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James Delargy and the Storymen of North Clare by Michael MacMahon


Delargy and Co. Clare

When Delargy came to Clare in 1929 the county was largely unchartered territory in terms of the Irish language and the oral traditions embedded in it. As MacNeill has pointed out, Clare had largely been overlooked in the enthusiasm for the Irish language generated by the Gaelic League.[11] No students of the language had come there to learn, certainly not in the way that they had descended on the Blaskets and Connemara and other places in the west; nor had any tale or tradition from it appeared in the revival journals. Delargy, to use his own words, ‘was the first collector of the tradition of the Irish speakers of the county since O’Curry and O’Donovan wrote their letters from Corofin and Ennistymon to the Ordnance Survey almost a century before’.[12] He wrote in his diary:

‘I had long wished to go to Clare, to learn something about Clare Irish and to attempt to collect the tradition which I guessed must be there, but about which I could get no information in Dublin. A tale called Sceach Mhic an Chró was about the only folk tale available in print from Co. Clare. T.J. Westropp, a Clareman, had published a ‘Survey’ of Folklore of the county, which contains much of value, but Westropp knew not a single word of Irish, and was quite unaware all through his life that his native county possessed an enormous wealth of tale and song and tradition preserved in the Irish language. He was a great man in his own way……he loved Clare and devoted many years whenever his leisure permitted to the study of hill-forts, and the other remains of antiquity…. But the barriers of birth – he was a landlord’s son – and lack of the fundamental qualifications for anyone wishing to collect or to study the tradition of Ireland – a thorough knowledge of spoken Irish, some knowledge of the manuscript literature, and the realization that outside the English-speaking world lay real knowledge and the fruit of solid endeavour in the science of Folklore – all these handicaps cut him off from the peoples of Clare and of the other parts of Gaelic-speaking Ireland’.[13]

Delargy’s first point of contact with Clare was Doolin where he arrived on 3 August 1929, a young man of thirty years. He made his base in Luogh,[14] between the Cliffs of Moher and Lisdoonvarna, taking lodgings with an Irish-speaking family – the Careys. The household consisted of Johnny Carey, aged 70 years, his wife Catherine, who was a native of Inish Oirr in the Aran Islands, and their son, John. The ordinary language of the neighbourhood was English and, though Irish was understood by almost all, it was spoken only by old or middle-aged people. Delargy considered himself fortunate, therefore, to have old Carey – ‘an excellent Irish speaker and, as it turned out, a really good storyteller’ – at hand to guide him in his work. He was fortunate, too, to have the benefit of a recent acquisition by the Institute, namely an ediphone - the first time it was used in the field by a folklore collector in Ireland. The ediphone was a cumbersome and rather primitive dictation machine, somewhat resembling in appearance an old-type gramophone. Instead of the magnetic tape which became standard in later times, the actual recordings were made on wax cylinders (1,000 to 5,000 words each), the sound conveyed by a long tube held close to the speaker’s mouth. The recordings were later transcribed into standard notebooks, after which the wax was pared down and the cylinders re-used for further recording. Though it had many shortcomings as a recording device, the novelty of hearing one’s own voice replayed on ‘the machine’ was often all that was required to loosen a tongue that might otherwise have remained silent.

Recalling his time at Careys some thirty years later Delargy wrote:

‘I could not have got a better lodging for to this house came all the storytellers, singers and musicians, for miles around, and there at various times from 1929 to 1935 I recorded nearly 500 tales and a large body of seanchas and extensive vocabularies in Irish. They are all gone now, the storytellers and the singers and the neighbours who came night after night on ragairne – the old are dead long since, and most of those who were young then are now in America or in England. There are now few people in all that country who can speak Irish, or to whom I can apply with confidence for the interpretation of a rare word or phrase, and it was Irish that, for richness of vocabulary and wealth of idiom, had few rivals. The dead words on a manuscript page are a poor substitute for the haunting beauty of the language that lingered and died on the lips of my old friends. In those days there were no tape recorders, no Folklore Commission, and the harvest lay unheeded and withered away. There was much to do and almost no one to help – and few to understand. But the Irish country people whom I met understood, and they gave me all they had with all their heart – le croí mór amach – and to what they gave the manuscripts of the [Folklore] Commission bear witness.’[15]


James Delargy


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