the development of Irish folkloristics. A number of Scandinavian visitors came to Ireland to pursue folklore while learning Irish. Following contact with Danish folklorists, the Swedish ethnologist Carl von Sydow (1878–1952), a student, and later an academic, at Lund University, concluded that a comparative study between Irish and Scandinavian folklore would be a productive pursuit. Von Sydow’s influence on the shaping of folklore collecting, cataloguing, and analysis was to have a lasting effect (Almqvist 2002, 7–8). In May 1920 von Sydow first visited Ireland where he spent some days in Baile an Fheirtéaraigh, County Kerry. His lodging house in Baile an Fheirtéaraigh was the same house in which the Norwegian scholars Reidar T. Christiansen...


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