Archive reveals unique voices

If you’ve ever wondered what the old men in those sepia photographs of rural early 20th century Ireland sounded like, you can now find out.

Archive reveals unique voices

In their finest authentic Irish brogues, more than 130 native speakers were recorded in 1928 by a German professor paid to make a permanent record of the language where it was still spoken.

Not alone is the now-digitised archive an invaluable asset to those studying the Irish language, it adds to the wealth of folklore held and preserved by Irish academics.

The project of the Royal Irish Academy — which managed the original recording programme from 1928 to 1931 — has seen 400 stories, songs, prayers, charms, and parables saved for posterity in digital format.

The work was led by Eoghan Ó Raghallaigh and began in 2008 when a grant was awarded by the Higher Education Authority. The resultant website is named after Wilhelm Doegen, who came here 85 years ago at the request of the new Ministry of Education to record Irish-language speakers, and whose shellac records, formatted in Berlin, are now transferred online and available to listen free.

The site features speakers from 17 counties and includes biographical information about each of them, collected along with the recordings. It includes their ages, family information, their education, occupation, and whether or not they could read and write, play a musical instrument, or if they could sing or play modern European kinds of music.

The project was aimed at preserving the language and regional dialects, so most recordings were made of people from the Gaeltacht regions. Almost a quarter of the 400 recordings are from Donegal speakers, 68 are from Galway people, 48 from Kerry, and 46 from Cork.

Also featured, in the only English-language recording, is the head of the Irish government, WT Cosgrave. He had just returned from signing up to the Kellogg-Briand Pact in Paris, in which world nations renounced the use of war, on behalf of the Irish Free State.

“And it is fitting that this reproduction of my voice should take place in University College Cork, where we may say that the cream of the people of Munster assemble in the halls here to daily add to their knowledge which will benefit them in years to come in many walks of life,” he said.

A cat with its back to the fire was a bad omen

Domhnall Ó Céilleachair from Coolea in the Muskerry Gaeltacht near the Cork-Kerry border was recorded by Wilhelm Doegen.

A story he told over less than a minute and a half is one of a number collected and published in 1931 dealing with the composition of poetry. Domhnall was 56 when it was recorded at 5pm on Sept 3, 1928, in the German Room at University College Cork.

This is a translation of the story, told through Irish by Domhnall, and which also has elements of old lore about the weather. A cat with its back to the fire was traditionally seen as an omen of an approaching storm or a spell of bad weather.

A farmer was going to the fair with a bull. He and his boy woke up at the end of the night. He told the boy to go out and look at the sow in case she had given birth. The boy went out. He came in and said that the sow had given birth.

“Where are the piglets?” said the farmer.

“The other pigs ate them,” said he.

“That’s terrible,” said the farmer, “but go out again to see if you see anything else.”

He went out and he came in again. “The bull knocked down the haystack,” he said.

“That’s not good either,” said the farmer. “But go out again and see if you see anything else.”

“I won’t,” said the boy.

“You’ll have to go,” said the farmer. “You haven’t finished the verse yet.”

He went out a third time. He looked around him and went back in.

“What did you see this time?” said the farmer.

“I didn’t see anything,” he said. “The stars are shining brightly and making frost. Look at the cat’s bottom in the ashes.”

Then the farmer said: “You have made the verse.”

“The boars ate the piglets,

The ox knocked over the hay,

The stars are making frost,

The cat’s bottom is in the hot ashes.”

In Irish, the verse is as follows:

“D’ith na tuirc na hairc,

Do leag an damh an tuí,

Na réilthíní ag cuir sheaca,

Tóin an chait sa ghríos.”

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