SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH – Munterloney Folk-Tales

 

Back in 2002, when I was doing some internet searching using our clan name spelled in Irish, I came across an obscure notice that an old book was being sent to a dead storage warehouse at a university library in Oklahoma.  The book was titled "SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH – Munterloney Folk-Tales".  I was intrigued – a book bearing our clan’s name.  I arranged through my local library to obtain that book on inter-library loan, and made a xerox copy.  It turned out that, not only did the book bear our name, it contains our clan’s folk-tales, in the original Irish language.  It was one of those weird quirks of fate that I stumbled across that obscure notice and obtained a copy of that book – it has been out-of-print for seventy-five years, and only a handful of copies still exist in the world.  It is so rare a book that the university libraries in Ireland do not circulate the book, and keep it in restricted access collections. 

During the 1920’s and 30’s, the government of Ireland became alarmed at the rapid decline in the number of people who could speak and write the Irish language, the most ancient language still spoken in Europe.  The government commissioned the Irish Folklore Institute to send Irish language scholars around Ireland to record, compile and preserve the Irish people’s rich heritage of language and oral literature. Between 1929 and 1933, Professor Éamonn Ó Tuathail of Trinity College in Dublin travelled throughout the district of County Tyrone in Northern Ireland called the "Mhuintir Lúinigh" to record the oral literature of the few Irish-speaking people still living there.

The Mhuintir Lúinigh district at that time corresponded generally to the parishes of Termonmaguirk and of Upper and Lower Bodoney in County Tyrone. The name "Mhuintir Lúinigh" means both the "land of the Lúinigh" and the "Lúinigh clan". The noble Mhuintir Lúinigh clan were part, and sometimes rulers, of the Cenél Moen tribe of the Tír Eóghain kingdom of the Northern Ui Neill.  The Mhuintir Lúinigh clan inhabited this portion Ireland from the early 13th through early 20th centuries, after being driven from their original territory of Magh Ithe in present day County Donegal by rival clans. Parts of the original Mhuintir Lúinigh clan also settled in neighboring areas of present day Counties Fermanagh and Monaghan.

By the time Professor Ó Tuathail arrived in the Mhuintir Lúinigh district in 1929 to record the folk-tales of the area, Irish had ceased to be spoken except by only a small number of old people. The dialect being spoken in the Mhuintir Lúinigh district was unique, and differed significantly from the dialects spoken in other parts of Ireland. Even the 1802 "Statistical Survey of County Tyrone", at a time when over one-half of the 250,000 inhabitants of County Tyrone still spoke Irish, noted that "the people of this county in themselves differ as much perhaps as those of separate kingdoms…the inhabitants of [the town of] Strabane and its vicinity seem quite a different race of people from those of Munterloney…" This separation and uniqueness was probably attributable to the fact that the Mhuintir Lúinigh district was, and remains, a very isolated and remote part of Ireland, surrounded by the Sperrin Mountains. Its isolation is probably also the reason that this was the last remaining area of Northern Ireland where Irish was still spoken as a first language.

Professor Ó Tuathail spent four years interviewing, recording and transcribing the folk-tales of the last native speakers of Irish in County Tyrone. He compiled these folk-tales in the unique Irish dialect of the Mhuintir Lúinigh district, along with extensive notes in English on grammar and spelling. His work was published by the Irish Folklore Institute in 1933 as "SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH – Munterloney Folk-Tales". Unfortunately for modern scholars and for the modern descendants of the Mhuintir Lúinigh clan, the folk-tales in Professor Ó Tuathail’s book were never translated into English.  Today, Irish language scholars have confirmed that it is a unique record of a now lost dialect of Irish. In fact, this book is now used by universities in Ireland as a text for the advanced study of Irish dialects.  Here’s one of the folk-tales from "SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH – Munterloney Folk-Tales":

 

SÍOMUS Ó LUINÍN

[Note: The folk-tale "Síomus Ó Luinín" (James O’Lunney) was told to Professor Ó Tuathail in September 1931 by Eóin Ó Cianáin, born at Aghascreabagh in the parish of Lower Bodoney on October 14, 1857.  This tale had been told to Eóin Ó Cianáin sixty years earlier by his school teacher, Denis Fox, at the Greencastle schoolhouse.  Below is only a brief summary of the tale in English.]

Síomus Ó Luinín, a prosperous but childless farmer, is told by a voice which calls to him from a graveyard by which he is passing that he will shortly have an heir. A year later, as he is at work in the field near his house, news is brought to him of the birth of a son. He drops dead through excess joy. A tree grows on the spot where he died.  When her son reaches the age of twenty-one, the widow cuts a stick for her son from the tree, and he sets off to seek his fortune. As suitor for the hand of a gentleman’s daughter, he must (a) thresh three stacks of corn, (b) drain a lake, and (c) empty and clean a deep well. The gentleman throws a quern-stone, which serves as the cover of the well, on top of the lad, but the latter accomplishes his task and emerges from the well wearing the quern-stone around his neck. He marries the gentleman’s daughter, and brings her home. He breaks the quern-stone into four pieces, and uses them as the corner-stones of a fine castle which he builds for his bride.

 

Back in 2003, I wrote to the Strabane District Council, the governing body of this part of Northern Ireland, and brought the matter of the "SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH – Munterloney Folk-Tales" to the attention of the Council, requesting that a project be undertaken to translate the folk-tales into English and republish this book.  The Council kindly approved this request, and formally petitioned the Northern Ireland Assembly to undertake and fund this project.  The project was approved for funding by the Assembly.

Then, in 2004 during my visit to the Mhuintir Lúinigh, the Sperrin Heritage Center and the local tourism office, both operated by the Strabane District Council, kindly offered their facilities and assistance to host a lecture about and reading of the "SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH – Munterloney Folk-Tales". 

 

Sperrin Heritage Centre

 

Professor Donal O’Baoill of Queens University Belfast, a leading Irish language scholar kindly prepared and delivered the lecture and reading at the Sperrin Heritage Center.  Prior to the lecture, Professor O’Baoill had a "home-cooked" dinner with me and my family at the cottages next to the Sperrin Heritage Center where we stayed for our week in the Mhuintir Lúinigh. 

 

Sperrin Manor – Our rental cottage in the Mhuintir Luinigh

 

The dinner was prepared by my 90-year-old aunt Alice Lunney Gregory, from fresh, locally-grown produce and meat.  Professor O’Baoill chuckled often during the dinner, remarking that our large and noisy Irish-American family reminded him much of his own large family in County Donegal.  The lecture and reading was a success, and was well-attended by Irish-speaking local residents and educators, in spite of a terrible rainstorm that evening.  One amazing feature of the lecture was when Professor O’Baoill played some of the original taped recordings of the folk-tales made by Professor Éamonn Ó Tuathail in the 1930’s.  After the lecture, I hosted a reception at the tea room of the Heritage Center, where we got to meet several of the area’s interesting residents.

After a considerable delay, caused by the dissolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2004, the translation and republication project is back on track.  I recently received an email from a resident of the Mhuintir Lúinigh, informing me that publication is expected very soon.  As soon as the "SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH – Munterloney Folk-Tales" is translated and re-published, hopefully on-line,  I’ll provide the information here.

 

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