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James Delargy and the Storymen of North Clare by Michael MacMahon


Seán MacMathúna (1876 -1949)

Delargy once remarked that when he first sought out storytellers in the Gaelic tradition in Doolin some of the best informed people in the district could not recommend more than one or two likely informants.[31] Irish was spoken only by the older generation and storytelling was but a memory. He realised that he had been particularly fortunate to find lodgings with an Irish speaking family, but he knew that the Careys, as well as the old men who assembled in their house at night were the last bearers of a tradition that was rapidly losing ground. Urgent action was needed if some remnant of Doolin’s Gaelic world was to be preserved.

As a first practical step in that direction Delargy recruited a local man named Seán MacMathúna to work in a part-time capacity collecting the tales and other traditions that were still to be found in the area. A regular visitor at Careys, in the beginning shyness prevented Seán from contributing much to the sessions there, but as Delargy got to know him better he realised that here was a man who had the capacity to assist him with his work. There was a tradition of native scholarship in Seán’s family background, he himself spoke Irish with great fluency and he was literate in the language.

Seán MacMathúna
Seán MacMathúna. Photo courtesy Dept of Irish Folklore, UCD.

When Delargy finally persuaded him to take on the job of part-time folklore collector Seán MacMathúna was around fifty-four years of age. He had never married and was living in Luogh with his sister and her husband, Peter Barrett. For a man who had spent almost all his life on the land, Seán was remarkably good with the pen and before long he had devised a ‘shorthand’ of sorts to assist him in his work. This consisted of jotting down the first one or two letters of a word, or maybe the first word of an oft-repeated phrase as he listened to a story. He would afterwards transcribe the story in extensio from memory into note-books supplied to him for the purpose by Delargy. As these were filled up they were despatched to the Folklore Institute in Dublin. When the Institute gave way in 1935 to the state-funded Folklore Commission Delargy offered him a permanent post as collector, but he declined on the grounds that he felt unable to devote sufficient time to the work. He did, however, agree to continue as a part-time collector, a post that he held with distinction until shortly before his death in a Cork nursing home in 1949.

Seán MacMathúna was a self-effacing man (‘naomh cúthail’ i.e. a shy saint was how Delargy once described him[32]) who in the beginning worried a good deal about his own suitability for the task entrusted to him, and whether his work was up to the standard that was expected of him. The following letter to Delargy is fairly typical:

‘B’fhéidir go bhfuair tu aga éicint air, féachaint ar an aiste fada atá sa leabhar deireannach do chuireas suas, ‘Leathchéad Bhliain ó shin’. Ann, do dheinim cur síos ar an sórt saoil do bhí ar na bailte seo le linn m’óige. Tá mé ag leanúint siar don aiste céanna sa leabhar seo atá mé ag breacadh fé láthair. Ba aoibhinn go deo liom dá bhféadfá insint dom cén nós a dtaithníonn an sórt sin scríbhneóireacht leat.’[33]

[‘Maybe you had an opportunity to look at the long essay [entitled] Fifty Years Ago in the last copybook I sent up. In it I gave an account of the sort of life we had around here in my youth. As I am continuing this account in the copybook that I am now using I would be pleased if you would let me know what you think of the sort of thing I am writing.’]

Later on when Delargy asked him to keep a diary Seán was troubled with much the same concerns. What would he enter in it? Were his entries of the kind the people in Dublin might be expecting him to make? Again he wrote to Delargy:

‘Cad é a chuirfidh mé sa gcúntas? An bhfuil orm fanacht go dtitfidh rudaí tabhachta amach anseo i gcúl-ar-aird na sléibhte nó an h’amhlaidh atá uaibh go mbuailfinn síos na mionrudai a tharlaíonn in aghaidh an lae, agus in aghaidh na leathuaire, mar a dúirt an file Gallda binn:

“Each common thing, each day’s events
That with the hour begins and ends”[34]

[‘What will I put into the diary? Do I have to wait until something important happens here on this backward mountain-top or do ye just want the little things that happen here day by day and hour by hour, as the sweet-toned English poet put it when he wrote:

“Each common thing, each day’s events
That with the hour begins and ends…”’]

Seán MacMathúna need not have worried. Judged by any reasonable standard his work for the Irish Folklore Commission was truly prodigious. ‘Ceann dos na bailiúcháin is fearr agus is ilghnéithi a rinneadh riamh in Éirinn’. [‘One of the best and most unusual collections ever assembled in Ireland’] was how Delargy later described it.[35] Indeed, the following few statistics will help to put the work of this remarkable man in some kind of context. Leaving aside for a moment the huge collection of Clare folklore assembled by Delargy himself in the period 1930-45, the Collector Index in the Commission Archive shows that material from Clare amounting to approximately 14,500 manuscript pages was assembled in the mid-1900s by a total of 126 contributors and collectors of various kinds.[36] When he died in 1949 Seán MacMathúna had single-handedly contributed more than 9,000 pages or approximately 62% of all this material. Of this 4,000 pages consisted of diaries. In addition he maintained a regular correspondence with Delargy and other personnel in the Folklore Commission, almost two hundred letters in all written between 1933 and 1949.[37] In itself this correspondence constitutes a valuable record not only of the Irish language and folk traditions of Clare, but also of the social life of the county in the 1930s as seen by a circumspect observer, and one who was keenly aware of what was happening around him.

It seems clear that from the very beginning Delargy was impressed by the quality of this correspondence, for as early as April 1935 he wrote to Seán to tell him that he was keeping all his letters as he felt they would be of great value long after both of them had passed away.[38] And it was clearly for the same reason that Delargy asked him to keep the diary, the only one of the Commission’s part-time collectors who was ever asked to do so.

In the diaries Seán recorded in his own inimitable style his experiences as a collector from Ballyvaughan to Miltown Malbay, and from Corkscrew Hill to Ennistymon. In Delargy’s words:

‘Seán MacMathúna must have walked thousands of miles in all weathers in search of oral tradition. He thought nothing of walking 20 miles to hear a tale or to enquire about some custom or belief that required verification. In one case he visited many times the house of an informant who successfully eluded him for months, the total number of miles covered in the quest being 118. In his diary in September, 1937 he wrote: ‘Beidh an scéal agam, nó íosa mé mo bhróga’; ‘I’ll get that story or eat my boots!’ He says elsewhere in his diary: ‘When I complained recently to the shoemaker in Ennistymon that the last pair of boots he had made for me were not satisfactory, the answer he made was that no boots could stand up to all the walking I do looking for old stories.’[39]
Seán’s work becomes all the more remarkable when it is borne in mind that it was often undertaken after a hard day’s work on the land, and his ‘office’ was his own unheated bedroom perched on the edge of the Atlantic. The following is but one of many such entries in the diary:

‘Mise, a bhfuil greim agam ar an bpeann seo, b’fhéidir gur mó a d’oilfeadh dom bheith sínte ar mo leaba mar tá mo chnámha bochta tuirseach agus m’intinn bodhartha tar éis a bheith ag gróigeadh móna ar an bportach ar feadh an lae. Ach bíodh aige! Ní maróidh uair an chloig eile den obair seo mé.’

[‘Myself, here holding this pen in my hand! Maybe it would be more in my line to be lying on my bed for my poor bones are weary and my mind is bothered after a day spent ‘footing’ turf in the bog. But let it be! Another hour at this work won’t kill me’]

On another occasion, having recently collected a long tale from an old man he wrote:
‘Níl ar éigean lá den choicíos a scaoil mé tharam gan a bheag nó a mhór den scéal a chur i mo chóipleabhar. Chríochnaigh mé amach an scéal sular fhág mé an seomra. A dhuine mo chroí, nach agamsa a bhí na cosa fuara nuair a tháinig mé aniar go dtí an dtine chun mé a théamh.’

[‘Scarcely a day went by in the past fortnight that I didn’t write some portion of the story into my copybook. I finished it before I left the room. My good man, isn’t it I had the cold feet when I came out to the [kitchen] fire to warm myself.’]

But wearisome though the hours were that he spent writing out the stories, the work was preferable to the back-breaking work that sometimes had to be faced on the land. He preferred, as he said, ‘an rán a bhfuil feac eadtrom inte’ i.e. ‘the spade with the light handle’ – his pen!

During the early 1940s war-time shortages sometimes made life particularly challenging. Commodities such as paraffin oil and candles were often in short supply, and when they did reach the shops they were reserved for those who had coupons. At such times Seán had difficulty filling his note-books. On 29 September, 1943 he wrote to Seán Ó Súilleabháin, the Commission’s archivist in Dublin:

‘A Sheáin dílis,
Saol agus sláinte chughat,

Tá súil agam go dtaithneóig an leabhar seanaimsearach seo leat, ach pé ar bith é ní gan pian agus tinneas do tháinig liom an leabhar seo do bhreachadh síos. Creid nó ná creid é is san ndorchadas do sgrí mé paistí dhe. Ní raibh ola ná coinneall agam. Anois féin nuair atá a bhfuil a dul dóibh ainmnuighthe de na daoine níl ola ná coinneall lámháilte dom leithéid sa. Ná ní fheadar mé cá bhfuigh mé aon ábhar solus.’[40]

Letter from Seán MacMathúna to Seán Ó Súilleabháin
Letter from Seán MacMathúna to Seán Ó Súilleabháin.
Courtesy Dept of Irish Folklore, UCD.

[‘….I hope you will like this old-fashioned copy book. In any event it is not without pain and sickness that I managed to put it together. Believe it or not I wrote certain passages of it in the dark. I had neither oil nor a candle. When the people [who have first call] have got their allocation, there is neither oil nor a candle left for the likes of me. Nor have I any notion where I’m going to find anything that I can use for light…’]

Seán MacMathúna never used the ediphone and all his work was done with just his pen and note-book. He never owned a bicycle, but travelled everywhere on foot in search of the stories. Sometimes he set off after his day’s work on the land, although a good deal was done at week-ends when he would make the initial contact with people at the churches after mass on Sundays. Others were tracked down at fairs and sports meetings. In August 1938, then aged sixty-two, he attended the sports at Fahanlunaghta in the shadow of Mount Callan, a round trip of some twenty-two miles, all of which save for a very small portion (‘fiorbheagán’) he completed on foot:

Nuair a bhí deireadh leis an spórt agus an riogáile, d’fheadfainn a rá go raibh lá maith pleisiúrtha agam agus nár chuir an t-aon mhíle dhéag a bhí amach roimh mo sheanchosa ochón orm.’

[‘When the fun and the frolics were all over I was able to say that I had a sporting time and the eleven miles that then stretched out before my two old legs didn’t put a bother on me.’] [41]

Seán MacMathúna died in St. Mary’s Home in Cork in December, 1949, aged 73 years. His remains lie in the cemetery at St. Brigid’s Well, near Liscannor. His many well-bound volumes of Clare folklore in the Department of Folklore in Dublin are a monument to the memory of a gifted Clare scholar and patriot. On the last page of one of his manuscripts he once wrote in Irish:

‘Farewell now, little book, and good luck to you on your road into the great world and into the hands of other people. Hard have I earned what is in you, gathering for you in a hundred places so that I could speckle these traditions on your white pages. And many a long road did I measure with my weak legs providing for you. Many a cold dark winter’s night have I spent in this lonely little room putting down the fruits of my travels. And may what I have written be to the advantage of the old language of our country!’


Tomás Ó hÚir


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