Finding folktales

Tiernan Gaffney is currently pursuing a Masters in Irish Folklore & Ethnology in UCD, and worked as a research assistant on the Decoding Hidden Heritages project during the summer of 2022 locating and compiling folktales in the National Folklore Collection and related sources.

My role as Research Assistant within the Decoding Hidden Heritages project involved scouring the National Folklore Collection (NFC) for three tale types found in the Aarne-Thompson folktale index: AT 400: The Man on a Quest for his Lost Wife, AT 425: The Search for the Lost Husband and AT 503: The Gift of the Little People. Once found, the material was scanned and digitised and the relevant metadata extracted.

The work of Archivist Seán Ó Súilleabháin gave immediate structure to the scanning workload and timeline. Types of the Irish Folktale (TIF) by Seán Ó Súilleabháin and Reidar Th. Christiansen lists over 43,000 primary and comparable examples of AT tale types found in the Main Manuscript Collection, the School’s Collection and other secondary sources. As you will see if you follow the links above, only a small number of versions of these tales are readily accessible online via Dú and there are almost nine hundred examples combined listed in TIF. In instances where further clarity was needed on manuscripts, Ó Súilleabháin’s interim index found in the Reading Room of the archive worked as an in-house finding aid. It lists what can be found on each page of the manuscript volumes, for example if there is confusion surrounding the pagination of a tale, one can go to the index, find the relevant page for the volume in question and see listed, for example, ‘AT 400 102-150’ amongst the other contents of that volume. Although it is often easy to point out the errors or missing details provided by predecessors in the field, Ó Súilleabháin undoubtedly provided a comprehensive blueprint for future analysis of folktales and projects such as Decoding Hidden Heritages.

Taking into consideration that the material would be analysed by different researchers in different countries, it was important to allow an easy locating process of the geographical source of the different tales. This is why the contemporary English place-names were used instead of the original Irish versions. was extremely useful for this process. For example manuscript volume 1235 page 237, the area referred to as 'Na Aċú' in County Mayo is known today as Na hEachú/Aghoos.

The titles of the tales generally followed the same theme in all verisons. AT 400 often referred to familial relations and royalty such as Mac Rí Éireann (Son of the King of Ireland) and Iníon Rí na Sléibhte Gorma (Daughter of the King of the Blue Mountains). Many versions of AT 425, particularly those collected in the West of Ireland gave poetic titles associated with the natural world such as Cú Bán an tSléibhe (White Hound of the Mountain) and Taobh Thoir na Gréine agus Taobh Thiar na Gealaí (East of the Sun and Behind the Moon). AT 503 is often untitled, potentially due to its short comedic nature, an effort was never made to give it an official title other than the few that noted the lyrics 'Dé Luain Dé Máirt' as the title.

'Dé Luain Dé Máirt' generally follows a short snappy story of a hunchback who encounters na daoine maithe who are repetitively singing 'Dé Luain, Dé Máirt' before the hunchback adds 'agus Dé Céadaoin'. Famous folklorist of the early 20th century Thomas Crofton Croker included the score of the tune for a version collected in County Tipperary. I entered this into the musical software Musescore which can be seen and heard below. Although this was from a secondary source it further emphasises the performative atmosphere during the collecting of the various editions of these tales.

Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland, Croker (1825)

As someone who is 're-learning' Irish since secondary school, I found the spelling variations of words in Irish versions of tales very fascinating, trying to take into consideration if the spelling variants were reflective of the fact there was no universal standard for the Irish language and/or the fact collectors were advised to document the tales verbatim. For example 'Nighean Rí Ghlass Hill' (NFC, 1034:082), 'Iníon Rí na Sléibhte Gorma' (NFC, 0073:055) and 'Inghean Rí An Úir-Chnuic' (Ó Baoighill, 1936). This also provides insight into the Decoding Hidden Heritages project as it begins to highlight the similarities and cross overs between the languages of Scottish Gaelic where daughter is spelled Nighean and Irish where daughter is spelled Iníon.

There are certainly many interesting themes, motifs and metadata to analyse and compare amongst the Irish versions alone, but when compared with material found in the School of Scottish Studies Archive there will undoubtedly be many bridges linked through time and space to allow for the creation and rebirth of shared identities between the two.

Author: Tiernan Gaffney


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