Clare County Library
Clare Folklore
Home | Search Library Catalogue | Foto: Clare Photo Collection | OS Maps | Search this Website | Copyright Notice

A Folklore Survey of County Clare by Thomas Johnson Westropp


Introduction by Gearóid Ó Crualaoich

The earlier volume on the ‘Archaeology of the Burren,’ published by Clasp Press and containing a complete record of the prehistoric monuments of northern Clare which were surveyed by Thomas J. Westropp, includes a comprehensive note on Westropp’s career and scholarship and a commentary on how his work contributed to the development of the discipline of archaeology. Something may be said here regarding his contribution to folklore studies through his activities in gathering together and publishing in ‘Folk-Lore’ - the journal of the English Folklore Society - between the years 1910 and 1913 the materials now being made available again in the present volume. More than another decade was to elapse before the work of recording and publishing the materials of Irish folklore on a comprehensive and sustained basis was to get under way, with the founding of The Folklore of Ireland Society and the commencement of the publication of its Journal ‘Béaloideas’ in 1927. Some details of the fruits of that later work, as it relates to Co. Clare folklore, are given in the hope that Westropp’s earlier contributions can be seen in the light of all of the known Clare ‘folklore archive’ in a way that is both comparative and complementary.

The list of officers and contributors to the volumes of the journal ‘Folk-Lore’ in the years preceding The Great War, when Westropp’s Co. Clare material was appearing in its pages, indicates the degree to which the collection and study of folklore was then, still, in these islands, regarded as an aspect of antiquarian and anthropological study as much as it was regarded as the work of nationalist, cultural reclamation by scholars and writers sympathetic to the ideals of the Anglo-Irish Literary Revival and the Gaelic League. The names of Eleanor Hull and Alfred Nutt are to be found in the 1910 volume of ‘Folk-Lore’ along with those of the folklorists Andrew Lang and E. Sydney Hartland and the anthropologists W.H.R. Rivers and R.R. Marett. It was in this 1910 volume that Westropp began his Co. Clare contributions with the observation that his survey would show ‘many traces of ancient beliefs still surviving’ and record the mythology and sagas of early days in the place-names and the legends still then current in the oral narrative and tradition of the county. Clare, ‘isolated by the Sea, the River and the enmity of Connaught’, might, he says, be expected to preserve until modern times an unbroken tradition from the prehistoric past.

Westropp’s awareness of the dynamic and creative nature of folklore and tradition is evidenced in his assertions that a) the bulk of the traditions he is presenting have, since 1790, been collected from the mouths of the people and not from books or from the notes of others; b) he has tried to gather versions of the legends ‘without the dangerous aid of “leading question” ’ and is conscious of how, in his view, the ‘Literary Revival’ will effect legends. He draws ethnographically sophisticated inferences as to the transmission and interpretation of tradition from material involving members of his own family. He reports on his having himself carried out investigations on accounts of the seeing of ‘corpse-lights’ that traced their origins to the natural phenomenon of phosphorescence. His Victorian rationalism in regard to the status of folk belief is hinted at in his proclamation that ‘I distrust profoundly the dicta of Clare people in comparative anatomy’.

As a child of his times - which of us is not? - he can be seen, in hindsight, to have been subject to the failings in perception and contextual understanding that later generations of cultural scholarship take as given. Nevertheless, his scholarship is as meticulous and as transparent as he was able to render it, in his day, and we can endorse the judgement of Séamas Ó Duilearga, founding father, pre-eminent exponent and touchstone of the next later era of Irish folklore scholarship, that ‘he was a great man in his own way, and his name is today [c. 1930] quite unjustly forgotten.’ Ó Duilearga makes this remark in the course of a diary entry in which he recounts the various personal and intellectual handicaps that, in his view, cut Westropp off from the people of Clare and ‘of other parts of Gaelic-speaking Ireland’. With our own version of hindsight today we would wish to be far more circumspect in regard to the somewhat dismissive judgement of Westropp and his folklore scholarship that is entailed overall in Ó Duilearga’s estimate of his predecessor. Ó Duilearga’s own extensive folklore collecting in Clare was undertaken between 1930 and 1943 and a substantial portion of it is to be found in his posthumously published ‘Leabhar Stiofáin Uí Ealaoire’ (1981) whose editor’s introduction contains the diary entry on Westropp.

The collecting and publishing activities of the Irish Folklore Commission from the 1930s, inspired, motivated and directed by Ó Duilearga were undertaken in accordance with a Nordic philosophy, or model, of folklore study rather than the British one, with its anthropological and archaeological leanings, with which Westropp’s work is associated. The perspectives, the styles and the methodologies of the two models are quite different as can be seen from a comparison of the classification principles which each employed. These principles are best exemplified in two publications:-

1) ‘Notes and queries on anthropology’ (1874. 6th edition 1951) - edited and updated by successive committees of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland whose members include some of those mentioned in the 1910 volume of Folk-Lore.

2) ‘A handbook of Irish folklore’ (1942) - the vade-mecum of the Irish Folklore Commission’s collectors, prepared by the Commission’s archivist, Seán Ó Súilleabháin, with a foreword by Ó Duilearga himself. The reproduction in the present volume of Westropp’s Co. Clare material, on the earlier classification principles, is a valuable contribution to the history of the methodology of folklore study in Ireland, providing as it does, a substantial basis for comparative analysis of the paradigms underlying fieldwork and their outcomes.

Apart from Séamas Ó Duilearga’s major collection of Co. Clare folklore, referred to above, we can note the extent of the other Clare material that exists in the Commission Archive whose manuscripts and other field recordings are among the holdings of the Department of Irish Folklore at NUI (UCD). From the Collector Index of the Commission Archive we learn that something in excess of 14,500 manuscript pages of Co. Clare folklore was assembled in the mid-20th century by a total of approximately 126 contributors and collectors of various degree. Of these 29 were females who, between them, contributed some 500 pages - 140 of these from one individual female collector, Máiréad Uí Mhartáin. The implications of such statistics for the existence of gender bias in the collection is something of which contemporary students of folklore are keenly aware. Half a dozen of the male collectors were full-time or major field-workers for the Commission. Chief among these, in his sustained work in Clare, is Seán Mac Mathúna who is responsible for more than 9,000 manuscript pages of the Clare material in the Commission Archive. Other major Commission collectors of Clare material were Seán Ó Flannagáin with c. 2750 pages and Seán MacGrath with 2,000 pages. Of the nearly 16,000 pages contributed by the major Clare collectors about a quarter consists of the Diaries which the Commission field-workers were required to keep and enter up.

In these Diaries many vivid and vital contextual accounts are given that have significance for the interpretation of the material collected and these diaries form an integral and important part of the Clare folklore record with a considerable potential for contributing to our understanding of the Folklore Process. This process of the construction and transmission of Tradition - not least through the channels of collector activity - is something that has received considerable attention in folklore scholarship since the separate eras of Westropp and Ó Duilearga and it would be very desirable to have any notebooks or other fieldwork records of Westropp’s to add to the Commission Diaries for the fuller understanding of the enterprize of representing the vernacular culture of Co. Clare in all its phases since the study of vernacular culture and folklore (or ‘popular antiquities’ to give it its former name) arose in the later 18th century. That Westropp should, so early in the last century, have noted for us in regard to his own materials, the focus on an oral transmission that he dates to 1790, is further evidence of the acuteness of his understanding of the enterprize on which he was engaged and the nature of the cultural materials with which he worked. In this, as in other ways that will be obvious to the careful reader of his work, he was an enlightened and progressive scholar to whose labours the study of folklore in Ireland, and in general, is much indebted.

This volume will reintroduce his work and will restore his name to the respect and the affections of all those - in Clare and beyond - for whom folklore, tradition and popular culture are an important and ever-dynamic aspect of identity and cultural heritage - local and national - in a world where the local and the global, the vernacular and the cosmopolitan continue, as always, to play upon each other in complex and interesting ways that contemporary cultural research is finding new ways to explore.

Gearóid Ó Crualaoich,



Chapter 1