NUI Galway, Ireland | Published: 31 October, 2017
ISSUE 12.2 | Pages: 122-138 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2017-7617
2017 by Lillis Ó Laoire | This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.
This article discusses representations of women in diaries written by Seán Ó hEochaidh as part of his work as a field collector for the Irish Folklore Commission (1935-1971). Focusing on a number of well-described events and characters, the article reveals the collector’s attitude to women as they emerge from his writing. It also shows how women could help or hinder his collecting work. The disparities of the lives of a number of working women from Donegal during the period are also highlighted.
En este artículo se estudia cómo se han representado las mujeres en los diarios escritos por Seán Ó hEochaidh como parte de su trabajo como recopilador de material para la Comisión del Folclore Irlandés (1935-1971). El artículo se centra en un variado número de eventos y de personajes, mostrando la actitud hacia las mujeres por parte del recopilador en sus escritos. También se indica cómo las mujeres podían influir positiva o negativamente en su labor de recogida de datos. Las desigualdades en las vidas de una serie de mujeres trabajadoras de Donegal durante el periodo en cuestión también serán objeto de análisis.
Contar historias; Comisión del Folclore Irlandés; mujeres trabajadoras; recopilador; Seán Ó hEochaidh.
Interest in women in folklore has increased greatly since Angela Partridge’s Caoineadh na dTrí Muire (1982) heralded the first major research work on a gendered topic in Irish folklore studies. The Banshee by P. Lysaght (1986) soon followed. Although not specific studies of gender, these works certainly focused attention on the folklore of women. Joan N. Radner’s work concerning conflicting tellings of a folktale by Peig Sayers and her son, Maidhc (Radner, “The Woman”), and later on, about coding in women’s folklore (Radner, Feminist) has been influential, as has Anne O’Connor’s work on dead child traditions and on the folklore of blessed and damned women in the Petticoat Loose cycle of stories (Child; The Blessed). Eilís Ní Dhuibhne’s insightful commentary on representations of women in folklore (“The Old”; “International”) notes the existence of “a clash between masculine and feminine traditions” (“International” 1214), one I will amplify in this paper. Indeed, Volume IV of The Field Day Anthology, where Ní Dhuibhne highlighted the conflict was a response to the exclusion of women from the original three volumes. Volume IV contains a rich variety of texts from women storytellers and singers together with supporting critical essays to contextualise and justify the choices made.
Other recent work continues to highlight the inequality experienced by women with regard to their contribution to Irish folklore studies. Patricia Coughlan’s feminist readings of Peig Sayers’ autobiographical texts show new ways of interpreting that important body of writing (“An Léiriú”; “Rereading”). Michael Briody outlines the male dominated dimension of public life in the founding years of the Irish Folklore Commission (The Irish) and both Diarmuid Ó Giolláin (Locating; An Dúchas) and Stiofán Ó Cadhla (“Dochtúirí”) have pointed out the difficulty in giving women’s lore its proper due, because of male-centred bias both within and outside the academy.
Looking at the anthropology produced by Arensberg and Kimball for 1930s Co. Clare, women clearly emerge as valued but secondary members of the society, with few of the privileges or rights of men (Family). Perspectives from anthropology from figures such as Sherry Ortner (“Is Female”) whose work sees the female almost universally identified with “nature”, and Edwin Ardener (“Belief”) are useful. For Ardener women comprised a “muted group”, a useful idea reminiscent of Gramsci’s and Spivak’s “subaltern” (Gramsci; Louai). In recent years, however, this muting has receded, with the realisation that the inclusion of “gender” as an analytical category in folklore studies has many opportunities for rejuvenating the old field, as the studies I have already mentioned show. Other studies such as that of Angela Bourke on fairylore (“The Virtual”) and especially her magisterial treatment of the tragic story of Bridget Cleary (The Burning), and Gearóid Ó Crualaoich’s groundbreaking study, The Book of The Cailleach show clearly what potential exists for the study of lore about, by and to some extent for women. Additional research also pays increased attention to the matter of gender, including a significant discussion of masculinity in the singing of Joe Heaney (Williams and Ó Laoire). Coughlan’s robust feminist critique (“An Léiriú”; “Rereading”) is particularly helpful in destabilising a dominant masculinist gaze that seems to have led to Peig’s enduring negative image among those who read her as part of their prescribed course in secondary school. Although, of course, Peig was never a compulsory text, and although it is almost twenty years since Peig was on the curriculum, the stereotypical version of Peig still carries powerful resonances. In a careful and nuanced reading of the folktale “The Woman With No Hands”, Stiofán Ó Cadhla (176-198) explores the tensions he identifies in a story told by a woman of very little formal education to two men, at the time a priest and afterwards a bishop, and a doctor, belonging to a wealthier, professional echelon of society. That essay is among the best in his very readable and indispensable book, An tSlat Feithleoige, an approach that I am much indebted to in a paper I wrote about Bab Feiritéar’s storytelling (Ó Laoire, “Humor”) using Bo Almqvist’s and Roibeard Ó Cathasaigh’s excellent collection of her stories as a primary source (Ó Bhéal).
After I had read Ó Cadhla’s essay, similar questions occurred to me regarding a particular story recorded by the renowned Anna Nic a’ Luain for Caoimhín Ó Danachair and Seán Ó hEochaidh for the Irish Folklore Commission’s sound recording project in 1949 (Ní Dhíoraí; Lysaght, “Visual” 98-114). On that occasion, one of the stories Anna chose to tell was that of a lazy young woman who got married and who possessed none of the skills expected of a married woman (ATU501) (Ellis Davidson 107; Uther). She was unable to work wool or do any kind of related work that women generally carried out in order to contribute economically to the family’s maintenance. Anna’s story seems particularly escapist in tone, allowing the three grotesque supernatural helpers to get the lazy, unskilled young woman out of her difficulties by deftly completing her required tasks. Her husband, the prince, is so shocked by the deformities suffered by the old women that he forbids his wife to do any menial work in future, so that she is able to enjoy a life of unqualified ease with her consort afterwards. The choice to tell such a story on the occasion of making a sound recording is interesting and begs questions similar to those posed and answered by Ó Cadhla. Was this a choice or a request from the collector? If a deliberate choice, did the storyteller intend to imply that her own life, full of the same kind of incessant labour necessary to eke out an existence was not a desirable one and that she entertained fantasies of escape? Did she wish to convey that she would also have liked access to the kind of ease the heroine in her story enjoyed? And additionally, did she wish to suggest to those who were recording her lore that they had a fine carefree existence, being paid for the work they were doing in recording the oral heritage of Donegal, and, in Ó Danachair’s case, of other parts of Ireland? Ó hEochaidh had recorded the tale the previous year in 1948 (NFC 1033, 201-6; Ó Seachnasaigh 244-7), so that two versions of the narrative are extant. For the moment, I will leave these questions aside, but raising them suggests that they could provide insight into the relationships between collectors and narrators. The fact that Ó Seachnasaigh notes Anna Nic a’ Luain’s empathy for an abused female character in another of her tales suggests that such an enquiry would be productive, especially in relation to Seán Ó hEochaidh, the field worker who worked most extensively with her (Ó Seachnasaigh 285-298). Ó hEochaidh was appointed as collector for the Irish Folklore Commission in July 1935 and served the Irish Folklore Commission and its successor, the Department of Irish Folklore, for fifty years until 1985. He was one of the Folklore Commission’s most prolific collectors and conducted his work mainly in Donegal (Ainm.ie). It was he also who ensured that Anna’s renown as a storyteller and bearer of all kinds of tradition was spread far beyond the remote valley where she lived out her life (Ó Laoire, “The Gaelic”).
In this paper, I intend to give partial answers to questions about Seán Ó hEochaidh’s engagement with women as he met them in his capacity as a full time folklore collector. A palpable tension pervades Ó hEochaidh’s field diaries concerning his relationships with women. Although he collected very successfully from individual women, it seems that women as a group could be a cause of some stress for him. For this purpose, I confine my study to the eight volumes of field diaries he compiled as part of his ordinary service for the Commission, a labour that ensures we have a comprehensive record of many of his field encounters with storytellers, singers and others who related greater or lesser amounts of oral tradition to him. I have not included a large amount of other material in the form of letters and other correspondence in the UCD archive for the purposes of this paper. I narrow my scope still further in an effort to curtail the large corpus of material to a particular focus, one that may seem unusual. I do not attend here so much to storytellers or singers, although inevitably – they are dealt with to some extent, but to supporting women, if I may use the term. By this I mean women who facilitated the smooth progress of his collecting, the wives of storytellers, for example, or those who acted as landladies and providers of hospitality in Ó hEochaidh’s lodgings. Though seemingly peripheral to the project of folklore collection, such women wielded considerable power and influence over the collector’s circumstances, by turns helping or hindering his work in significant ways.
Using this approach, it is possible to gain a considerable understanding of Ó hEochaidh’s views on women and their position in Irish rural society from 1935 to 1950. Over ninety individual persons of female gender, including some children, appear in the diaries (Mac Aoidh). This number comprises the important female narrators and singers as well as those who are mentioned briefly once, never to appear again. Because of the large catalogue of individuals involved, reducing it to a small core helps us to answer important questions about the representation of some women in his field accounts. Inevitably, even with this narrower view, however, the choice of material is solely mine, based mainly on the questions I raise in this paper and dealing with particular incidents that I believe to be particularly striking. Taking the spotlight off the narrators also helps to reveal how the work of gathering folklore fitted in with the lives of those who were not always directly connected in the collector/informant dyad, revealing other interesting and important details.
Studying females in Ó hEochaidh’s diaries provides a way to see how the male gaze perceived women. Ó hEochaidh was a man of his time. He had had a thorough, if limited, education from his uncle Pádraig Mac Seáin (1895-1981). He had neither attended secondary school nor university, nor had he migrated away from his native Donegal, as many of his generation were forced to do, his own four younger siblings included. Ó hEochaidh’s “university” comprised the five seasons he spent working as a salmon fisherman with his Teileann (Teelin) neighbours, experiences to which he later credited his success as a folklore collector. Ó hEochaidh, then, can be regarded as quite a conservative male, with fairly conventional expectations of women’s roles. Although this may be the case, he emerges as an equanimous and level-headed individual, who treats the women he meets with respect and courtesy. There are however some notable, and sometimes hilarious, exceptions to this rule where he is critical and even hostile to certain women. Negative commentary seems to be directed at women such as storytellers’ wives who could not be relied upon to be positively disposed to his activity as a collector. Such negative attitudes added additional challenges to Ó hEochaidh’s already difficult job. His antagonistic attitude to such individuals does not spring from a general misogyny, in my view, although it may be so expressed. From this perspective, the unsympathetic attitude of some women to his attempts to collect from their male relatives can be regarded primarily as a professional concern, although expressed in quite traditionally stereotypical anti-woman terms. Those who treat him well, likewise, are also praised according to traditionally approved and sanctioned virtues attributed to women. Ó hEochaidh was, like us all, produced by a particular habitus, a world view that emerges clearly from his diaries. The point is, therefore, not to criticize his attitudes from the hindsight of a later more liberated era, but to try and understand the work he did, and how he did it, by concentrating on this important element. In doing so, I am reducing the number of women from ninety to six individuals who stand out in various ways in their capacities as hostesses or housekeepers. Despite its limitations this necessary reduction allows space to discuss directly some important questions.
I begin then, with an encounter that occurred in Gleann Cholm Cille (Glencolmcille) Donegal, in March of 1936, before Ó hEochaidh had completed his first year as a full-time collector. The episode reveals the liminal and downright dangerous nature of being a folklore collector and Ó hEochaidh’s dependence on good will to achieve his aims. It also dramatically shows how women, in facilitating storytelling, were central to achieving success in recording it. In the following excerpt, concerning the events of the 13th March (NFC 421, 137-141), Ó hEochaidh describes how he struck the narrative gold and made friends with an elderly storyteller and his wife.1 Initially, everything goes smoothly, but events soon take an unexpected turn. We begin here with a general statement about the inquisitive nature of women as he relates his successful attempt to curry favour with the old lady of the house:
Dálta na mban uilig ba ghairid a bhí mé istigh gur chuir an tseanbhean seo tuairisc cé mé féin agus caidé’n seort gléas a bhí liom. D’inis mé féin di chomh maith agus a tháinig liom agus ba ghairid go raibh sí carthanach i gceart liom. Rinneadh braon tae ansin agus lena sásamh, ar ndóigh, b’éigean domh braon de seo a ól. Chaith Padaí smailc den phíopa i ndiaidh an tae, agus ansin chuaigh muid i gcionn na hoibre.
Chuir mé isteach eiteán dó ar an mheaisín, agus nuair a mhínigh mé dó caidé a bhí aige le déanamh chuaigh sé i gcionn scéil. Agus ba mhaith uaidh scéal a inse, ach go labhraíonn sé an-tiubh. Nuair a bhí an chéad scéal insithe aige tháinig girseach bheag leis féin agus chuir sé í seo ar siúl go Coillte Feannaid fá choinne fear a nighne, a bhfuil mórán scéalta aige. Ba ghairid a bhí sí ar siúl go dtáinig sí agus an fear seo – Pádraig Ó Baoighill – léi. D’fhág Padaí Bhriain inse na scéalta ansin agus thug sé áit don fhear eile. Bhuail an fear seo a dh’inse ansin agus nuair a bhí an tríú scéal insithe aige sciob a bhean thart leis an fhuinneoig. Tháinig sí seo isteach agus is é an chead bheannú a thug sí domh “drochrath” a chur orm agus ar a fear ag inse an scéil. Thug sí an darna hiarraidh ar an mhaide briste agus shíl mé go ndeánfadh sí stifirlín díom sula bhfaighinn faill m’anam a thabhairt do Dhia nó do Mhuire. Mar sin féin bhain a hathair fúithi rud beag agus cuireadh ciall inti; ach b’éigean don fhear imeacht agus scéal leathchríochnaithe aige.
Ba é an rud a ba chiontaí le seo cuireadh mac di mí roimhe seo agus shíl sí gur ag déanamh pléisiúir a bhí a fear nuair a bhí sé ag caint isteach san Ediphone. Ní raibh sí sách i gcéill i gcás ar bith. Sílim gurb é sin an iarraidh mharfa ba mhó a fuair mé riamh. D’imigh sí féin agus a fear abhaile ansin agus nuair a shíothlaigh an uile sheort síos chuaigh Padaí é fhéin i gcionn na scéalta arís. D’inis é leis ansin go dtí i dtrátha an deich a chlog agus shíl sé go raibh deireadh insithe aige ansin.
Like all women, I was not long inside when the old lady inquired who I was and what kind of a contraption I had with me. I told her as well as I could and soon she was very friendly with me. A sup of tea was made then and to please her, of course, I had to drink a drop of it. Padaí had a puff of his pipe after the tea, and then we began the work.
I inserted a cylinder for him on the machine, and when I explained to him what he had to do, he began a story. And he was good at it, except that
- Mrs. McCormack appears in both 1901 and 1911 censuses, where her first name is given as Bridget. Her age is given variously as 35 in 1901 and 53 in 1911, which would make her 71 or 79 in 1937 when Ó hEochaidh met her. 14 August 2017. [↩]
- The diaries are written in a pre-standardised orthography that also attempts to represent the peculiarities of Donegal Irish. For the purposes of this article, I have standardised the orthography while still allowing the dialectal features to remain. Irish texts are given first in all cases, followed by my own English translation. [↩]
- Ó hEochaidh mentions “An Dúinín” as the townland, and this name is not found in the official placename register www.townlands.ie. I also failed to find a place of this name in Kilcar, in the placenames database www.logainm.ie. I identify An Dúinín as a subdivision of the townland of Doire Leathan, Derrylahan. Two Hegarty families appear in the 1911 census, only one of whom has a female named Annie (age 34) married to Condy (age 42). 14 August 2017.
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