Irish Tales and Folklore are Shared in Honor of Henry Glassie

Irish Tales and Folklore are Shared in Honor of Henry Glassie

Monday, 18 March 2024 17:47

by Suzanne Moore, Wilkes County Librarian

Henry Glassie, a renowned folklorist, and College Professor Emeritus at Indiana University Bloomington, celebrates his birthday on March 24th. His book, Passing the Time in Ballymenone, is a fascinating and detailed exploration of life in a small, tight-knit community in Northern Ireland. In this book, Glassie captures the rich cultural traditions, values, and beliefs of the people of Ballymenone, offering readers a unique and insightful glimpse into the daily lives of this community. 

The members of the Reading Trap Book Club had mixed feelings about the book they recently read, despite it being a perfect selection for the St. Patrick's Day celebrations. The book was quite lengthy, almost 900 pages, including footnotes. It took Glassie seven years to research and document first-hand notes for this book. No one read the entire book (although I am still working on it myself). However, since the book was organized by subjects with sections that could be read independently, members chose parts to read and report on. This gave everyone a good sense of what was included in the comprehensive book and allowed everyone to learn from each other. Some participants had more interesting sections than others, but all had a great time discussing and sampling Irish dishes at the group’s meeting last Thursday. The table was loaded with potato soup, shepherd’s pie, shortbread, a crock of cabbage with bacon, Bailey’s chocolate cheesecake, and actual butter cookies from Dublin, Ireland.

The text discusses various topics such as the methods used for growing potatoes in a section called "Moss". Another section titled "Butter" talks about the process of making butter and shares some folktales related to fairies. The text also explores some philosophical beliefs, highlighting the difference between quiet and silence. While it's essential to have quiet moments and meditate, being silent can lead to negativity. There are times when we need to speak out for what is right.

In this community, oral traditions were highly valued, following Glassie's approach. He spent much of the 1970s making recordings of conversations with the people he came to know as friends.  The total population of Ballymenone consisted of 42 households, 130 people. Today the village no longer exists, making this book exceptionally important as a record of the old ways of life.  During Glassie's time there, the people of Ballymenone, predominantly Catholic, endured the worst of "The Troubles."  Amidst distant bombs in the night, and soldiers passing by during the day, Glassie was at first greeted with skepticism until he mentioned a fiddle tune, he knew from Appalachia.   

Glassie's interest in the old music that was brought to a new world by Irish immigrants proved to be an asset during his research. Coincidentally, while starting to read this book, I also stumbled upon a piece about Ola Belle Reed, a renowned banjo player and songwriter from Lansing, North Carolina, and then discovered it was also written by Henry Glassie! With a considerable knowledge of Irish fiddle tunes, Glassie gained the trust of Ballymenone's elders and recorded their stories, superstitions, rituals, habits, and customs carefully.  He had to ensure that he did not document certain stories to avoid offending them. 

I was impressed by Glassie’s prose and ways of making me think about his work.  Here’s a quote from the book that shows his views about what he was doing and the love he had for the people and the land.  “While the historian sees peasants as oppressed, grease for the economic system, meat for the battlefield, the folklorist sees them as singers and dancers.”

I would encourage other readers with an interest in Northern Ireland’s old way of life to check out Glassie’s book.  Some have compared it to an Irish version of America’s Foxfire series. 

Next month, The Reading Trap is hosting an event centered on the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. On April 6 at 1:00 p.m., a free film about the life of Hans Christian Andersen, starring Danny Kaye, will be shown at Two Rivers Cinema.  A discussion about the movie and stories will take place on April 14, at noon, in the Traphill Branch Library.