Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

"The Vocative Case on People's Mouths": The Irish Folklore Commission and Illiterate Linguistics

Academic journal article Estudios Irlandeses - Journal of Irish Studies

"The Vocative Case on People's Mouths": The Irish Folklore Commission and Illiterate Linguistics

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Sean Mac Criomhthain (1875 -- 1955) is not to be confused with Sean O Criomhthain, author of La Dar Saol and son of Tomas O Criomhthain whose famous chronicle of life on the Great Blasket Island was published under the title An tOileanach. Mac Criomhthain's importance stems rather from his mastery of the oral tradition which led IFC collector Seosamh O Dalaigh to place him on a par with Peig Sayers as one of the two best informants he had encountered during a career in which he had provided the great bulk of transcriptions available for both West Kerry storytellers (Tyers 82).

An ethnographical approach of the kind proposed by Henry Glassie in his call to "begin with the words of the people we study" (4) must be tempered in turn by Thelen's reminder that collecting oral history is itself a cultural act involving construction of history (ix). It can be shown, for example, that the oral culture of Irish speaking regions was institutionally prioritised by the Irish Free State within a nation of similarly rural yet monolingually anglophone regions. As Phillip O'Leary has demonstrated in his discussion of rural life in Gaelic prose, "the idea that the life of such rural parishes in the Gaeltacht was the most--if not the only--appropriate subject for literature in what was at the time still very much a rural language had, therefore, strong appeal on both practical and ideological grounds" (103).

With extensive reference to evidence presented in a recently completed PhD thesis which involved the creation of a critical edition of Mac Criomhthain's folkloric repertoire as well as of his particular Irish dialect (Mac an tSionnaigh 8), the perspective offered in the present discussion benefits from a hybridity of Irish Studies subdisciplines in its allignment of literary, folkoric, journalistic, historical, and linguistic sources. Initially discussing forms of linguistic expectation as explored in Sean O Riordain's poem "Fill Aris", this paper turns its focus thereafter to the paradoxical idea that although Sean Mac Criomhthain and elements of his repertoire as well as of his particular dialect of Irish represented an ideal of the kind also sought elsewhere by the Irish Folklore Commission, other elements represented a challenge to the linguistic essentialism of the state that was archiving his material. In light of such evidence, this paper will attempt to adjucate to what extent linguistic expectations became detrimental to the cultivation of the Irish language.

2. Linguistic expectations

Trips to Gaeltacht regions on the part of members of majoritarily anglophone Ireland predate the foundation of the Irish Free State, stemming back to the foundation in 1893 of the Gaelic League whose language classes contributed to the development of linguistic tourism in the west. One such visitor, explains Angela Bourke, was Padraig Pearse who "would have a huge influence on what was later called the Gaeltacht":

His plan was to found a school in Dublin that would educate boys
billingually... in 1908, he opened St. Enda's school in Cullenswood
House, Ranelagh, two miles south of Dublin city center. The following
years saw the completion of a small thatched house in vernacular style,
above the lake in Rosmuc; over the following summers, Pearse brought
several groups of boys from St. Enda's to stay there. A number of the
young men who fought alongside him in 1916 or went on to hold leading
positions in government and administration were his former pupils. (87)

The linguistic expectations of a certain section of Free State citizens visiting official Gaeltacht regions were nicely summarised in Sean O Riordain's famous 1964 poem "Fill Aris" from his collection entitled Brosna. Although O Riordain's Baile Mhuirne had itself been conferred official Gaeltacht status, it had by his own estimation become "very patchy" in comparison with "the living Gaeltacht of Dun Chaoin" with the result that the poet was "not 'at home' with Irish" (McCrea 78-80), and eventually chose to undertake his "pilgrimage to the Gaeltacht to improve his Irish and absorb the spirit of the living language" (McCrea 118):

"Fill Aris"
Fag Gleann na nGealt thoir,
Is a bhfuil d'aois seo ar dTiarna i d'fhuil,
Dun d'intinn ar ar tharla
O buaileadh Cath Chionn tSaile,
Is on uair go bhfuil an t-ualach trom
Is an bothar fada, bain ded mheabhair
Srathar shibhialtacht an Bhearla,
Shelley, Keats is Shakespeare:
Fill aris ar do chuid,
Nigh d'intinn is nigh
Do theanga a chuaigh ceangailte i gcomhreiribh
'Bhi bunoscionn le d'eirim:
Dein d'fhaoistin is dein
Siochain led ghiniuin feinig
Is led thigh-se fein is na treig iad,
Ni dual do neach a thigh na a threabh a threigean. … 
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