Romance and Reality

Discover how the Irish state's 20th century collection and recording of folklore has resulted in the Irish Folklife Collection.

The Irish Folklore Commission and friends visit the first exhibition on folklife at the National Museum, Kildare St in 1937

Life in rural Ireland is popularly portrayed as simple and romantic. The reality was different. Life was a struggle and survival depended on a detailed knowledge of the landscape and environment; on craft, skill and ingenuity. This way of life changed little over many hundreds of years and its continuity is evident in the similarities between recently-made objects and their counterparts made long ago.

Romance and Reality also highlights the contrasts between folklife and folklore. importance of Folklife, which deals with objects, the skills needed to produce them and their place in the lives of the people; and Folklore, which deals with stories, myths and traditional beliefs outside formal religion.

Romance and Reality

Life in rural Ireland has often been portrayed in a romantic way. 

Many artists portrayed the people of the countryside and the islands as heroic, innocent, and timeless, making their way of life seem pure and appealing. In our own time, tourist postcards and posters have promoted an idealised image of a peaceful and pleasant life lived on the small farms of Ireland. Popular films such as Man of Aran and The Quiet Man helped perpetuate the idea of an heroic or idyllic rural life in Ireland.

In reality the work was generally hard, the diet was often poor, and death from diseases like tuberculosis was common. Life was far from simple — people needed detailed knowledge and specific skills to survive.

Yet, they could also enjoy the comforts of family and friends, and the traditional pleasures of storytelling and music. A range of artistic images is contrasted with photographs, which help to show the reality of Irish life — harsh for many, but relatively good for others.  

Continuity of Tradition

In the modern world, change is the great constant. However, the traditional Irish way of life existed for hundreds of years and lasted well into the 20th Century. Over this time some of the objects used in Ireland changed very little. They worked well and were made of readily available materials; as a result there was little necessity to change their design.

In the Romance and Reality exhibition, objects used and made in the 20th Century in rural Ireland, such as fishing weights and spade blades, resemble their counterparts made long ago.  

Newspaper report of the opening of the first exhibition of Irish folklife material at the National Museum, Kildare Street, Dublin in 1937 by Éamon de Valera. Evening Herald, 1937  Collecting Irish Folklife

The exhibition charts the origins of the collection of artefacts from the folk tradition by the National Museum of Ireland.

By the late 1920s the recently established Irish State was backing efforts to record and collect the Folklore of Ireland. These efforts were very much related to the movement for the revival of the Irish language and they culminated in the establishment of the state-supported Irish Folklore Commission in 1935. Many of the field collectors of this Commission were active in obtaining traditional objects, which were passed on to the National Museum of Ireland. In 1937 the first temporary exhibition on Folklife was opened with the involvement of the Irish Folklore Commission.

The collection of Folklife material by the National Museum of Ireland did not begin in earnest until the appointment in 1949 of A.T. (Tony) Lucas to the Irish Antiquities Division with the specific brief of collecting Folklife material. A period of intensive collecting was then undertaken for several decades. More staff were appointed to Folklife work in the 1960s and 1970s and the Irish Folklife division was formally established in 1974. 

Folklife and Folklore

Folklife deals with the tangible aspects of life: objects, the skills needed to produce them, their place in the lives of people, and their context in the folk tradition.

Folklore generally deals with the intangible aspects of life: stories, myths, and traditional beliefs and practices, often outside the realm of formal religion.

Today folklife and folklore are studied as part of ethnology, which examines aspects of life in the present as well as the past.

Further Reading

Further Reading

Explore the subject of the Folklife Collections further