Friday, March 30, 2012

'From the pens of babes': Recording Folklore and History in Ireland

In 1937, the Irish Folklore Commission created a programme called the Schools' Folklore Scheme. The purpose of this programme, within the Irish school system, was to have children document the folklore and local history of their own home areas. Each week the children were assigned a specific topic, and were instructed to conduct research on the subject matter, and to talk with their parents, grandparents, and oldest members of their community. Their goal was to gather stories, histories, and memories which were applicable to the subject. Following these discussions they were to write about the topic in a copybook which had been specially provided for the task.

A wide range of topics were included, such as legends, proverbs, songs, local beliefs, and even cures for ailments. Subjects ranged from the benign, such as games and pastimes, to the very serious subject of the Great Famine. In the case of the Great Famine, some of the children found that their oldest family members refused to talk about it. Still others were happy to discuss the subject, finding relief in talking about a matter which had previously been avoided. For the children involved in the project, it afforded a wonderful opportunity to learn about the past, as it was recollected and understood by their parents and grandparents.

The project was scheduled to run over a period of approximately eighteen months. Five thousand primary schools in the twenty-six counties of the Irish Free State were included, involving around one hundred thousand children. Their copybooks were then collected by the Irish Folklore Commission.

In the documentary short film 'O Bhéal go Béal - Scéim n Scol', which aired on RTÉ in 2010, the filmmakers discuss the programme with four former students, who are seeing their individual copy books for the first time since they handed them in back in school. It is wonderful to see the reactions of these students, who are now in their mid 80s, as they recall the time in which they produced the stories, and share the memories they have of talking to their parents and grandparents about Irish history and folklore.

Thankfully the entire collection of copybooks is now held in the archives of University College Dublin. More than half a million manuscript pages comprise the collection, now known as the Schools' Manuscript Collection. Often adults who were involved in the programme visit the archive in order to view the books they produced when they were children, as well as those of their classmates.



  1. Thanks for posting this, it was very interesting. I loved the video! What a great idea they had, I wish our school system would do something like this. It would be a great way to get our children involved in family history preservation!

  2. What an innovative idea for the time - I would love to look through those copy books :-)

  3. Hello Susie, and Hello Jo,

    Thank you to each one of you for your comments. They are much appreciated.

    Susie, I completely agree with you that this kind of project would make a great addition to our school system. Sometimes it seems as though education is only aimed at the future, and with all the budget cuts history seems to land lower on the list with each passing year. Sigh.

    Jo, I would also like to get my hands on those books. Unfortunately my mom and dad were too young to participate in the programme, but my mother's eldest brother Anthony may have participated. I'd certainly like to have a look, so I'm going to stop by the UCD archives when I'm in Dublin in the Fall.

    Cheers to each one of you,

  4. What a valuable resource and excellent project idea. Thanks for posting the video, too, Jennifer. I had never heard the Irish language spoken before!

  5. Hello Jacqi,

    Thanks for your comments; they are much appreciated. I'm glad you enjoyed the video. I've watched it quite a few times because I just love the reactions of the students. It's as if they are eleven years old once again. Very sweet.

    Cheers to you,

  6. Wow!!!... What an amazing initiative that was. Thanks for posting the video Jennifer.

    I also loved hearing "the Irish" and reading the translation. It brought back so much that I thought I'd forgotten when battling to learn this wonderful language 10-15 years ago. Will be watching it over and over again.

    Cheers, Catherine.


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