I attended yet another excellent workshop at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin on Wednesday, organised by the fine folks in the Irish Family History Centre. The speaker was Jennifer Doyle, a PHD student in Kings College London, on the topic of using newspapers to trace female ancestors. Instead of the usual newspaper sources, obituaries and marriage notices, she concentrated on the competitions in newspapers for what they can tell us about peoples lives. It was a fantastic paper and really got to the heart of what genealogy is ultimately about, finding those connections and giving context to the lives of our ancestors.
One of my favourite sources for this is the Schools’ Collection in the National Folklore Collection of Ireland. It can provide some very valuable insight into how our ancestors lived and some of the customs they believed in. The material in the Schools’ Collection was compiled by school children in the 1930s. Under the supervision and guidance of their teachers, they went out and interviewed relatives and neighbours about local folklore. Sometimes you might get lucky and come across a familiar name among the collectors or interviewees. Even if you don’t find someone you know, the folklore itself is fascinating. Some of it might seem far fetched, especially stories about fairies and leprechauns and other supernatural creatures. But we should remember how different the world was for our ancestors, especially those in rural areas before the advent of widespread electrification. Just because they were superstitious doesn’t make them ignorant or stupid.
One of the more interesting pieces of folklore I have come across are the customs centred around various festivals. You can read the transcription here.
Many of these customs were connected to specific parts of the country and might give you insight into how people of the time lived their lives. Too often we only focus on the hardships they must have endured, forgetting that there was more to their lives than just toil and hard work. They had games, gatherings and storytelling.
What is most enjoyable about this collection though is the opportunity to lend a hand in transcribing some of the records. It’s very straightforward and doesn’t take that long to transcribe a few pages at a time. It is especially gratifying when you can transcribe a piece of folklore collected by a relative.