WELSH ÓG—a Clare storyteller: three stories

Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 5 (September/October 2019), Volume 27

ISBN 9781999611613

Reviewed by
Thomas O’Loughlin

Thomas O’Loughlin is Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.

The historian, prior to any analysis, has to preserve the memory of the past, and in such a way that it is accessible to later times with as little damage from time’s passing as possible. It was this challenge that inspired what David Knowles called ‘the great historical enterprises’, of which Monumenta Germaniae Historica is the most eminent and the Rolls Series the best known to many Irish historians. Though Knowles considers only written texts, had he known of the Coimisiún Béaloideasa Éireann and its work he would have recognised it as a kindred endeavour. It was a brave undertaking to set up the Commission in those economically straitened times and sets us an example for the value of preserving historical evidence. Beginning in 1935, it collected béaloideas—‘folklore’—from rural communities using a dedicated team of collectors/transcribers, among whose skill set was mending bicycle punctures in the rain. Yet the worlds of folklorist and historian often glide past one another. This book is so welcome, therefore, because it bridges this divide and is, in fact, two books skilfully joined in such a way that you would not want, nor benefit from, one without the other.

The ‘main event’ is three long stories told by Michael Walsh—known locally as ‘Welsh Óg’—in his kitchen in Carrowmore, Co. Clare, in June 1943. They were told in English, even though Michael had heard them in Irish in the late nineteenth century. Long and convoluted, they take us into the mental world of those who transmitted them as an oral literature and a prized form of entertainment. The three tales are ‘The Story of the Crop-eared Dog’, ‘The Fair-haired Little Child’, and ‘The Golden Rose’. Such stories are not exciting to us, with our shortening attention spans, but they were considered worth listening to just a few generations ago. Moreover, a man like Welsh Óg was not just an old person who was interviewed about past times but also a performer with a reputation as such. Knowing that he was going to tell a long story, many neighbours came specifically to listen to him and to stories heard many times before. Each telling introduced slight narrative variations, though Welsh Óg claimed that he was simply repeating a tale he had heard from an old woman in his youth—so the remembered memory reaches to the 1870s—and the story is older still. Indeed, the basic stories were found in many places in Ireland and further afield, and what we have in this book is the paper version of the last manifestation of a rich oral literary culture that is all but hidden from the historical documentary record. The stories were recorded in 1943, transcribed by the collector, Tadhg Ó Muirchú, in the autumn (when the weather was too bad for travelling) and then lodged in the Commission’s archive. Now they are put before a wider public than Welsh Óg ever had around him, and Lysaght has added footnotes to help us follow the story and make sense of obscure phrases.

The other work between these covers is Patricia Lysaght’s: introducing the tales and narrating how they were collected. She introduces the Commission, describes this collecting event in 1943 (pp 10–41) and provides notes on the tales (pp 163–8) along with an edition/translation of the collector’s notes (pp 169–95). This introduction is important for the historian, as it gives us a day-by-day insight into the work of Tadhg Ó Muirchú and his wife Máire as they set about their task in the midst of ‘the Emergency’. Not only had Tadhg to seek out lodgings and identify (usually with the help of local teachers) the storytellers in a vicinity but also to arrange to bring his ‘Ediphone’ and a supply of wax cylinders and then get the story onto them. The clockwork apparatus appears archaic and the transportation was by bicycle, with occasional help from a pony and trap to deliver the bulky cylinders. Alas, when transcribed, these were returned to Dublin for recycling, and so the actual sounds of Welsh Óg are now lost forever.

Ó Muirchú returned to that part of Clare in 1950 and made enquiries about Welsh Óg. He was told that ‘poor Welsh Óg … was dead. … May God grant heaven to his soul. He was a nice poor man and he was a fine storyteller’ (p. 33). Knowing that, we cannot but see Ó Muirchú’s labours, and the work of the Commission, as akin to rescue archaeology carried out in the nick of time. Moreover, we cannot but be struck by the cultural sympathy and profound respect between the storyteller and the collector; this was the forging of a new link in the tradition rather than ethnographic exploitation. We are in the debt of men such as Tadhg Ó Muirchú, and now of Patricia Lysaght for making it so accessible. Anyone working on the social history of rural Ireland in the first half of the twentieth century should take note of this book.


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