MY IRISH FAMILY FOLK-TALES
by Timothy Lunney – June 2010
Back in 2002, while performing some internet searches using the Irish spelling of my family name: “Luinigh”, I came across an obscure notice that a book was being sent to dead storage at a university library in Oklahoma. The book is titled “SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH – Munterloney Folk-Tales”, was written by Professor Éamonn Ó Tuathail of Trinity College Dublin and was published in 1933. I was intrigued… a book of folk-tales bearing my family’s ancient Irish clan name: “Mhuintir Lúinigh”.
I arranged, through my local public library here in Florida, to obtain the book on inter-library loan. [Your public library can obtain on loan for you almost any book held by a public or college library, even some private libraries.] When it arrived, I was amazed to find that, not only does this book bear my family’s Irish name, it also contains many of our traditional folk-tales in the original, and now lost, Tyrone dialect of the Irish language.
The name “Mhuintir Lúinigh” literally means “land of the O’Lúinigh” and “the O’Lúinigh people”. The O’Lúinigh were part, and sometimes chieftains, of the Cenél Moen tribe of the kingdom of Tír Eóghain. The area referred to as the “Mhuintir Lúinigh” and “Munterloney” in Professor Ó Tuathail’s time corresponded generally to the parishes of Termonmaguirk and Upper and Lower Bodoney in County Tyrone.
During the 15th and 16th centuries, the area then known as the “Mhuintir Lúinigh” included a much larger area of approximately 100 square miles, corresponding generally to the baronies of Strabane and Clogher. The O’Lúinigh lived in this portion of western Tyrone from the early 1200’s until the mid 20th century.
No Lunney has lived there for many years, but you can stay on the site of the historic Lunney farm in the Munterloney.
During the 1920’s and 30’s, the government of Ireland became alarmed at the rapid decline in the number of people who could speak and write the Irish language. The government commissioned the Irish Folklore Institute to send Irish language scholars around Ireland to record, transcribe and preserve the Irish people’s rich heritage of language and oral literature. Between 1929 and 1933, Professor Éamonn Ó Tuathail of Trinity College Dublin travelled throughout the district of County Tyrone in Northern Ireland called the “Munterloney”, to record the oral literature of the few Irish-speaking people still living there.
The Munterloney District of County Tyrone, Northern Ireland
By the time Professor Ó Tuathail arrived in the Munterloney district in 1929 to record the folk-tales of the area, Irish had ceased to be spoken except by only a small number of elderly people. The dialect being spoken in the Munterloney district was unique, and differed significantly from the dialects spoken in other parts of Ireland.
Even the 1802 “Statistical Survey of County Tyrone”, at a time when over one-half of the 250,000 inhabitants of County Tyrone still spoke Irish, noted that “the people of this county in themselves differ as much perhaps as those of separate kingdoms…the inhabitants of [the town of] Strabane and its vicinity seem quite a different race of people from those of Munterloney…”
This separation and uniqueness was probably attributable to the fact that the Munterloney district was, and remains, a rather isolated part of Ireland, surrounded by the Munterloney (now called “Sperrin”) Mountains. Its isolation is probably also the reason that this was the last part of Northern Ireland where Irish was still spoken as a first language.
Professor Ó Tuathail spent four years interviewing Irish-speakers and recording and transcribing the folk-tales of the Mhuintir Lúinigh. He transcribed these folk-tales only in the unique Irish dialect of the Munterloney district, along with extensive notes in English on grammar and spelling. His work was published by the Irish Folklore Institute in 1933 as “SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH – Munterloney Folk-Tales”.
Unfortunately for modern scholars and for the modern descendants of the Mhuintir Lúinigh, Professor Ó Tuathail’s book was never fully translated into English. Today, Irish language scholars confirm that it is a unique record of a now lost dialect of Irish. In fact, this book is now used a text for the advanced study of Irish dialects.
Back in 2003, I wrote to the Strabane District Council, the local governing body for this part of County Tyrone, and brought the matter of the “SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH – Munterloney Folk-Tales” to the attention of the Council. I requested that a project be undertaken to translate and republish this book. The District Council kindly approved my request, and then formally petitioned the Northern Ireland Assembly to undertake and fund the project. The project was subsequently funded by the Assembly and is nearing completion.
In August 2004, I organized a family trip to Ireland, to visit places where our Irish ancestors once lived. Accompanying me on this trip were my then 78-year-old father, Boyd Lunney from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, my then 89-year-old aunt, Alice Lunney Gregory from Westfield, Maine, and my cousins, Dennis Lunney from Winthrop, Maine and his sister Judith Lunney Merriam from Russellville, Kentucky, and John Holmes and his wife Teresa from Chepachet, Rhode Island.
One of the places that we stayed in Ireland was the Glenelly Valley of County Tyrone, at the very heart of the Munterloney District. The Glenelly Valley is a spectacular treasure-trove of Irish scenic riches, and is protected by the government of Northern Ireland as an area of outstanding natural beauty. The area abounds in ancient stone monuments, “fairy forts” and sacred wells.
The beautiful Glenelly Valley of County Tyrone, Northern Ireland
We stayed there for one week in rented cottages, next door to the Sperrin Heritage Centre. These well-appointed cottages are a traditional Irish “clachan”, or family compound of houses. The four cottages have a total of nine bedrooms, and are ideal for accommodating a large family group.
Sperrin Clachan Cottages
During our stay in the Glenelly Valley, the Strabane District Council’s tourism office offered us their assistance, and the free use of the Heritage Centre facilities, to allow me to host a lecture about, and reading of, the “SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH – Munterloney Folk-Tales”. Professor Donal O’Baoill of Queens University Belfast, a leading Irish language scholar, kindly agreed to prepare and deliver the lecture and reading. Prior to the lecture, Professor O’Baoill shared a “home-cooked” dinner with me and my family at our rental cottage next to the Heritage Centre. The dinner was prepared from locally-grown produce and chicken by my remarkable Aunt Alice. Professor O’Baoill chuckled often during the dinner, remarking that my large (and very noisy) Irish-American family reminded him of his own family in rural County Donegal.
Professor Donal O’Baoill
Professor O’Baoill’s lecture and reading at the Heritage Centre was a great success, and was well-attended, even by several Irish-speaking local residents and scholars, in spite of a terrible thunderstorm that evening. One amazing part of the presentation was when Professor O’Baoill played some of the original tape recordings, made by Professor Éamonn Ó Tuathail in the 1930’s, of the folk-tales being recited by the elderly residents of the Munterloney. To hear these folk-tales, being spoken in the musical language of my ancestors, was a very moving experience for me and my family. After the lecture, we all gathered in the tea room of the Heritage Centre for refreshments, where my family and I were very pleased to meet and speak with several residents of the surrounding area.
Relatively few Irish-American families know exactly where in Ireland their ancestors once lived. Fewer still are fortunate enough to visit the beautiful land of their ancestors. Perhaps only a handful have ever heard any of their family folk-tales. Thanks to the incomparable hospitality of the people of the Glenelly Valley of County Tyrone, of its District Council, and of Professor O’Baoill, my family and I shared an undoubtedly unique experience.
“SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH – Munterloney Folk-Tales” has been translated and republished with additional traditional folktales and sayings from the area in both the English and Irish languages. Copies may be ordered on-line from Four Courts Press.