I was a student in UCD when I first heard tell, from Desmond Kavanagh, of some material written by my father which is now preserved in the archives of the Folklore Department of UCD. My first reaction was one of bewilderment. To my knowledge, my father's never been a particularly interesting anthropological specimen and, apart from a certain colourfulness in his language around certain issues, he hasn't a particularly quaint turn of phrase. Just what is our old man an interesting example of and why record him for posterity, I wondered... with increasing trepidion.
At the time, this question didn't excite enough interest in me to actually entice me into the archives. I was a student, after all, and had better things to be doing than going into libraries. So I got used to the idea of having an "annal"ised father, and pretty much put it out of my head.
It was next brought to my attention when my mother rang to tell me that Marius Harkin was looking for Clonmany people resident in Dublin to help sift through some archive material gathered from our local schools some sixty years ago. Back then the Department of Education with the help of the Irish Folklore Commission, enlisted the help of Irish schoolchildren in collecting "the oral traditions of the Irish people" .They issued very strict guidelines and were very clear about their objectives: "When this urgent task of collecting is over, a vast store of immensely important material will be available to research." It sounded fascinating. It made sense to volunteer.
And so it was that I was once again on the road to UCD, making a journey that would bring me much further back in time than my early college days. And the material was indeed fascinating, and informative, and scholarly. But for me by far the most intriguing aspect of it all was how so many of my personal memories could be bound up with the schoolwork assigned to a bunch of teenagers sixty years ago.
Maybe it was the journey from the northside to the southside of the city each day, past the many areas of Dublin in which I've lived, but whatever the reason, as I sat down on the first day to begin poring over those fragile sixty year old copies, I was already acutely aware of the lapse of time since I first left home. The actual physical distance seems to have become less significant, reduced through wear, I suppose. But even though the miles from home seem more easily traversed, in many ways the years seem insurmountable.
For starters I don't sound the same as I used to. Every day, in every conversation, I unconsciously edit out all the little colloquialisms that I brought with me from Clonmany. I just got fed up annotating myself, I think. Besides, if you use dialect words, Dubliners think you're just trying to be cute.
And so, while reading, it took me a few minutes to attune to the language being by used the scholars ("he didn't know a hate about it", " it be to be a fairy he had on the road"), but when I finally realised that it was the unadulterated Clonmany accent I was listening to, one which the schoolteachers of the day had the good sense not to edit it out, I heard a voice that was as familiar to me as if I was sitting across the fireside from my own parents. And in a sense, I was. The oul' fella was in it. And my aunts and uncles and cousins. And my friends' parents and aunts and uncles. And people we'd only heard tell of. And here they all were going about their assignments, diligently collecting stories and legends and information on everything from local history to weather signs, old cures and and local heroes, and recording them in the most beautifully meticulous handwriting.
Many stories will have a personal association for any Clonmany person who reads them. Everyone has experienced how enthralling it can be to discover old family photographs or letters which uncover a previously unsuspected part of our past. It needn't be that the details of that past are unusually scandalous or dramatic, but only that it makes us reconsider how much we know about our recent history .
Upon reading one account of the shirt stations of old (when the cloth would be brought down from Derry and hived out to the women in the parish who would stitch it together and send it back up) I was reminded of my Uncle Paddy's stories of how, as a youngster, he used to wake up at night when Granny's sewing machine would stop! The scholar's account goes on to lament the great loss to the community when the shirts started to be made in the factories, because then the women couldn't work at home. Suddenly, my own very early memory of Granny returning from the factory takes its place in the history of a community and I wonder if the women themselves lamented the move to the factories or were they only too glad to get out of the house. Unfortunately Granny is no longer alive to ask.
Sitting in UCD, in the hushed and very reverent atmosphere of the Folklore library listening to the chatter of so many Clonmany children (all of whom would now be in their seventies) I couldn't help but marvel at how I seemed to be so far from home and yet back where I started.
But then, thanks to the diligence of the Clonmany scholars of 1937/38, home has never been more interesting, and it was by way of celebrating that fact that the 1st Annual McGlinchey Summer School in 1998 chose to concentrate on those scholars' work as the subject of its main inquiry. It was of paramount importance to the organisers of the summer school that the original work of the school children of sixty years ago be made accessible to the people at home -their friends, family and descendants -and if the affect on them were anything like as significant as it was on those of us who visited the archive, it would be well worth the effort. To enhance that experience, and put it within a intellectual context that was meaningful to us as locals, a selection of historians, folklorists and other experts were invited to take part in a series of talks and expositions which revisited the themes of the Folklore Commission.
Maybe by a strange coincidence, or perhaps as a result of Master Kavanagh's involvement with the folklore project and with transcribing McGlinchey's memoirs, those very themes are also echoed throughout The Last of the Name, furnishing us with a very productive and exciting combination of materials.
If the turnout was anything to go by, the organisers had not overestimated local interest in those materials. The summer school was a resounding success. So much so that it was decided to publish those of the lectures which were deemed most ready to go to print. Those that have been left out this year will no doubt be picked up by next year's publication.
It was also decided that it would be interesting to hear from some of the school children themselves. They are, after all, the stars of the show, and their perseverance in transcribing the stories of their elders is best rewarded by returning the favour. The interviews have been separated into the various speakers and are interwoven with the other more academic works - lest we forget just what we're talking about!
It was a task I eagerly undertook and I would like to thank my interviewees again for their courtesy and enthusiasm. I enjoyed every minute of our conversations and was thoroughly entertained and enlivened by them. In transcribing the conversations, I tried as much as possible to take a leaf out of Master Kavanagh's book and preserve where I could the accents of those I talked to. As shall be discussed in this year's summer school, the grammar, syntax and vocabulary of an area - in short the accent (enough of the big words, young cutty!) - is an immensely rich and vibrant part of our heritage. I wanted these stories to be told in the vernacular, because nothing suits them better.
It only remains to thank once again those who took part in the McGlinchey Summer School 1998. I look forward to next year's magazine where I hope we'll catch up with a few more of the scholars of '38 and relive the highlights of this year's proceedings. See you about the Cross!