Reflections On . . . The Educational Value of Folklore and Local History

By Terry Gargan

Updated / Thursday, 26 January 2023 10:26

Petersville House, Co. Meath

I was about 11 years old when I first heard about the ghost in Petersville House. Anyone from around Moynalty in rural County Meath will be well familiar with what I’m referring to. It was one of the most written about folktales in the Schools’ Collection, recorded way back in the 1930s, and continues to be spoken of even to this day. For those of you not familiar with the story; it concerns a Cromwellian-era Priest Hunter, named “Peters,” who lured a priest to his house under the pretence of helping a sick man, only to kill him on the spot. Ever since, the house is said to be haunted and there has been an endless number of strange goings-on there over the years (you can read more about this and other tales from the Schools’ Collection here on my website).

Now you might wonder what this has got to do with the educational value of folklore and local history? Well, to answer that simply – although Petersville is a crumbling ruin, many centuries old – the house still remains. It was the stories that kept it alive; free from the vandalism or graffiti that have plagued so many monuments in recent years.

Ireland is privileged to be one of the few European nations with such an extensive collection of mythology and folklore. Almost every corner of the island has stories similar in nature to those of Petersville, which puts us in a unique position of often being able to protect rural monuments based on nothing more than words and superstitions. Some great work is being done by organisations like the Office of Public Works (OPW) in protecting national monuments, and by the Heritage Council in encouraging community engagement; but we must build on this to ensure smaller sites around the countryside are also promoted and preserved in the best way possible. And what better way to do this than through stories?

Stories allow people to connect with their community on a deeper level and help foster a sense of pride, belonging, and most importantly – respect. The significance of respect cannot be overstated here. By learning about the history or folklore of their locality, people can gain a greater appreciation for the cultural and social diversity that exists within it. Ireland is a shared island of many beliefs. The adventures of Cúchulainn which were taught at my school in Meath are also known and celebrated by Unionists in the north of the island. Understanding what these stories mean to people of different backgrounds can contribute to a more cohesive and inclusive community, regardless of differing opinions.

On a more practical level, studying local history can also help develop important critical thinking and research skills. In a world of “fake news” and misinformation, I don’t think there is a more vital skill a child, or even an adult, could learn. The ease of access to information these days is a bit of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it provides accessibility; on the other hand, the facts can get a bit muddled. By learning to sift through primary sources such as newspaper clippings, photographs, and letters, children will better understand how to evaluate the reliability of information and consider it from multiple perspectives.

Traditionally, visiting museums and attending lectures or events was standard practice for those looking to learn more about their locality – and there is nothing wrong with this approach. There are other options for younger learners, though. The Heritage in Schoolswebsite has some great resources for kids. Local libraries often have a wealth of material waiting to be discovered, or are themselves involved in heritage projects. Donegal Library Service, for example, commissioned a collaborative digital project involving primary school students to re-tell the story of St. Colmcille for the 1500th anniversary of his birth. Even leaving the house and traveling somewhere new at the weekend can be enough to spark an interest. It’s sometimes a hard thing to do on these dreary winter days, but it will be rewarding nonetheless.

To sum things up, the educational value of folklore and local history should not be underestimated. It allows us to explore the unique stories, events, and people that have shaped our community. It teaches us respect: respect for what’s around us and for others. It develops analytical skills that help us see through the cloud of half-truths that flood the internet. Most importantly, though, like the last standing wall of Petersville House, it acts as a beacon to the community: a memory of those who came before. So, how well do you know the folklore and local history of your area? And if the answer is “very well,” are there ways that you can work with the libraries and the other amenities in your local community to share that treasure trove with others?

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of the Museum of Childhood Ireland.

Terry Gargan is a final year Master’s student at the University of Limerick studying Public History and Cultural Heritage. He has recently launched Beyond the Borora, a local history project which is the culmination of five years research and design. The project consists of a website and social media channels and is aimed at raising awareness of monuments and events of historical importance in North Meath. Terry has a background in communications and oversees the marketing department of the Irish division of Ecological Building Systems, where he promotes the use of sustainable building solutions for built heritage in Ireland.

If you have any questions about the blog or want to learn more about Beyond the Borora, you can reach out to Terry on Linkedin:

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