Inherent in its very definition, folklore is participatory and communal. Smithsonian Folklife curator James Deutsch, for example, set out this description in a recent Folklife Magazine article: “Folklore consists of traditional materials that are shared among members of a group without continual corrective reference to a fixed source.” Although many folklorists have put their own spin on what folklore means, almost every definition includes the words “community” or “group.” To maintain traditions, folklore is passed on through groups intergenerationally, and it involves the participation of many different community members.
The study of folklore can be the same.
Although one might associate folklore research with adult academics, anyone of any age and background can collect, document, and engage with the traditions and customs around them. This is not only true today, but it has proven to be an important asset throughout the history of folklore studies.
In 1937, the Irish Folklore Commission—a government agency seeking to document, or collect, disappearing Irish lore—embarked on a project with an unlikely group of researchers: schoolchildren. Partnering with the Irish Department of Education, the commission guided teachers and primary school students to document folklore in their own communities, using methods modeled on contemporary Swedish initiatives. Equipping the students with notebooks, teachers tasked the children with collecting lore and customs from friends, family, neighbors, and themselves.
Over the course of two years, roughly 50,000 children representing almost 5,000 schools, from every county of Ireland (save for the six disputed counties that would become Northern Ireland), collected both English and Gaelic lore, in neat penmanship. Together they gathered almost three-quarters of a million pages’ worth of documentation.
More than just folktales, the child collectors documented folklife spanning fifty-five topics, ranging from games to bread-making to strange animals. Their pages describe what their towns looked like, how butter was churned, and the impacts of the Irish famine and sectarian violence. The children described the physical world around them, documenting maps, place names, and local monuments and ruins, and their writing covered both the secular and religious histories and traditions of their communities.
Although they collected in both languages of the island of Ireland, a majority of the students’ documents were in English, the dominant language in Ireland at the time. This not only made them more accessible to international audiences but complemented the collecting work of the commission’s professional, adult collectors, who focused more on documenting and preserving Gaelic traditions.
These pages were bound into 1,128 volumes and archived by the commission, which would become the National Folklore Collection (NFC), today housed at University College Dublin. This wealth of documents has been termed the “Schools’ Collection” and has remained an important window into Irish life in the early twentieth century. Dr. Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, director of the NFC, said in an interview via Zoom that “the collections record a lot of information, social and cultural history about Ireland and its people, and much of it extends back into the nineteenth century.”
Although the collections’ manuscripts were created in the twentieth century, much of the folklore documented within them dated back many decades prior, maintained by the tradition-bearers interviewed during the 1930s. This is especially significant because, during the Irish Civil War in 1922–1923, many official state records were destroyed.
“So [the folklore manuscripts are] an important documentary record,” Dr. Mac Cárthaigh explained. “But unlike official documentary records that you’d see in a normal archive, this really is a people’s history and their traditions.”
The children’s perspective that is central to the Schools’ Collection provides a unique lens through which we can look back on Irish folklore and folklife of the early twentieth century. This has been a focus for Fionnán Mac Gabhann, a PhD candidate in folklore at Indiana University, who has worked with the Schools’ Collection both through the archive’s online portal and the physical manuscripts housed in his home country of Ireland.
“One of the premises of folklore studies is that we want to understand the world through the eyes of others,” he said. “Often, we are engaged with communities and people who have evaded the historical record. We could, most certainly, include children in that category. To gain a perspective from children's point of view is invaluable and democratizes the historical record.”
Beginning in 2012, a project of the NFC brought new life to the Schools’ Collection. The Dúchas project sought to digitize the NFC’s records, scanning each manuscript page and uploading it to an online archive. Dúchas, in Irish Gaelic, means heritage or tradition. The online archive includes the Schools’ Collection and the Photographic Collection; other parts of the Irish Folklore Commission's archive, such as the Main Manuscripts collection and sound recordings are currently being digitized.
This digitization made the Schools’ Collection, and the rich store of Irish culture that it contains, instantly accessible on an international level. Whereas the archives were once only available as paper copies in Ireland, they can now be accessed with the click of a button by any member of the public, anywhere in the world, for free.
Building on the digitization work, the Dúchas project implemented Meitheal Dúchas, a crowdsourcing transcription program, borrowing a Gaelic word that refers to a cooperative labor system and Ireland’s tradition of communal work. Using a function built into the online Dúchas archive, volunteers can transcribe the text from scanned photos of manuscripts. The process is simple, and transcribing a page can take all of a few minutes, but the project has been revolutionary, making much of the NFC’s archives text-searchable, accessible, and easily readable.
Although Meitheal was added as an afterthought to the digitization project, it has been a tremendous success. As of August 2021, 329,479 pages in English and 60,465 in Irish have been transcribed. The volunteer transcribers—totaling over 7,000, according to Dr. Mac Cárthaigh—come from all walks of life and from all over the world, ranging from casual participants to enthusiasts with hundreds of pages to their names.
One source of volunteer transcribers is university students. At Indiana University, several professors have incorporated the Meitheal Dúchas project into their curricula, requiring students to transcribe and engage with the materials collected almost a century ago. Dr. Barbara Hillers, an associate professor in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology who specializes in Celtic folklore, specifically focuses on the Schools’ Collection in some of her courses. She teaches her students about fairy tales, which feature prominently in the Schools’ Collection, and sends her students into the online archive to transcribe and analyze stories. As she pivoted to online teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Dúchas collections became especially important, allowing her students to experience and engage with folklore and the archival process remotely.
She noted that her students always love the Schools’ project: “Students tell me, ‘I was part of something bigger than myself. I was doing something useful. I was part of something that spanned the Atlantic.’”
For her students, these feelings remained true even months after they had completed their participation in the project. Noelle Simoneaux, a folklore major at IU, felt empowered because she was able to participate in archival work, which she had often assumed was just for professionals.
“It wasn’t just reading an article about it, or reading about someone else’s experiences, but [it was exciting] being able to do it myself and knowing that it was something that I could do.”
She also recognized the unique experience of transcribing the pages of the child collectors. “It was cool to see children’s work in the past and bring it forth, so that people could see it today.”
The wide variety of folklore presented in the Schools’ Collection can expose those who explore the archives to a new (or, rather, old) set of jokes, stories, riddles, and traditional ways of life, many of which remain entertaining and engaging today. This was of particular interest to Anne McCarthy, another IU undergraduate, who has transcribed over 200 pages of text on Meitheal Dúchas for several classes. Even once her courses were over, she continued to transcribe just for fun.
“It was nice. It feels like a real thing we’re doing that’s helpful to a community of people.”
Dr. Ray Cashman, another professor of folklore and ethnomusicology at IU, estimates that his students have transcribed roughly 11,000 pages in the four years that he has included Meitheal Dúchas in his courses. He says once his students learn about the collection, “most do additional searching on topics of interest to them—witches and fairies and ghosts, oh my!”
For Mac Gabhann, the discoveries he’s made when digging through the School’s Collection have sometimes been more personal.
“Many people in Ireland will have a relative who contributed in some way to the project, whether as collector or informant,” he said. “I could engage with Dúchas for hours on end just for leisure, and there have been a few surprises with regard to material I uncovered from my own family.”
He envisions a greater social impact of the crowdsourced transcription process: “It encourages teamwork and cooperation but also a shared understanding of these traditions. And that’s invaluable.” Beyond academic research, he sees a world of creative possibilities. “I have many friends, artists, musicians, storytellers, poets who have engaged with the collection and drawn from it for inspiration. It remains a resource that can be used to meet present needs. The possibilities are endless in that regard.”
Dr. Hillers emphasized the centrality of reciprocity in the Dúchas project. “How do we get the archives back to the people they came from?” Although the collections had always been available to the public, many of the tradition-bearers and child collectors who had participated may not have been able to easily access them, especially if they lived far from Dublin. By making the collections freely accessible online, and, soon, fully searchable, the Dúchas project is bringing the lore back to the people who collected and shared it.
The impact of this reciprocity is felt back in Ireland. “I’ve returned the materials to [collectors] from Schools’ manuscripts collection and returned materials that they collected from their parents,” Mac Gabhann reported. “Their reactions are incredible. You notice straight away that these memories are often resurrected by the copy books, and they’re transported to a time when this stuff was performed to them.”
Just as the original work of the Schools’ Collection focused on participatory folklore collection, crowdsourced transcription centers around participatory archival work, bringing everyday people (including students) into a process that is often far from the public eye.
“The original work [of the Schools’ Collection] certainly raised the awareness of the Irish Folklore Commission’s work throughout the country and throughout the island,” Mac Gabhann noted. “I would think that the transcription process is doing the exact same for my generation now.”
The Dúchas archives, and the Meitheal Dúchas project, are an easy and accessible way to experience both folklife and folklore research hands-on. Especially as COVID-19 continues to limit public access to libraries, archives, and collections, exploring the Dúchas archive, and trying some transcription yourself, is a great way to directly connect with, and contribute to, a treasure trove of materials. Meitheal Dúchas is by no means the only crowdsourcing transcription program—in fact, the Smithsonian has its own digital transcription project, and welcomes “volunpeers” to transcribe manuscripts and audio recordings.
Just like the Schools’ Collection project, today the folklore collecting process can also be for everybody. The Smithsonian Folklife and Oral History Interviewing Guide provides an overview of how one can document oral history in their own family and community. It’s an excellent starting point for engaging in the collecting side of folklore studies.
The massive archive of materials collected by schoolchildren in Ireland has proved to be an invaluable window into Irish folklife, for researchers and enthusiasts alike, and this democratization of folklore collecting shows just how important community participation is in folklore studies. Folklore is for everyone, and engaging with traditional knowledge can connect us to what Dr. Mac Cárthaigh describes as “the human dimension to people’s lives”—documented by, and for, the people.
Joelle Jackson is an intern with the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a second-year Wells Scholar at Indiana University, where she is studying folklore and anthropology.
A special thank you to Dr. Barbara Hillers, Dr. Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, Dr. Ray Cashman, Fionnán Mac Gabhann, Noelle Simoneaux, and Anne McCarthy.