Burns Scholar Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. (Lee Pellegrini)

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne knew she wanted to be a writer from a very early age, and believed she had the perfect plan to achieve this goal: “Read everything.”

This, of course, proved to be a little too ambitious.

Still, Ní Dhuibhne—a Dublin native who is the Burns Visiting Scholar in Irish Studies at Boston College this fall—was able to fulfill her desire to become a writer, and has been a successful one at that. She’s published nearly 30 novels, collections of stories, plays, and memoirs; she writes in Irish as well as English, and her books have been widely translated. Her literary honors include the Irish PEN Award for an Outstanding Contribution to Irish Literature, the Stuart Parker Award for Drama, the Hennessy Wall of Fame Award, and the Butler Award for Prose. Her novel The Dancers Dancing was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

Although she did not, in fact, read everything, Ní Dhuibhne is glad she at least explored one genre in particular. The course in Irish folklore she took as a student at University College Dublin proved to be a revelation, changing the way she thought about literature and providing a focus for her research and teaching that continues to this day—and for her tenure as Burns Scholar this fall.

Since 1991, BC has invited distinguished academics, writers, artists, journalists, librarians, and notable public figures who have made significant contributions to Irish cultural and intellectual life to serve as Burns Scholars. Appointees teach courses, offer public lectures, and use the University’s John J. Burns Library in their ongoing research, writing, and creative endeavors related to Irish history, art, and culture.

 “Having personally known some previous Burns Scholars, and having visited BC about 10 years ago, I was very well aware of it being a center of Irish studies,” said Ní Dhuibhne. “While the circumstances may be less than ideal because of the pandemic, I am delighted to be part of the Boston College community this fall and am enjoying my interactions with students and faculty.”

Ní Dhuibhne, who is leading a creative writing workshop for undergraduates, recently took part in a virtual event to launch her new collection of short stories, Little Red, and on October 30 was a guest on “The Irish Influence” webinar series sponsored by BC’s Irish Studies Program and Boston College Ireland.

When I brought Irish folk tales into my creative writing workshop here at BC, the students found something inspiring about them; one student said, ‘I couldn’t stop writing!’ In folk tales and fairy tales, the human imagination enjoys the fullest freedom.

She is using the Burns Library resources for a study of Thomas Crofton Croker (1798-1854), whom she describes as an Irish “proto-folklorist”—markedly different than the academically or professionally credentialed scholars and collectors now typical of the discipline. Although not as polished or proficient in some aspects of the work compared to later folklorists, she said, Crofton Croker was “a gifted amateur” whose three-volume Fairy Legends and Traditions in the South of Ireland was immensely popular and considered foundational. He corresponded and collaborated with the Brothers Grimm, among the most famous of folklorists, who translated his book into German.

“Crofton Croker was a Renaissance man who wrote, did sketches, and acted as a kind of ‘chief networker’ for the folklorists of that period,” she said. “Irish folklorists of the 20th century, when it became a scholarly field, held minimal respect for Crofton Croker and his contemporaries. But it’s fascinating to assess the attitudes, interests, and perceptions that influenced his methodology and presentation of his work, and the impact this had on the study of folklore itself.”  

In contemporary and popular culture, Ní Dhuibhne said, folklore is often belittled as the province of the unsophisticated or unworldly—fodder for children’s entertainment. She herself didn’t pay much attention to it until the course she took at UCD, which involved extensive use of archival material, all in Irish.

“It opened my eyes,” she said. “Ireland has such a treasure in its vast accumulation of folklore, notably folk tales or fairy tales. The basis of written literature is found in the oral tradition—think of The Canterbury Tales, for example—and the same narratives can be found in many different cultures and languages. As a folklorist, you can see the structure of these stories from oral tradition are replicated in novels and short stories, although perhaps they may be modernized.

“When I brought Irish folk tales into my creative writing workshop here at BC, the students found something inspiring about them; one student said, ‘I couldn’t stop writing!’ In folk tales and fairy tales, the human imagination enjoys the fullest freedom.”

Sean Smith | University Communications | October 2020