Seán Mac Mathúna

Other names
  • Seán Mac Mathghamhna
  • John McMahon
Birth date
24 July 1876
Date of death
18 December 1949

Seán Mac Mathúna was a folklore collector for the Irish Folklore Commission. He filled copybooks with the area's folklore and his own writings between the years 1929 and 1947. Most of the material is in Irish, an important record of a dialect which is now all but gone.

Mac Mathúna wrote the majority of the material from his own memory, jotting down lists of Irish-language words from the area and seeking answers to the questions in the Commission’s guidebook, A Handbook of Irish Folklore (Ó Súilleabháin, 1942). This material deals with varying aspects of local lore primarily: descriptions of vernacular houses or cures or marriage customs, for example. Mac Mathúna answered various questionnaires during his career as well on topics as varied as ‘tally’ sticks, death and sickness, traditional dress and St. Martin's Day. There is a fine collection of the long old tales that he collected from excellent storytellers such as his relatives Seán Carún (Johnny Carey) from Luogh South and Stiofán Ó hEalaoire (Stephen Hillary) who lived in Ballyvara and Doonagore. Mac Mathuna was one of those who made a huge, personal contribution to the preservation of the béaloideas and storytelling tradition in Clare; he documented the Gaeltacht tradition and the values of his North Clare community, a community made famous by researchers such as the anthropologists Arensberg and Kimball.

Mac Mathúna, a man who never married, collected a substantial store of folklore from women and about women in his own native area during his career. It includes songs, stories and information regarding birth customs (midwives, the custom of ‘churching’), women's clothes and women's work.

Séamus Ó Duilearga, Honorary Director of the National Folklore Commission, kept every letter that Mac Mathúna wrote: he believed that people would be interested in them since they represent a rich record of the local Irish-language dialect, the Irish of Luogh North. Mac Mathúna describes his travels in search of folklore, details of his personal life as well as commentary on contemporary events such as the 1937 Referendum on the Constitution of Ireland. A picture of the life of the people during the Emergency is captured in them also, and Mac Mathúna details the difficulties that rationing created for him while he was collecting. Mac Mathúna was a farm labourer for the duration of his life and — like Heaney — he called his pen 'the spade with the light handle'. He dug in the field of folklore in the vicinity of Luogh North and he discovered treasures.

Dr Michelle Dunne’s thesis, Saintréithe de Thraidisiún Béil na mBan agus Léiriú na mBan i gCnuasach Sheáin Mhic Mhathúna (2023) can be found here. The research was jointly supervised by Dr Úna Bhreathnach (DCU) and Dr Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, Director of the National Folklore Collection, UCD. The research was generously sponsored by the Barrett Family Foundation.