“He is a very good storyteller”

Mentions of My Grandfather in the Archives of the Irish Folklore Commission


In the 1930s the Irish government, concerned that much of the nation’s oral history was being lost, authorized a massive endeavor to collect folklore.  Sean O’Sullivan, who served as the chief archivist of the Irish Folklore Commission, described this effort in the foreword to his classic book Folktales of Ireland:

“A small guidebook containing some fifty folklore topics was issued by the Department of Education to all primary schools.  The children were asked to collect traditional material from their parents and neighbors....  This procedure was followed from July, 1937, to December, 1938. 

“At the end of the period, 5,000 large standard-sized notebooks (supplied by the Department of Education to the schools) were completed and returned to the Commission of Folklore.  The total schools’ collection, amounting to a half-million pages, though suffering from certain expected defects, covered every school district in the twenty-six counties and gave a good idea of at least some of the available oral material.  This collection has been bound in 1,126 volumes.”

In the townland of Maghera, the local schoolmaster at the time, Séan Ó Seanacháin, forwarded  manuscripts to the Irish Folklore Commission in Dublin on October 17, 1937.  Ó Seanacháin wrote about 80 pages of material in his own handwriting, carefully noting down the name and approximate age of the person who had told the stories.  It’s unclear from reading the Maghera schoolhouse manuscripts if the schoolmaster collected the stories himself, or whether students did the reporting and the schoolmaster transcribed the material.

The guidelines issued from Dublin instructed the folklore collectors to interview the oldest people in the locality, and to note whether the person spoke the Irish language in daily life.  In the handwriting of schoolmaster Ó Seanacháin appears the following description of the townland of Maghera (Machaire in Irish, meaning a flat field):

“The name of my townland is Machaire.  It is in the parish of Clooney and in the barony of Bunratty.  It got its name because it is a very level place.  There are fifteen houses in it now.  Long ago there were more than 20 houses in it.  About half of these houses are slated.  There are not many old people living in Machaire now.  Pat McNamara is an old man living in it.  He has no Irish but he is a very good storyteller.  In this townland there are also many old ruins of houses.  They are kept to give shelter to cattle now.  Many of the people of Machaire emigrated to America long ago and have not returned ever since.”

The Pat McNamara mentioned by the schoolmaster is definitely my grandfather, who at that time resided in a house directly across the road from the Maghera schoolhouse.   

In the attribution for the following story, about the legendary coronation spot for ancient Irish kings, schoolmaster Ó Seanacháin actually used a variation of my grandfather’s nickname: he was known locally as “The Doctor Mack” because he was considered a great authority on horses.

Magh Adair

Related by “Dr.” McNamara, aged 80, Maghera

Magh Adair is situated in Toonagh between the parishes of Clooney and Tulla.  It was a “dún” built by Adhair, one of the Firbolgs.  On the mound surrounding this “dún” there grew a tree which was known as the “Bille.”  Under this tree the kings of Thomond used to be crowned long ago.  After the death of Brian Ború the kings used to be fighting with each other.  It is said that one of the kings knocked the tree through spite.  After that the kings were never crowned there again.

One purpose of the folklore study was to collect local superstitions or “pisogues.”  In this passage, my grandfather tells a story related to a particular aspect of Irish folklore, the superstitions surrounding May Day, which was considered the first day of summer.  It was believed that people would work various charms on May Morn, and a lot of the superstitions concerned dairy products, specifically butter.

In this story that appears in the Maghera schoolhouse manuscripts, my grandfather describes how a local woman plotted to “take the butter.”  That sounds bizarre, but in Irish folklore it’s a common theme, and it means someone might, by doing specific actions on May Morn, obtain a magic charm that would enable them to take butter made by their neighbors.  In the story my grandfather told, the scheme falls through:


As related by Patrick McNamara (“Dr.”), Maghera, Aged 80

One pisogue is the taking of water from three different wells on May morning.  This is believed to have the power of taking the butter from the neighbors.

A dairy maid who worked in Maghera for the Spaights of Affick used to send two maids to Pat Corbett’s well in Maghera for water on May morning every year.  It was always the same two who went.  Once when she sent them when they came to the river opposite Maghera Church and one said to the other:

“We’ll sit here and play jack-stones.”

“What about the water from the well?” said the other.  “Th’oul lady’ll kill us.”

“Let her go to the divil,” the other answered.  “We’ll bring her water from the river and say it’s from the well.”

The Maghera schoolhouse manuscripts contain this passage attributed to my grandfather:

“To meet a magpie on the road is a sign of bad luck.

Two magpies is a sign of good luck.

Three magpies is a sign of sorrow.

Four magpies is a sign of joy.

Five magpies is a sign of wedding.

Six magpies is a sign of gold”

Following the superstitions about the magpies are several manuscript pages to which schoolmaster Ó Seanacháin attached no attribution; as his practice throughout his dozens of handwritten pages was to to clearly note the person who provided the material whenever the source changed, those pages are apparently a continuation of the material obtained from my grandfather.

There are mentions of a few local cures:   


The covering of a foal when born is called the “brath-bone.”  When this is dried is it a great remedy for sore lip. 

Tea leaves can cure sore eyes.

Look through a gold ring three times and give the sty a prod of a gooseberry thorn.  This is a cure for sty.

Burned flour is supposed to cure lumbago.

And here is a passage on a common phenomenon in rural Ireland, holy wells; this particular site is called “Tobar Cill,” which in Irish would literally mean a well near a graveyard.

Blessed Wells

In Crow Hill, there is Tobar Cill.  There is also a children’s burial ground there.  This is called the Cill.  This well is good for sore eyes.  In this Cill children in olden days were buried there up to the age of 12 months.  This Cill is at the back of the big hill from which the place got its name.  It is on the land of Miss McGrath.

At the time of the cholera people were buried in the Cill with sugáns [straw ropes] around them for they couldn’t afford coffins.

The blessed well has now fallen into disuse and is overgrown with blackthorns.

Rounds are no longer performed there.

Pat Corbett of Maghera performed a round there for his son Patrick whose eyes were sore all the time.  It was a very dark night when he went there.  The child’s eyes were sore at the time.  The child’s eyes got well.  For about 20 years before that, Pat Corbett himself had weak sight and could not read without glasses.  Ever after visiting Tobar Cill his eyes began to improve, and when I got to know him at the age of 91 years he could read the smallest newspaper print without glasses by candlelight.  He always maintained it was the Tobar Cill cured him.

The round consisted of going round the well 3 times, saying a round of the beads with each, and then wash the eyes with the water out of the Tobar.

It was the custom to leave something after performing a round, such a button, medal, safety pin, horse shoe nail, or any little bit of iron or tin on the grass beside the well.

A good many used to take home the water in a bottle to have against sore eyes.

Elsewhere in the Maghera schoolhouse manuscripts my grandfather, who was known locally as an authority on horses, offered this apt piece of advice:

If you meet a horse shoe with the opening toward you, pick it up.  The luck is coming toward you.


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