Written by Barry Lally (Originally Published in Dec '15 - Jan '16 issue of Ballinasloe Life Magazine)
In the years preceding the Second World War the Irish Folklore Commission launched a project whereby pupils in the country’s primary schools were asked to record items of folklore gathered from older members of their communities. Known as the Schools Collection, it reflected the sectarian and rural bias of its time in as much as only Catholic-run schools were invited to participate, hile Dublin City schools were also excluded.
Material was grouped under 55 headings, with each school at liberty to choose as many or as few topics as it wished. The initiative was not, however, unanimously welcomed by our literary elite. For instance, the poet Patrick Kavanagh facetiously suggested that the money might be better spent supplying the bards of Ireland with free cigarettes!
It is now possible by going online to peruse the local results of the scheme at dúchas.ie/en. Here it becomes apparent that of the two Ballinasloe schools involved, the Boys’ National and the Convent of Mercy, what the latter produced was by far the more interesting and detailed with 15 topics covered. Curiously, while all the sources are meticulously recorded, not one of the contributing pupils is mentioned.
The Boys’ School chose 11 headings with 36 pupils named as contributors, of whom Joe Higgins of St. Joseph’s Place is believed to be the sole survivor. Willie Ward, the headmaster, wrote a perceptive introduction tracing the beginnings of national schooling in Ballinasloe to a location at the junction of Bridge Street and Main Street on a site at present occupied by the Oat Gallery apartment building. Later the school moved to what is now Jubilee Street before once more re-locating in 1910 to rooms at the back of the Town Hall.
Ward believed that the dearth of local knowledge evident in his pupils’ submissions was probably due to the fact that the movement of population in towns was much more frequent than in rural areas. “In the surrounding countryside,” he wrote, “there are farms which have been in possession of the ancestors of the present owners for many generations, while in business premises in the town very few second generation owners exist. This accounts to a large extent for the fact that tradition is barren as far as Ballinasloe town is concerned.” In support of his argument he furnished a comprehensive list of 130 local businesses, only 17 of which were operated by a second generation.
A reading of some of the pupils’ contributions prompts us to question the relationship between folklore and history. To take two examples, one boy writes that a Fr. Burke on a sick call on Christmas Eve in 1864 was drowned in the canal, while another relates that a priest drowned in the canal in the 1890s collecting for charity on a Thursday night.
Fatal accidents at the Canal Basin were not uncommon, but there seems to be no evidence that a clergyman named Burke ever drowned there. Both pieces very likely had their origin in the following account based on a newspaper item dating from 1888:
A watchman at Ballinasloe Gasworks reported hearing screams coming from the general direction of the adjoining Canal Basin sometime between 11.00p.m. and midnight on a date in January. The following morning a body was recovered from the water and taken to the Workhouse on Station Road where an inquest was later told that the deceased had been identified as Thomas Ryan, a 68-year-old former Catholic priest, a native of Loughrea, though not a member of the Clonfert diocesan clergy. He had done a stint on the American Mission, and on his return to Ireland had been silenced some nine years before his tragic demise because of chronic drunkenness. Ryan had recently arrived in Ballinasloe, taking lodgings in the Market Square, and had spent the day prior to his death cadging drink in local public houses.
The comparison here between folklore and fact serves to remind us that the former is not history. What history involves is the reconstruction and interpretation of the past from its documentary remains, whereas folklore is concerned with communal memory, and memory, as we know, tends to blur and distort past events and to view them through the prism of present-day preoccupations and cultural values. Eighty years ago a story involving discreditable conduct by a cleric would not have been entertained. Should we then be surprised that the sad and sordid fate of a silenced priest had undergone a process of sanitization and transmutation by the time the event was recorded by schoolboys in the 1930s?