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James Delargy and the Storymen of North Clare by Michael MacMahon



Between 1929 and 1935 Séamus Ó Duilearga (James Delargy), a co-founder (1927) of the Folklore of Ireland Society and afterwards Honorary Director of the Irish Folklore Commission, paid a number of visits to north Clare in order to collect what he could of the traditions preserved in the Irish language, and to study the dialect of the Irish speakers there. During the previous six years he had similarly engaged with a small Irish-speaking fishing community at Cill Rialaigh, near Ballinskelligs in southwest Kerry, having gone there ‘to learn Irish as the people spoke it and to turn my back on book-learned Irish’. It was there that he met the man whose tales and traditions inspired him to ‘collect or have collected, in so far as in me lay, the unwritten traditions of the people of Ireland’. That man was a seventy year old farmer-fisherman named Seán Ó Conaill, a gifted storyteller steeped in the fireside traditions of his native county. Delargy began to write down his stories, returning on several occasions to Cill Rialaigh during his vacation from University College, Dublin, where he worked as assistant to Douglas Hyde. Published in 1948, the material he recorded from this one man alone ran to 396 printed pages of Irish text exclusive of notes. Later translated into English, Seán Ó Conaill’s Book: Stories and Traditions from Iveragh is a folklore classic which, in Delargy’s own words, ‘attempts to show the richness of story and tradition stored in the memory of one man.’[1]

In Clare Delargy was to meet another archive of tradition in the person of Stiofán Ó hEalaoire (Stephen Hillery) of Ballycullaun, a townland perched on the edge of the Atlantic between Doolin and the Cliffs of Moher. In contrast to Seán Ó Conaill, who was a recognized storyteller to whom language enthusiasts had come to listen over the years, Stiofán Ó hEalaoire was unknown as a storyteller even to his neighbours. Fortunately they had at least recognised that he was a good Irish speaker, and it was on that account rather than for any storytelling expertise that he was invited to a gathering of storytellers in Luogh in January 1930 where he was ‘discovered’ by Delargy. Máire MacNeill, for many years secretary of the Folklore Commission, afterwards remarked that finding Stiofán was like finding the gold gorget of Gleninsheen now in the National Museum, incidentally also found in the very same year - 1930.[2] Delargy held that Stiofán was among the best storytellers he had ever met, and the very best Irish speaker. The huge repertoire of tales and other tradition which Delargy obtained from him would afterwards fill another book - Leabhar Stiofáin Uí Ealaoire - published under the auspices of Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann in 1981.



James Delargy