Tom Munnelly was employed as a full-time song and music collector from September 1971 until his death in August 2007. Initially he worked for the Department of Education and was later transferred to University College Dublin, where his collection is housed at the National Folklore Collection.
In the course of his 36-year career, Tom’s recordings of reel-to-reel, digital and cassette audio tapes of folk song, music and lore make him one of the most important and fruitful collectors and account for one of the largest collections of traditional song in the English language by an individual collector in Ireland. Tom collected in Co Mayo on a number of occasions between 1973 and 1994, and material from two of these collecting trips feature in the exhibition.
Tom was revered among lovers of folk song and music in Ireland and beyond, and gained a reputation and respect as an authority on the Irish tradition of folk song in the English language. His collection extends beyond the boundaries of the music tradition, and includes aspects of social history, calendar custom and material culture such as vernacular architecture, rope-making and thatching.
As a full-time collector, Tom enjoyed intimate access to homes, lives and repertoires of many singers, musicians and storytellers from both the settled and travelling communities. One such storyteller was Jim Murphy from Delvin South, Louisburgh, whom Tom recorded on August 26, 1981. Reflecting the element of luck in the day-to-day life of a folklore collector, it was only possible to record Jim after the silage maker broke down, thus leaving the morning free for collecting.
The significance of Tom Munnelly’s collection is highlighted by Professor Thérèse Smith, Head of the School of Music in UCD: “Tom Munnelly’s collection offers a window on the recent past, featuring singers who sang for entertainment, education and commemoration at a time before television and recorded music had succeeded in claiming their audience’s attention. Through their art, these singers painted a fascinating and poignant picture of a society where song was a natural medium of entertainment and storytelling.”
‘Captured by Song’ features a selection of some 60 images held at the National Folklore Collection. They represent various aspects of Tom’s life as a collector, and are presented in approximate chronological order starting with his first year as a collector.
In the late 1970s Tom acquired a small Minolta camera and also used a Minolta XG2. In June 1991 he was provided with a Nikon F501 camera and this encouraged him to take evening classes in photography. A second image from County Mayo, captured in McCarthy’s Pub in Knock on November 16, 1983, was also the result of a chance encounter. As Tom warmed himself by the fire, Bill Murphy and Tom Beirne, both tin whistle players arrived, and Tom managed to record them on tape and with his Minolta camera.
The exhibition also features extracts from Tom Munnelly’s field diaries. Full-time collectors of folklore were required to keep a field diary. Here they documented day-to-day events, people they met, those they recorded and where they stayed. Tom’s diary is particularly insightful, not least due to his acerbic wit, but also the warmth and honesty present in his descriptions of singers and musicians. Furthermore, it reveals his passion for, and knowledge of, traditional song and music.
‘Captured by Song’ will be officially opened at the Linenhall this Monday, September 10, at 7.30pm. The opening will include a talk, with audio recordings, by exhibition curator Ronan Galvin. Ronan is a lecturer in Irish Folklore, UCD and is also a fiddle player and Irish traditional music commentator. The opening and talk, which will include selections from Tom Munnelly’s work in Mayo, are free of charge and all are welcome.
CULTURE Folklore collector’s treasures on show