IRISH FOLKWAYS by E. Estyn Evans. Publishers Routledge of London and New York, xvi + 324 pages plus 16 black and white plates. £6.95 (softback).

 

This tightly-packed gold mine of information is now appearing in its sixth reprint, having first appeared in 1957, and I should think it would be an extremely difficult task to find a dissatisfied handful of readers among those who have purchased this book over the years. With regard to layout, the book is a fine example of how it should be done; clearly laid out contents and chapters, served not merely by fourteen plates but by 91 figures (which ran into hundreds of diagrams) in addition to a full bibliography and index.

All very well of course, but the true test of a book’s worth must be its contents, and this test is passed with flying colours. E. Estyn Evans was a graduate of University College Aberystwyth, where his first degree was in Anthropology and Geography. When this book appeared in 1957 he was Professor of Geography at Queen’s University Belfast where he was not merely to inspire many of his pupils in their studies but to contribute to the knowledge of the general public in his writings and broadcasts. In the years 1939-41 he produced the draft of his earlier book Irish Heritage and following the success that this book enjoyed, he did not rest on his laurels but continued in his collecting to produce the book currently under review.

The unsurpassed knowledge of and familiarity with his subject is not the greatest hallmark of Evans’ book, but the skilful marriage of the latter with his dedication to and irrepressible fascination with the same subject. Ireland has indeed been fortunate to receive this remarkable Welshman who had the vision to realise what was in jeopardy and the energy and appetite to collect, sift, analyse and, ultimately, present in a readable and virtually gripping fashion the rich harvest of his unfailing labours.

A hint of Evans’ enchantment with the subject is afforded in his Preface: “The famine (1845—7) as we shall see, was a great social watershed and it marked the end of an era that might well be termed prehistoric. But it is the changes which are taking place today, a hundred years later, that are finally extinguishing the prehistoric traditions. Mechanisation and mass-production are invading the remotest glens, and things which were the commonplaces of fifty years ago are becoming as remote to the young as the Middle Ages. Knowledge of ways of life that have altered little for centuries is passing away, skills, whose loss the practical countryman may have cause to regret, are disappearing”.

To the lament of many, the validity of this statement has sadly come to roost, for if we examine some of the many aspects covered in this book they have all but disappeared, or are in the process of doing so: The Thatched House, Hearth and Home, Kilns and Clochauns, Plough and Spade, Lazy Beds, Turf and Slane, Home-Made Things; Fairs and Gatherings, Weddings and Wakes, Old Pishrogues etc.

Irish Folkways is one of those rare books which holds so much for the scholar but even more for the ordinary reader, as it preserves and keeps alive for future generations a record of the past. It is probably the best- known of all the works produced by Professor Evans and, like a good wine, is destined to improve even more with age.

DR. A.J. HUGHES Department of Celtic Queen’s University Belfast.

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