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  • The Myth Business: Jeremiah and Alma Curtin in Ireland, 1887–1893
  • Angela Bourke (bio)

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Figure 1.

Jeremiah and Alma Curtin. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee County Historical Society.

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Although best known internationally as the first translator from Polish to English of the novels of Henryk Sienkiewicz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905, Jeremiah Curtin (1835–1906) is a household name in Irish Studies. In his lifetime, he published three highly successful books of Irish folktales and legends (he called them “myths”), all of which are currently in print, and in 1944, when he had been dead for thirty-eight years, the Irish Folklore Commission produced a fourth, with sixteen more of the stories he had collected in Ireland and edited for a New York newspaper.1 His wife Alma Cardell Curtin (1847–1938), a former teacher from Bristol, Vermont, [End Page 141] is less well remembered, but she accompanied her husband as his partner and business manager on his many expeditions and was also a talented photographer (figure 1).2 Their usual travel baggage included what she referred to as a “photographic instrument,” or “the instrument”—a large and unwieldy camera—along with glass plates (precursors of rolled film), chemicals, and paper for developing and printing images. The Curtins spent two long periods in the Irish-speaking areas of the west of Ireland, between June 1887 and September 1893—before and after the death of Charles Stewart Parnell—writing down oral narratives from local storytellers and taking photographs.

The stories people tell and listen to reveal as much about mentality as reading habits do, if we can learn to decode them, and the tales the Curtins transcribed offer a window on the vernacular imagination at a time of political and economic upheaval in Ireland. Considered alongside Alma’s photographs and the couple’s own adventures, they also show us encounters between cultures at the end of the nineteenth century: between the English and Irish languages; orality and literacy; destitution and commerce. The Curtins’ Irish enterprise is an early instance of the commodification of vernacular culture—long before drug companies became interested in the ethnobotany of the Amazon basin. Their story is also yet another example of the unattributed work of a nineteenth-century woman who carried out much of the precise and arduous observation, collecting, and editing with which only her husband is credited.3

Most of the Irish stories Curtin published were of the kind that begin “There was a king in Erin long ago . . .” He claimed to have collected them from the lips of Gaelic speakers, but scholars have been troubled ever since by two things: first that he gave very little information (and in his first book, none) about the storytellers from [End Page 142] whom he collected, or where they lived, and second that although many of the stories bore the hallmarks of having been told in Irish, and Curtin made much of his studies in that language (among many others), certain howlers show up in his published work. As Douglas Hyde remarked at the time, he was startlingly ignorant of the commonest Irish words.4

Thirty-four years after his death, the State Historical Society of his native Wisconsin published the Memoirs of Jeremiah Curtin: a 900-page, blow-by-blow account of his lifetime’s travels and language-learning, which Alma had recently made available.5 Written in short, declarative sentences, in the first person singular, and dropping names on almost every page, it could be described as pedestrian, were it not for the number of modes of conveyance it details, on sea and on land, from luxury ocean liners to mules and canoes. It does, however, tell us about the Curtins’ movements, in Ireland and elsewhere, and a good deal about their folklore collecting. The Memoirs were richly supplemented in the 1980s, when the Milwaukee County Historical Society acquired the previously unknown diaries of Alma Curtin, along with the couple’s correspondence and other papers. These have recently become available for study, allowing us to begin to reassess and reinterpret the published work.

Alma Curtin’s diary is clearly the source...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1550-5162
Print ISSN
0013-2683
Pages
pp. 140-170
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-12
Open Access
No
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