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.