What’s for homework, Miss?

Producer Claire Cunningham recording with pupils at Scoil Naomh Mhuire,
Staplestown, Co. Kildare

In ‘What’s for homework, Miss?’ producer Claire Cunningham brings us the story of a remarkable project from the 1930s to collect folklore from all over Ireland. Created by the children of Ireland 80 years ago, and with the help of the children of today, this programme explores the wealth of stories in the Schools’ Folklore Collection.

The scheme initiated by the Irish Folklore Commission in 1937 was revolutionary. Over a period of 18 months hundreds of thousands of children in over 4000 primary schools in the Irish Free State collected information which they wrote into copybooks, accumulating more than 500,000 manuscript pages, now known as the Schools’ Folklore Collection and stored in UCD. Using parents, grandparents and other older members of the local community as their sources, the children researched local history and monuments, folktales and legends, riddles and proverbs, songs, customs and beliefs, games and pastimes, traditional work practices and crafts.

80 years after it was created, ‘What’s for homework, Miss?’ tells the story of this extraordinary collection and explores its treasure trove of contents.

Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, Director of the National Folklore Collection, brings us into the rooms in University College Dublin where the original, handwritten essays and stories written by the children of the 1930s are stored, giving us a sense of the sheer volume of material. He tells us how the project came about and about the pamphlet sent out to schools with guidance on how the folklore should be collected and recorded.

Mary McDowell, Principal of Scoil Naomh Mhuire, Staplestown, Co Kildare, shows us around the original school building where local children who took part in the folklore collection in the 1930s had their lessons. Dr Carol Barron of Dublin City University tells us about meeting Teasy Brien, who had taken part in the collection when she was a pupil in Staplestown in the 1930s. Teasy was in her 80s when Carol met her, but she still recognized her own handwriting when Carol showed her a copy of what she had written when she was a child and Teasy could still recall the stories she had written about.

Carol has a particular interest in the accounts of cures in the collection and says, ‘Cures for warts were the most common, followed by cures for whooping cough, followed by cures for toothache.’ We hear a range of cures, which range from superstition to some that may have a scientific basis.

One cure collected by Teasy from her own mother, who was a healer, was: ‘I was told that if you had warts get nine ivy leaves and rub nine times with each leaf on each wart and while rubbing say “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost” and after three days rubbing they will disappear. When finished with the leaves you should throw them in the fire.’

Peppered throughout the programme are readings by the children of today of the words written by the children of the 1930s. We hear readings from the collection of stories from history (the famine, evictions), local folklore (a fairy mound), children’s games, old crafts, cures. Pupils from nine schools across Ireland take part: Scoil Naomh Mhuire, Staplestown, Co Kildare; Educate Together, Carlow, Co Carlow; St. Nicholas’ Parochial School, Galway, Co Galway; Bandon Grammar, Bandon, Co Cork; St Mary’s Convent Primary School, Trim, Co Meath; Oxmantown National School, Birr, Co Offaly; Scoil Éanna, Ballybay, Co Monaghan; Kilnaleck National School, Kilnaleck, Co Cavan; St Matthew’s National School, Ballymahon, Co Longford.

Some of the sayings and superstitions we hear include some collected by a pupil in Galway: ‘If a fisherman met a red-haired woman before going out fishing he would go home as he would have no luck on that fishing trip.’ ‘If a knife fell it was a sign that a strange man was coming to the house.’ ‘If you went into a house where a woman was churning you would have to tip the churn because if you did not the fairies would be supposed to come and take away the butter.’ ‘If a new pair of boots is left on the table it is a sign of a row in the family.’

The collection is an absolute treasure trove that paints a vivid picture of Ireland in the 1930s. And, as Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh explains, it is now accessible to anyone worldwide through the website www.duchas.ie, where people can not only explore the collection but contribute to it by getting involved as a volunteer transcriber. ‘As a cultural resource, without a doubt, it is extremely valuable,’ he says.

“What’s for homework, Miss?’’ was first broadcast on Newstalk 106-108fm on 2nd September 2018 and repeated on 8th September 2018. It was re-broadcast on 4th and 5th May 2019.

CREDITS: ‘What’s for homework, Miss?’ was presented and produced by Claire Cunningham and made with the assistance of the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin. The programme was a Rockfinch production for Newstalk, funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland’s Sound and Vision Broadcasting Funding Scheme.