Charlotte Brooke: Mother of Modern Folklore Studies

In the dedication page of Lady Gregory writes: “We would not give up our own country — Ireland — if we were to get the whole world as an estate, and the Country of the Young along with it.” This is a telling quote, given how folklore has been used by collectors in order to establish a sense of national identity, particularly (in the context of this essay) during the Irish Literary Revival. After centuries of suffering under British colonialism, leading to a steep decline in the use of the native Irish language, many folklorists and those in the literary scene looked to the surviving elements of Ireland’s past to both preserve them and re-build Ireland as they thought it could be, not as it was. This leads to a self-actualising circle — the collecting of folklore is an effort to save an identity from fading into obscurity, while working towards the building of a new sense of national identity.

The collection of folklore as we know it today, as established around the time of the Irish Literary Revival, owes its roots and success to a woman by the name of Charlotte Brooke. It is odd that she herself is so little known when it was her that established the groundwork for the study of both the Irish language and Irish folklore. While not as prolific as the likes of Seán Ó Súilleabháin, her contributions led to their work. As a “pioneering anthology” (Ó Giolláin)¹ the importance of this work is difficult to overstate.

Charlotte Brooke, known as the “first mediator of importance between the Irish-Gaelic and the Anglo-Irish literary traditions” (Leerssen)², was born near the town of Mullagh in County Cavan, circa 1740 (the exact date is unknown). Born to the writer Henry Brooke and his wife Catherine Brooke, née Meares, she is one of only two of their children to have survived childhood along with her brother Arthur. She became extremely close to her father, holding him “almost in veneration” (Nevin)³; following the death of her mother in 1773 she took to caring for him, remaining unmarried. The family was of Protestant Anglo-Irish descent, but Charlotte was part of a generation of that class who took an interest in the Irish language. Encouraged by her father to explore history and literature, she became interested in Gaelic antiquary. She took inspiration for her anthology from hearing a labourer on her family’s estate reading aloud heroic poems of the Fianna from a Gaelic manuscript, which reminded her of works published by James Macpherson which he claimed to be ancient poems by Ossian, though his claims were challenged by Irish historians.

Assisted by other antiquarians, she set to work compiling various materials; her work is all the more remarkable when one considers that she learned Irish so that she could translate them herself. Her respect towards the language is clear, as well as her awareness that the language itself was inextricably linked with the material. Her translations borrowed the style popular at the time, a sentimental and Romantic verse. There are two reasons she used this style: one was to appeal to readers of the time, but also to indicate the merit of native poetry. was published in 1788 and became the first major intersection of oral tradition and literature. The publication also included notes and an introduction in which Brooke “asserts the greater antiquity of Irish literature over the English” (Ó Giolláin).

Title page of the third edition of Bishop Percy’s work on which Brooke modelled her work.

Modelled on Bishop’s Percy 1765 volume, , Brooke’s work influenced the emerging self-identification of the Anglo-Irish class with Ireland rather than with England, which would see later folklorists such as Lady Gregory and W.B. Yeats. Gregory was part of the Persse family of Galway, Anglo-Irish gentry whose family tradition says that “the first of them came into Ireland in Cromwellian times” (Coxhead)⁴ and Yeats also belonged to the Protestant, Anglo-Irish minority. These individuals were in a unique position in that they viewed themselves as Irish yet had privileges and resources that the majority of Irish did not have, which allowed them to be able to collect and preserve the folklore of the country. This trend can be traced almost directly to the publication of It was around the 19th century that the history and folklore of Ireland began to come to the attention of the Anglo-Irish elite, giving rise to the ideology which would eventually result in later Nationalism, and the desire for the independence that came with it.

In a speech given by Douglas Hyde to the National Literary Society on 25th November 1892 in which he laid out his agenda for cultural nationalism, he spoke about the “Necessity for de-Anglicising Ireland.” This push to recognise the importance of language regarding national identity influenced the view of folklore within the country, as well as emphasising the importance of the language itself as regards the folkloric material shared with it. There was a need to get back to the source of Irish literature and that meant Gaeilge as well as the material. This idea was clearly also on Charlotte Brooke’s mind when she began collecting and editing material; taking into account the one hundred and four-year span between the publication of this volume and Hyde’s speech, it is not implausible to surmise that Brooke influenced the way Nationalists viewed the Irish language.

The Irish-language sections are printed in the Gaelic typeface.

was one of the first books that featured printed Irish to be published in Ireland; this is alluded to in the full title of the book, which concludes with: “the originals in the Irish character.” This suggests that this feature was of a somewhat unusual nature and was viewed as a selling point. The first book in Irish to be printed in Ireland was a religious volume was by John Kearney, published in 1571, but Brooke’s book marked the first example of Irish folklore printed in its original language. As such it represents the first time that common Ireland was presented in a way that truly expressed the nature of the people. Breatnach notes that Brooke acted as a “literary interpreter between Irish-speaking and English-speaking Irishmen” (Breatnach)⁵, given that her work introduced elements of Irish culture that those who couldn’t speak the native language were not familiar with.

Shortly after a collected edition of her father’s works was published, Charlotte Brooke died near Longford of a malignant fever on 29th March 1793. In her life, she would publish several other books; a novel, appeared posthumously in 1803, but it is her folklore anthology for which she is remembered.

forced English readers to take note of Irish culture and encouraged them to see the Irish people as more than a race of uneducated individuals; the inclusion of the original Irish sources brought attention back to the past, perhaps saving the language from disappearing entirely, thus allowing the government of the later Republic to work on reviving it. The of the collection vindicated native poetry, provided inspiration for later Irish literature and claimed a place for Gaelic culture in the world canon; Brooke started a chain of events that would result in works such as Yeats’ in 1891, Gregory’s in 1904, J.M. Synge’s in 1907, Seán Ó Súilleabháin’s in 1966, and the National Folklore Collection. Her legacy continues to influence the field of folklore to this day.

Some of the volumes in the National Folklore Collection, housed at University College Dublin.

[1] Ó Giolláin, Diarmuid. Cork University Press, Cork, 2000.

[2] Leerssen, Joep. vol. 3, Cork University Press in association with Field Day, Cork, 1996.

[3] Nevin, Monica. “Charlotte Brooke.” , vol. 129, 1999, pp. 105–127. , www.jstor.org/stable/25509086.

[4] Coxhead, Elizabeth. Macmillan, London, 1961.

[5] Breatnach, R. A. “Two Eighteenth-Century Irish Scholars: J. C. Walker and Charlotte Brooke.” , no. 5, 1965. , www.jstor.org/stable/20495809

Writer — Folklorist — Film buff — UCD Graduate