A Job with No Clock: Séamus Ennis and the Irish Folklore Commission

Séamus Ennis

A Job with No Clock: Séamus Ennis and the Irish Folklore Commission

At just twenty-three years of age, Séamus Ennis went on his first collecting field-trip to Conamara on behalf of the Irish Folklore Commission. Here, Ríonach uí Ógáin, currently working on an edition of Ennis’ diaries during his time with the Commission (1942-1946), provides a fascinating glimpse into his collecting work – his exceptional talent as linguist, collector and transcriber, his deep love of music and song, and his warm rapport with many of the great tradition bearers.

Séamus Ennis is probably best remembered as an exceptionally talented piper, singer, storyteller and musician. In 1942, his appointment by Séamus Ó Duilearga, Director of the Irish Folklore Commission, as fulltime collector of music and song was to prove inspired, and Ennis’ legacy in this capacity is unsurpassed.

Ennis was ideal for the job. His father, James, taught Séamus to play the pipes and to read music and also shared his love of the Irish language with his young family. The Ennis household, in north county Dublin, was constantly visited by traditional musicians. Not long after leaving school, Ennis began work at the publishing house ‘At the Sign of the Three Candles’ in Dublin where he worked with Colm Ó Lochlainn, setting music and proofreading material for publication.

A position as fulltime collector with the Commission then became vacant for which Ennis had the necessary qualifications. He was able to transcribe both music notation and song lyrics and was equally at ease in Irish-speaking and English-speaking communities. He also had what might be described as a ‘natural feel’ for the material. Ó Duilearga was approached by Colm Ó Lochlainn, a friend of his, recommending Ennis. A letter of appointment was sent to Ennis on 28th May 1942.

At the 29th meeting of the Irish Folklore Commission on 14th May 1942, Ó Duilearga said he was pleased to announce that he had identified a young man who would be capable of cataloguing and publishing Irish music and also of collecting songs from the living tradition. Ó Duilearga also said it was intended to send Ennis west to Carna and Ros an Mhíl in Conamara in the summer of that year to spend some time there collecting music from oral tradition and that, during the winter, he would work in the office in Dublin. Séamus Ennis’ first task, however, was to make transcriptions of musical items in the Commission’s collections that had been recorded on phonograph cylinder. He was then ready for collecting work.

During his years with the Commission, Séamus Ennis would travel for collecting work to a particular district for periods of a few weeks or even a few months, before returning to the headquarters of the Irish Folklore Commission in Dublin to spend some time there writing and processing the material he had gathered. He would then venture into the field again. It is worth noting that when Ennis went on his first field trip to Conamara, from the 2nd of July to the 14th of September 1942, he was just twenty-three years of age.

During his five years with the Commission, Ennis collected almost two thousand items of song, music and lore, which now form part of the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin. On 31st July 1947, he left the Commission to take up employment with Radio Éireann as outside broadcasting officer. He remained with that organisation until 1951, when he moved to the BBC in London in a similar capacity, and returned to Ireland in 1957. In each of these latter positions, he revisited the acquaintances he had made during his years with the Commission and made additional recordings with them.

His acquaintances were people for whom music and song were a natural part of their everyday lives at a time when Irish music had only just begun to make a very tentative public appearance beyond its indigenous environment. In most instances, an aspiration to collect, record, broadcast, archive, photograph or film had not impinged on the lives of the traditional singers and musicians, and they welcomed Ennis into their world, giving freely of their music, song and lore.

The Ennis collection is handwritten, and, for the most part, penned in black ink. This ink is especially effective as Ennis’ handwriting and music transcriptions are so striking. The ink was of a special kind used for transcribing music notation and was compatible with printers’ blocks. In Dublin, Ennis worked a five-and-a-half day week, as was the norm at the time. Many people called to the Commission’s offices and the visitors were frequently tradition bearers and acquaintances from his collecting work.

In Ireland, Ennis collected in counties Galway, Donegal, Mayo, Clare, Limerick, Cavan, Kerry and Cork and he also collected in the Scottish Hebrides. Ennis’ diary records one week each in Limerick and Cavan, four weeks each in Mayo and Clare, twenty-six weeks in Donegal and sixty-two weeks in Galway. It appears he also spent a few weeks each in both Kerry and Cork. The Ennis harvest is in a number of formats. The bound volumes of folklore text collected by Ennis cover the broad spectrum of folk tradition documented by him and include not only texts of songs, verse and rhymes, for the most part, but also folktales, lore, folk belief, calendar custom, biographical accounts of tradition bearers and much more besides. In addition, the music manuscripts in which Ennis wrote the staff notation and song lyrics also contain other relevant documentation, and we also have his field notes from which he transcribed and reconstructed folklore text, music and diary accounts. Full-time collectors with the Irish Folklore Commission were required to keep a diary or journal in which they described their day-to-day lives.

He usually wrote his diary in the language of the area in which he was collecting, and also in the relevant local dialect. The diary is directly relevant to the collected music, song and lore, as it provides rich contextual information. Further contextual information is available in field sheets completed for each week that provide information on the area in which the collector was working and a very short account describing his work each day. Another essential source towards an understanding of Ennis’ work is the vast body of correspondence which we have, most of which is in Irish. This includes handwritten letters and postcards by Séamus Mac Aonghusa, as he signed his name, and telegrams and typed letters from Seán Ó Súilleabháin, the archivist with the Commission, to whom Ennis wrote about once a week. The letters are personal and friendly. Good-humoured banter is a feature of many of them. They often contain the names and addresses of his lodging houses. The correspondence served the purpose of keeping in touch with head office on a regular basis and created a record of a two-way communication that is not provided elsewhere. Sound recording is of particular importance in the documenting of music and song. Towards the end of his career with the Commission, Ennis worked alongside the folklorist Caoimhín Ó Danachair and they made a number of acetate disc recordings between 1945 and 1947.

Apart from the National Folklore Archive, University College Dublin, bodies such as Raidió Telefís Éireann and Raidió na Gaeltachta hold several hours of recordings of Ennis talking about his work as collector and also of other people describing their acquaintance with him.

Although each aspect of this related material merits examination in its own right, Ennis’ contribution to Irish traditional music and song, and to the work of the Commission, can only be understood by viewing his work there as a whole. In addition to a description of his daily activity, his field diary documenting his collecting work comments almost every day on the time he got up and went to bed, the day’s weather and mealtimes, usually consisting of breakfast, a substantial midday meal, sometime between one o’clock and four o’clock, and evening tea. Much of the material might be regarded as somewhat mundane but it is an illustration of a certain pace of life.

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Tradition bearers
Ennis’ father had brought his family, including the young Séamus, to Conamara, especially to Ros Muc, to learn Irish and to introduce them to the singing and music traditions there. The collector was able to call on people whom he and his father already knew personally or who had heard of him and of his work. As recorded in his field diary, Ennis made ten collecting trips to County Galway between 1942 and 1946. Initially, in that county, he worked around An Spidéal where he wrote down songs from Kate Sheáin Tom and members of the Ó Conláin family. One singer from Both Chuanna, Cois Fharraige, Pete Sheáin Pheaits Mac Fhualáin, sang his songs for the collector while working in the bog. Further west, Sorcha Ní Scanláin and her mother, Máire Ní Chofaigh of Tóin an Chnoic, Ros an Mhíl, gave songs to Ennis.

The Ennis and Ó hOisín families had been friends for a long time, before the young Ennis started on his new career. Through the Ros Muc teacher, Stiofán Ó hOisín, and other acquaintances from Ennis’ childhood, songs in this area were collected from Micheál Bheairtle Antaine Ó Mainnín, Bríd Bean Uí Shúilleabháin and members of the Maude family. While in the Ros Muc area, Ennis visited the storyteller Beairtle Dhonncha and collected songlore from him. The tailor, Éamon de Búrca, near Cill Chiaráin, best known for folktales and narrative lore, also sang songs for Ennis. Seán Ó Gaora, who was also a tailor and Éamon’s nephew by marriage, gave over four dozen songs and a substantial amount of other lore to the collector. Pádraig Ó Ceannabháin, in An Aird Mhóir, played both the pipes and the flute and he contributed tunes. The traditional dancer Tomás Cheaite Breathnach lived in the same townland and Ennis described some enjoyable nights spent in this musical company while praising Tomás’ dancing skills. The Ó Donncha brothers Vail Bheairtle and Maidhcil Bheairtle were in the same district and both of them sang some of their own compositions for Ennis, including ‘Amhrán Chill Déar’ and ‘Amhrán Shéamuis’.

The collector found a treasure trove of song, music, dance, entertainment and fun when he visited the Mac Donncha family on Fínis island in 1943 and he remained in contact with the family for many years afterwards. The man of the house, Seáinín Choilmín, sang songs for Ennis along with his two daughters, Máire and Meaigí and his son Cóilín. In the village of Carna lived the Mac Fhualáin family of the ‘Musical Academy of Carna’, as Ennis called their house, where he became good friends with dancer Stiofán and especially with the fiddle player Maidhcil. Another fiddle player with whom Ennis made friends was Peaitín William Ó hUaithnín, Maínis. His cousin, Maidhcil Pheadairín, a weaver, also features in the Ennis collection. Maínis had its own great dancer and lilter in the person of Dudley Ó Clochartaigh whom Ennis visited in 1943 and whose company he greatly enjoyed. Moving still further west, Ennis stayed in the house of Pádraigín Mhacaigh Mac Con Iomaire, An Coillín, just west of Carna, and collected tales, lore and words of songs from him. A few miles west of Carna in the two townlands of An Aird Thiar and An Aird Thoir, the collector discovered a number of fine singers. Among these was Neain Mháire Mhic Giolla Máirtín whose repertoire consisted of traditional religious songs for the most part. Seán Choilm Mac Donncha, Seán Jeaic Mac Donncha and Seosamh Ó Héanaí also shared their repertoires with the collector.

In County Galway, however, and throughout Ennis’ entire collection, one man plays a particularly prominent role. He was Colm Ó Caodháin from Glinsce from whom Ennis collected over two hundred items. The two were very good friends and the collector got to know Colm’s wife, family and mother. He also visited family relations of Colm Ó Caodháin in Inis Ní near Roundstone and met with other local singers. Ennis spent very little time in the Leitir Móir district but he did spend a short spell with the Seoighe family in Inis Bearacháin and wrote down songs from John Mháirtín Seoighe there in 1945. His comparatively short visits to Árainn proved fruitful thanks to the singing and generosity of Peait Bheairtle Mac Donncha and his wife Nóra in Creig an Chéirín, among others. Ennis was fulsome in his praise of the singing of Máire Ní Dhireáin, Cill Éinne.

Donegal, Mayo and Clare
Everywhere he went, in addition to the people from whom he collected songs, Ennis made the acquaintance of teachers, shopkeepers, gardaí, priests, doctors, students of Irish, and bicycle and car mechanics, all of whom helped with his work in different ways. He collected from his landladies and their families and also approached earlier acquaintances such as the fiddle player Gearóid Ó Laidhigh in Ros Cathail, County Galway, from whom he collected in 1942. The week Ennis spent in Cavan in October 1942 was also due to family friendship with the Galligan family in Ballinagh.

The first of four trips to Donegal took place in August 1943. Ennis headed for Gort an Choirce where his friend, Seán Ó hEochaidh, fulltime collector of folklore, was living. Here he met Dinny Pháidí Duncaí, or Donncha Ó Baoill, and yet another close friendship was made. Dinny, from Leitir Catha, near Loch an Iúir, was teaching in Gort an Choirce. Ennis collected many songs from Dinny and also from his sisters and other family members.

Others in the Gort an Choirce district from whom he gathered songs were Máire Bean Mhic Aoidh, An Bhealtaine, who had many songs that she learned from her father. Máire was a sister of the storyteller Niall Ó Dufaigh from whom Ó hEochaidh had collected much material. On his first collecting trip to Donegal, Ennis also visited Teileann in the south-western part of the county, where he met with and collected tunes from Frank Cassidy, An Charraig, and Con Cassidy, Iomaire Mhuireanáin, Teileann. Peadar Ó Beirn and his sister Máire, Muintir Johnny Johndy, as they are still called, lived in Bealach Bhun Glas. They lilted and sang and gave many local songs to Ennis.

Still in Donegal, in January 1944, Ennis met an older woman who had a store of religious songs. She was Nóra Thaidhg, near Gort an Choirce. That same year, Ennis wrote nine tunes from a fiddle player, Hughie Bonar, from Fál Chorb, Machaire, and also visited the fiddle player, Niallaí Ó Baoill, An Clochán Liath, to collect from him.

Blind Peig Ní Dhufaigh, An Airdmhín, Croithlí, was an aunt of Dinny Ó Baoill. She was a fine singer and storyteller and contributed a wide range of material. In September 1944, Ennis visited Séamus Ó hIghne, Learga na Saorthach, Gleann Cholm Cille, who is probably best remembered for his rendering of the Fenian lay ‘Laoi na Mná Móire’ which the collector wrote from him. Others from whom he collected songs in Donegal included Máire Mhór Nic Pháidin, Caoldroim Íochtarach, Gort an Choirce. In the townland of An Tor, near Croithlí, he made friends with Páidí Bhidí Ó Connacháin who gave him around twenty songs. Here he also met Mairéad Mhic Suibhne, another good singer. In Bun an Bhaic on the eastern shore of Loch an Iúir, he wrote songs from Máire Shiobháin Uí Dhúgáin. The surname Ó Gallchóir is well-established in the Donegal singing tradition and Ennis met with Cití Eoin Éamoinn Ní Ghallchóir in Gaoth Dobhair and also with her mentor Síle Mhicí Ní Ghallchóir.

Ennis visited Toraigh on two occasions in October 1944 and again in May 1946. There, he stayed with the Ó Diothcháin or Dixon family or clann Dhonnchaidh Eoin as they were known – Donncha, Gráinne, Aodh, Séamus and Seán. They in turn introduced him to other singers who lived at the other end of the island in An Baile Thoir. The Ennis collection contains around twenty songs from one of these singers, John Tom Ó Mianáin. Another fine singer in An Baile Thoir was Róise Nic Ruairí. Ennis’ special friendship with Seán Ó hEochaidh is very evident in the collection. Ó hEochaidh noted that the Tory island people called his colleague ‘Séamus Mór’ and he also observed that Ennis was especially tired during one particular sojourn on Toraigh. During a night’s visiting or entertainment, Ennis was expected to contribute tunes on the pipes, and to sing, and that was extremely tiring as he was writing down songs and tunes at the same time.

Only one collecting trip was made to County Mayo during this period and for this Ennis relied a great deal on the folklore collector Pádraic Ó Moghráin for guidance. In August 1944 he wrote eleven songs in Irish from Máire Mulgrew, not far from Mulrany and more Irish songs from Mártan Ó Máille who was originally from Rossturk.

The collector made two very short collecting trips to County Clare in September and in November 1945. Among those who gave him songs in Irish were Máirtín MacNamara from Crusheen and Micheál Ó Donnchú from near Doolin. He encountered fiddle player ‘Baser’ Conlon in Ballynalackan and wrote tunes from Pat Russell of Doolin. His visit to Limerick in November 1945 was directed towards dancing and dance music in Limerick and some of the surrounding district. The tradition bearers in this regard were James Dalton, a former dancing teacher in Shanagolden, the Halpin family in Clontarf Place in Limerick, Joseph and Margaret Murphy, Thomond Gate, and piper William Keane of Mulgrave Street.

A job with no clock
Most of the people from whom Ennis collected music and song were men, and were usually several years older than the collector. His working hours were very irregular and sometimes Ennis worked into the small hours of the morning. He acquired collecting skills, songs and music as he made his way and drew on this experience. For example, he was in Donegal at a night’s entertainment in a house one evening and, when asked to sing, sang songs he had learned from a Conamara informant the previous year. Ennis’ close friend, Seán Mac Donncha, known locally as Johnny Joe Pheaitsín, said of the collector that his appointment with the Irish Folklore Commission was the job that suited him best as there was no clock and Ennis would do in a day what others would do in a week. Ennis was in constant demand to play music and sing and was thus able to establish special rapport with people. He often had the pipes or fiddle with him, and always seemed to carry a whistle. He was often invited to play at local concerts, in schools and houses.

The practical aspects of work, travel and day-to-day living were those of a pre-electronic age. With one or two exceptions, the houses in which he stayed had neither running water nor electricity. His regular trips to the local Post Office underline the importance of his constant communication with the Commission’s head office in Dublin. Ennis had to post his music manuscripts and copybooks of lore as he wrote. Much of the time during the war years the postal system was extremely slow.

Other communications presented their own difficulties. As telephones were scarce, establishing contact with informants was often a complicated matter. In some instances, the path had been prepared and he could rely on names given by Ó Moghráin in Mayo, or Ó hEochaidh in Donegal, before starting to collect in a particular area. However, when he went in search of an informant, especially for the first meeting, he often travelled several miles only to discover that the person was elsewhere. Ironically, in 1946 when Ennis purchased a car, petrol rationing severely curtailed his travel and, when in Conamara, the fact that he was working with a relatively isolated community meant that the nearest petrol station was several miles away.

Each element in the Ennis collection is related in some way to the other elements and the entire harvest provides a window on a world that has greatly changed since the 1940s. Ennis’ work reflects a deep love of music and song, an exceptional talent as linguist, collector and transcriber, and a warm rapport with the tradition bearers. Not least, the collection is testimony to a wonderful generosity of spirit on the part of the musicians, singers and storytellers who underpinned Ennis’ success.

Published on 1 January 2006

Ríonach uí Ógáin is a lecturer in Irish Folklore at University College Dublin. In addition to her work on traditional song in Irish, her publications include Immortal Dan which is a study of Daniel O’Connell in Irish folk tradition. Her CD productions include Beauty an Oileáin: Music and Song from the Great Blasket and Sorcha – the songs of the Conamara singer Sorcha Ní Ghuairim.

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