Saving Old Sounds


A Wax Cylinder Digitisation Project

(Picture left) Tadhg Ó Murchú recording on the ediphone from Paddy Óg Liath Ó Súilleabháin, Muing Uí Dhubhda, Co. Kerry. Photo: Caoimhín Ó Danachair 1936

The Department of Irish Folklore, University College Dublin houses some 1,300 wax cylinders containing sound recordings of a range of folk narrative and folk song (in Irish and English) and folk music. These materials form part of the national folklore collection (Irish Folklore Collection) in the care of the Department and are the property of University College Dublin. This collection, covering a time-span of almost fifty years and stemming from all over Ireland, is the best of its kind in existence.

Approximately one-third of the cylinders were recorded by the full-time collectors of the Irish Folklore Commission (1935-1971); the balance consists of donations received by the Commission, the earliest of these being the Feis Ceoil recordings made in Dublin and Belfast, dating back to 1897.    

Recordings made by such eminent collectors as Fr Donnellan (South Armagh) and Fr Ó Muireadhaigh (Omeath, County Louth) and Fr de Hindeberg (Waterford) are also represented.

These recordings represent intangible culture heritage of the first rank, their venerable age alone rendering them of considerable international interest. They are of the utmost importance for the study of Irish folk tradition in that they contain the earliest audio instances of certain stories, songs or tunes, or constitute the only known examples (or important local variants) of such items. They are equally important for the study of Irish and Hiberno-English dialects in that they provide access to lost dialects of both languages from many different parts of Ireland. Their significance in terms of local and regional history and identity cannot be overstated. Conservation of these voice and instrumental recordings constitutes the first step of the SOS project and is of paramount importance. A grant of €9,000 from the Heritage Council of Ireland has already enabled the Department of Irish Folklore to effect the transfer of approximately 250 cylinders to digital format. The donation of a further €40,000 by Muintir Thír Eoghain/The Tyrone Association will now fund the digitisation of the remaining cylinders, thus completing thefirst stage of the project.

Only a small amount of the recordings contained on these cylinders has been available hitherto; it is confidently anticipated that digitised access to many of them for the first time will reveal hitherto unknown examples of Irish folk music, narrative and song. The future availability of these materials will have a particularly beneficial impact in scholarly as well as educational and cultural terms, not only in Ireland, but also around the world.

Stages two and three of the project, for which funding is currently being sought, will concentrate on:

  • transcribing, documenting and contextualizing the contents of the collection to the fullest possible extent and
  • re-mastering and publishing the recordings and ancillary materials which, it is envisaged, will become available for use on educational websites, on CDs, and in other ways.

SOS was launched by Senator Maurice Hayes in Newman House, University College Dublin on 23 June, 2004.