Saturday, July 29, 2017

Local history treasure from Kilcullen schoolboys

A new treasure trove of local history of Kilcullen has now gone on line in the National Folklore Collection at, writes Brian Byrne.

Mary Orford keeps an eye on the site, and notified the Diary yesterday that scans of the actual exercise books, leabhraibh cleachtha, from Kilcullen Boys National School from the years 1937-1938 have been added.

In the late 1930s schoolchildren from all over Ireland collected stories about buried treasure, weather lore, cures, riddles, proverbs and childhood games and wrote them down in their school copybooks. Those copybooks are stored in the Department of Folklore, UCD as part of the national Schools' Folklore Collection.

Mary has previously noted some of the work from the project by the National Folklore Commission which pertains to the locality, notably from Kilcullen Convent School, Brannoxtown NS and Ballyshannon NS pupils.

In November, 2013 there was an event in Kilcullen Community Library to commemorate the participation of local pupils in that project.

On this latest release, Mary says that so many of the names will be familiar, 'both those of the boys and those who told them the stories'. "The NT in the school at the time was Paddy Byrne," she notes, "a name that surely resonates with a lot of people. I am in touch with Sister Monica Byrne — Paddy's daughter and a religious sister in the Cross and Passion — who told me that she was sure that her father had contributed to the scheme and yet, from all my visits to the collection, I never came across them."

The unusual thing about this latest part of the 'treasure trove that keeps on giving' as Mary puts it, is that it is the actual exercise books. "It's lovely to see the handwriting. The copybooks were used as 'exercise books' and pupils were encouraged to write the 'good' bits into a ledger provided by the Department of Education. It appears that the ledger in Kilcullen Boys School was never completed and only the copy books exist for the boys."

As was the custom, the names of the pupils were written in Irish on their leabhraibh cleachtha, and I'll use those here. Readers can have a little fun trying to work out their more well-known locally names in English.

Labhrás Ó Néill wrote about the history of New Abbey as told to him by his mother in Gilltown, and about a 'very big storm' in 1903 as related to him by his father. "For a long time after, people had plenty of fire," he noted. Hedge Schools and local 'cures' were also subjects written down in meticulous handwriting. And in these days of hi-tech gadgets being mandatory playthings for children, his account of how people 'long ago' used to make their own toys such as whistles and tops is a sobering reminder of less complicated times.

Mícheall Ó Thúathaill from Nicholastown transcribed stories from his 74-year-old grandfather at Harristown about Halloween, and about old place names as told by his father. Potatoes and proverbs were also among his subjects.

Criostóir Ó Néill, from Gilltown is another boy from the school who collected stories from his grandmother, including how there were 'lots of spirits in olden times' about Halloween. Other pupils whose words and handwriting are forever preserved in the collection include Líam hAslain, from Gilltown, who reported on a 'fairy fort in Mr Brennan's field' where fairies played music every night. "A man went two (sic) cut the trees around the fort," he wrote in warning, "and when he had the tree cut it fell on him and killed him."

Seosamh Ó Cearnaigh noted down old Halloween tales as told to him by 60-year-old Robert Ennis, including the custom of tying cabbages to door knockers. Seosamh was a particularly diligent researcher and wrote down information provided by his grandmother Mrs Mary Kearney, Mrs K Bagnal, and Mrs M Hogan.

Others whose leabhraibh cleachtha are preserved in the collection include Seán Ó Broin from Castlefish, Éamonn O Ruairc from Kilcullen, Pádraig De Núinnseáin of Kilcullen, Labhrás Mac Parthaláin from New Abbey, Diarmuid O Ceallaigh from Kilcullen, and Peadar O Díosca from Halverstown. And there are more …

The stories share common themes — place-names, crafts, lore and more — so it is clear that they were given a template of ideas for questioning their informants. But there are many differences in the results, as the writers were reflecting the information given by relatives and family friends of many different ages and perspectives.

In addition to the names of the recording students, the names of their informants also have their own resonances with families of today and the recent past. Some of them include Brigid Lambe, Mr Hubbock, Mr Neill, James Nugent, Joseph Sammon, Joseph Nugent, Mrs Nugent, Peter Moloney, James Kelly, Mr Doyle, Paddy Anderson, Mrs Clare, Mrs M Shannon, Mr William Dowling, Mr Hayes and Mrs Porter.

Reckon there'll be some head-scratching around Kilcullen this weekend …