Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

REVIEW: Straw, Hay & Rushes


Anne O’Dowd, Straw, Hay & Rushes in Irish Folk Tradition, Newbridge: Irish Academic Press, 2015.

Anne O’Dowd, for many years a curator at the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, uses two major sources as starting points for this magnificent book:  objects made from straw, hay and rushes in the Museum’s collections, and an ‘extensive and detailed questionnaire’ on the uses of these materials which A.T. Lucas, the Museum’s director, and Séamus Ó Duilearga, of the  Folklore of Ireland Commission, devised and circulated early in the 1960s.

Thus the book is basically a catalogue of  the Museum’s  holdings supplemented by memories of how these were made and used.  O’Dowd divides the holdings into 13 categories, ranging from matting, St Brigid’s crosses, straw and rush bedding, containers, animal restrictions, to ‘building work: shelters and homes’.  The whole work is well illustrated with photographs of the objects and of them being made and used.  However, the author’s discursive style ensures that we get much more, almost an overview peasant life in Ireland.  Thus we get a list of the names given to characters in Irish mummers’ plays (the mummers use straw costumes), and an extensive survey of poultry-keeping (the Museum holds some 39 examples of ‘containers for hens’).

Whether or not this additional information is of great interest to people who are already know a great deal about Irish folk-life is not for this reviewer to say, but for people who have little knowledge of such things O’Dowd provides a fascinating read.

In three pages of acknowledgements the author lists numerous experts who have provided her with help and information.  Unfortunately these experts do not seem to include a botanist.  On p. 507 it is suggested that ‘a Parnassus grass, a coarse mountain grass, probably Parnassia pallustris‘ [sic.] (grass of Parnassus) was apparently used for thatching.  Grass of Parnassus cannot be described as a ‘coarse’ grass, and it’s exceedingly unlikely that it was ever used as thatch.  On the same page, gilcough, ‘the sedge grown in ponds which was cut and tied into bundles for thatching turf ricks’, is identified as Cytisus scoparius (broom).  Whilst it’s possible that broom could be used as thatch, it cannot be described as a ‘sedge’, and it certainly doesn’t grow in ponds.

However, O’Dowd has produced a work which will be frequently consulted by anyone with an interest in the subject and enjoyed by people wanting an up-to-date and totally unsentimental overview of Irish rural (and frequently urban) life.

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