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Shelfmarks: St Brigid's Day Special

31 January 2022

In this special episode, Zoë Comyns delves into the Academy collections for traces of Brigid in the recordings of the Doegen archive.

We are pleased to announce a special episode of Shelfmarks in association with the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Shelfmarks is a podcast by the Royal Irish Academy in which podcaster-in-residence Zoë Comyns sifts through the Academy collection for Shelfmarks (biographies, manuscripts, books and reference from the collection) and invites a guest writer to discuss their own relationship with the natural world. Writers include Amanda Bell, Kerri Ní Dhochartaigh, Manchán Magan, Siobhán Mannion, Jane Clarke, Neil Hegarty and Elaine Feeney. Each writer has been specially commissioned to write pieces exploring their own relationship with nature.

In this special episode of Shelfmarks for St Brigid’s Day, Zoë explores the figure of Brigid. She imagines her origins in Irish folktale and story and delves into the Royal Irish Academy collection for traces of Brigid in the recordings of the Doegen archive. She's joined today by guest poet and writer Elaine Feeney. Elaine joins Zoë for a walk in Renville Park in Galway to chat about her early life on a farm, superstition, women’s safety in nature and what Brigid means to her. Elaine has written two specially commissioned pieces for the episode of Shelfmarks.

Elaine’s writing examines how history and national identity structure the everyday lives of Irish women. For this episode of Shelfmarks Elaine has written an essay and a short story prompted by the figure of Brigit, the coming of Spring and the lives of women. She also takes inspiration from the Tom Murphy Mommo trilogy - the plays, 'Bailegangaire', 'A Thief of a Christmas' and, of course, 'Brigit'.

Her essay 'A Fine Roll of Cloud from the West' brings us back to her early years growing up on a farm in Athenry. She describes the work she and her siblings did to keep the farm going and the brutality of working with animals. In spite of this, Elaine founds moments of beauty and escape that lay the foundations for her writing life. In 'The Stranger', Elaine writes an origin story for the inspiration for Seamus’ statue of Brigit in Tom Murphy’s play 'Brigit'. Seamus carves a statue of Brigit from bog oak and, in Elaine’s account, he takes inspiration from a woman in a café.

About the Doegen archive

In 1926 the Irish government asked Dr Wilheim Doegen (Director of the Sound Department at the Prussian State Library in Berlin) to make recordings of Irish speech in the Gaeltacht. The Department of Education asked the RIA to organise the project. Dr Doegen came to Ireland with his assistant, Karl Tempel in 1928. Speakers were asked to sing a song, tell a story, recite a version of the Parable of the Prodigal Son (based on a copy supplied to them in advance), count numbers or recite a prayer. The recordings were made on wax matrices which were then transported to Berlin where they were converted to shellac.

In this piece Zoë has interweaved recordings from:

Máire McDaid: Máire counts in Irish.

Anna Feely: this doesn’t directly mention Brigid but instead refers to a girl gathering rushes, often associated with Brigid and her distinctive cross.
A chailín deas na luachra
‘A young man meets a beautiful young woman gathering rushes, which were traditionally used for making bedding. He tries to seduce her with various promises, and in the final verses the young woman reproaches him for the trouble he has caused her.’

Mícheál Mac Gearailt from Co. Kerry, who recites a prayer to Brigid for her protection:
Coigilt na tine
'The practice of banking the fire for the night was one of daily necessity in former times, whereby glowing coals would be smothered with ash to keep them smouldering until the next day, when they could be rekindled. It was usually one of the last things to be done at night, and was often accompanied by protective prayers.'

Also included is:
Brat agus teagasc Bhríde - by Seán Ó Colláin
‘This account of St Brigid appears to combine legends from a number of sources. The motif of Brigid's cloak is found in early hagiographies concerning the saint.’ This recording points to Brigid’s charity and her magical cloak that spread out over the lands of Kildare.

About the podcaster

Zoë Comyns is a multi award-winning independent radio producer and works across drama, essay, fiction and factual features. Her programmes have broadcast on RTÉ (Radio 1, Lyric Fm & R1 Extra), Newstalk, BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service. She presents and produces Keywords, the short writing programme for RTÉ Radio. She won the John McGahern Award for Literature 2019 for emerging writers and radio awards including the New York Festivals, AIB, IMRO, PPI and Åke Blomstrom.

About the guest author

Elaine is a poet and writer whose most recent book is As You Were. In the past year she has won the Kate O’Brien and the Dalkey 'emerging writer' awards. Elaine’s writing examines how history and national identity structure the everyday lives of Irish women. Elaine Feeney’s book As You Were is published by Harvill Secker.

Listen to Shelfmarks on SoundCloud, Spotify or Apple Podcasts.

This St Brigid’s Day event is brought to you by The Royal Irish Academy and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

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