'You can almost hear the voices in the Schools Collection of manuscripts'

(Stock image)
(Stock image)
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Occasionally, you stumble across a gem on the internet, as I did recently with Dúchas.ie, a project to digitise our National Folk Collection (NFC).

The NFC includes the Schools' Collection. It was compiled from 1937-39 when 100,000 children in 5,000 primary schools were asked to record the folklore from their home places and family members. This resulted in more than 740,000 manuscript pages, many from the pupils' original copybooks.

Even before you get to the content, there's pleasure in the text, because it is handwritten.

Styles vary but it is generally very neat. Correctly punctuated, the letters are even and well formed, the writers obviously having pride in their task. An odd ink smudge adds to the authenticity.

The manuscripts are alive in a way that typed copy could never be. Their language is refreshingly plain. The stories, written down as told, without embellishment, range from supernatural and legendary beings to Mayo's pirate queen Grace O'Malley, the Tipperary outlaw Ned of the Hill and Cavan warrior Myles 'the Slasher' O'Reilly.

You can almost hear the voices.

The importance of religion is very evident, with stories such as God Provides, recounting when stones were turned into potatoes.

All manner of crafts such nail making and coopering are covered, with one lament stating: to-day there is not a single riddle maker in the whole area of South Monaghan. Note that a riddle is a large sieve used for sand (I had to check!).

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Ditto all matters agricultural: If I only had a kitten I would be in the middle of the fair with him and the cuckoo lamb is a lamb that born after April 20 because the cuckoo arrives on that date. A boastful American was told: It's so warm in Ireland the people give the hens ice-cream to keep them from laying boiled eggs.

I also discovered that members of the public can transcribe the Collection's manuscripts, to make them more accessible. So I duly signed up and began transcribing. It's very satisfying.

While there are many tragic tales about famine, oppression and death, the underlying wit is striking: He comes without asking, like the bad weather.

When someone complains of a cold, a good response is: Many's a man in the graveyard would be glad of it. Then there's: Man is Clay - Woman makes a mug of him.

A sentiment that gets aired in every generation is: You're as much behind time as the back of a clock while A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures in a doctor's book, is still good advice.

How about this one for the spendthrifts and moaners among us: Better to go to bed supperless than rise in debt.

But there is also advice about not denying yourself: Win gold and wear it, sow cabbage and eat it (before the frost gets it).

On a seasonal note, Soft April showers bring forth May flowers while this month also brings the story about a flamingo visiting the slob land between Timoleague and Courtmacsherry, Co. Cork.

Then, given what's presently unfolding politically on this island, there is a sense of déjà vu in the following, from 1938, by teacher Eamon de Burca, Carrick, Co. Waterford:

A "Coillóide" (Kile-oh-de) is a kind of fence, barely discernible, making two divisions of a field that is used or owned jointly by two families - a border that exists and yet is not effective or not meant to be. It seems to me to be the most apt word for the boundary between the Irish Free State & Northern Ireland.

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