Croker, Thomas Crofton (1798–1854), antiquary and folklorist, was born 15 January 1798 in Buckingham Square, Cork city, the only son of Thomas Croker, major in the army, and his wife Maria, widow of a Mr Fitton; she was daughter and co-heir of Croker Dillon of Baltidaniel, Co. Cork, a distant relative of the Crokers. There was one daughter, who married Charles Eyre Coote of Kilmallock. The family was protestant, well connected, and respectable. Nothing is known of his education, but as a youngster Thomas developed a great interest in antiquities, and spent his free time collecting legends and traditional material – what would nowadays be described as folklore – in country districts throughout Cork and Kerry. He was apprenticed at 16 to the Cork shipping company established by the quakers John Lecky (qv) and Jacob Mark. Lecky later helped Croker with his folklore collecting by supplying Youghal traditions for the second edition of his collection.
Croker's first publication, an article in the Morning Post (1815), described a caoine (the Irish death lament) that he heard at a pattern (a saint's day celebration) in Gougane Barra, Co. Cork, which he attended in 1813 with his friend Joseph Humphreys, a quaker who was later the first headmaster of the first school for the deaf in Ireland, at Claremont, Dublin. Croker sketched the landscape of the Cork countryside as he collected its folklore, and exhibited his pen and ink drawings in the city in 1817.
In 1818, after Maj. Croker's death, John Wilson Croker (qv), then secretary to the admiralty, arranged for a junior clerkship in the admiralty in London for young Thomas. He introduced lithographic copying to facilitate the issue of duplicate letters, greatly expediting office procedure. Other aspects of his work were found satisfactory throughout his career, and after more than thirty years he retired in 1850 as first clerk, with a suitably large pension of £580. However, Croker is remembered for what he did in his leisure time, rather than as a civil servant.
About 1818 Croker sent Thomas Moore (qv) ‘nearly forty ancient airs’ and other Irish lore, and visited Moore at his home in England. Croker published his notes and sketches from his teenage collecting, as well as his 1822 tour, in Researches in the south of Ireland, illustrative of the scenery, architectural remains and the manners and superstitions of the peasantry with an appendix containing a private narrative of the rebellion of 1798 (1824), a quarto volume with illustrations by Alfred and Marianne Nicholson, who had accompanied Croker on his 1822 visit to Cork, Waterford, and Limerick. The ‘private narrative’ was Jane Adams's letter of May 1798, written from Summerseat, Co. Wexford, describing the experiences of a loyalist family during the rebellion.
In the first chapter, ‘History and national character’, Croker set out to describe the native Irish to the Anglo-Irish ascendancy and to English readers, who he believed had ‘little interest in the importance of a “dependent colony” ’. Using his journey as a framework, Croker described topography and antiquities, as well as the language, customs, and superstitions which he regarded as formative of the ‘national character of the peasantry of Ireland’, though since his background and religious views were very different from those of the people he was describing, he was more often repelled than attracted by the superstitions he encountered among them. Later critics allege that Croker's work contributed to the development of the stereotypical view of the Irish as fey, impractical, wistful, and jocular.
Just before it was due to go to the publisher, it appears that Croker lost the manuscript he had prepared for his next book, which included traditions and stories about fairies and the supernatural. His friends William Maginn (qv), Joseph Humphreys, David Pigot (qv), Thomas Keightly (qv), and Charles Dodd (qv) contributed folklore material and tales to make up a new volume. Fairy legends and traditions of the south of Ireland (1825), the first book purporting to contain material collected from oral tradition in the British Isles, published anonymously, was immediately successful. It was praised by Sir Walter Scott, and translated into German in 1826 by the Grimm brothers, the most famous folklorists of the day; a lively correspondence between Wilhelm Grimm and Croker lasted for several years. The book was translated into French by P. A. Dufour (1828).
Daniel Maclise (qv), also a Corkonian, illustrated the second edition of Fairy legends (1826). A second series of Fairy legends appeared in 1827 with Croker's name on the title page; following protests by Keightley and other contributors, a third edition, containing only Croker's stories, appeared in 1834, along with some analysis of similar material from elsewhere in Europe. The book was frequently reprinted, with versions appearing throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, despite some adverse criticism by a number of later commentators, particularly B. G. MacCarthy. She took exception to Croker's unsophisticated methodology and his apparently limited knowledge of the Irish language and of history, and especially objected to the fact that he did not give his friends credit for the legends they had contributed. She quoted A. A. Watts's ‘rather libellous lines’ from his Literary souvenir (1832):
Perhaps Watts and others who complained did not sufficiently recognise the extent to which the collaborators had shared the material in advance of publication; recent theories dealing with the transmission of folk material might be invoked to excuse Croker's apparent carelessness. Croker purchased manuscripts compiled by his friend Adolphus Lynch, and in 1829 published Legends of the lakes, or sayings and doings at Killarney; collected chiefly from the MSS of Adolphus Lynch, esq. Maclise illustrated the book. An abridged version appeared in 1831 under two titles: Legends of Killarney and Killarney legends; arranged as a guide to the lakes; there was no reference to Lynch in the new versions. According to MacCarthy, the popular comic stories Adventure of Barney Mahony and My village versus our village, published by Croker in 1832, were later recognised as the work of Mrs Croker.
Croker was elected to the RIA in 1827, and in the same year became a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London. He was a fellow of the Royal Antiquarian Society of Copenhagen and of the Swedish Archaeological Society. He was a member of, and later registrar of, the Literary Fund Society, and of the British Archaeological Association, the Hakluyt Society, and other scholarly organisations. In 1838 Croker edited the Memoirs of Joseph Holt, general of the Irish rebels (of 1798). Historians regard Croker's editorial interventions as unwarranted, and the reputation of Joseph Holt (qv) has been reassessed. Also in 1838, Croker was a founder member of the Camden Society, and a council member 1838–46. He edited Narratives illustrative of the contests in Ireland in 1641 and 1690 for the society in 1841.
Croker was a founder member of the Percy Society (1840) and a member of its council until 1852; his Popular songs of Ireland (1839) was the first of a series of folk music collections that Croker produced for the Percy Society during the 1840s: Historical songs of Ireland (1841), The keen in the south of Ireland . . . (1844), and four volumes of Popular song illustrative of the French invasion of Ireland (1845, 1846, 1847). He published a good deal in periodicals such as Fraser's Magazine, and edited some anthologies, minor periodicals, and historical documents. Croker's A walk from London to Fulham was published posthumously in 1860.
Sir Walter Scott praised Croker in the notes to his 1830 edition of the Waverley novels, describing him as ‘little as a dwarf, keen-eyed as a hawk, and of an easy prepossessing manner’. He is said to have been less than 5 ft tall, not quite eight stones in weight, and disfigured by a harelip. Douglas Hyde (qv) called Fairy legends ‘delightful’ in his preface to Beside the fire (1890) but noted that the stories were at least in part Croker's inventions, not pure oral tradition; inventions designed to appeal to an English readership. Reviewing Beside the fire in 1891, W. B. Yeats (qv) supported Hyde's charge that Croker invented material, and claimed that Croker replaced the fantasy in his narratives with ‘the dirty rags of the stage Irishman’ (187). However, Croker's enthusiasm for his novel subject material, and his example as one of the first to collect folklore in the British Isles influenced many others, including William Carleton (qv), Gerald Griffin (qv), and Samuel Lover (qv). Croker died 8 August 1854 at his home in Gloucester Road, Old Brompton, London; he is buried in Brompton cemetery.
He married (30 March 1830) in Barnes, Surrey, Marianne, the only daughter of Francis Nicholson, watercolour painter. She survived her husband by only two months. They had one son, Thomas F. Dillon Croker. Croker's papers and books were dispersed in a sale after his death, but some are available in the BL, the NLI and other repositories. A manuscript ‘Recollections of Cork’ is in the library of TCD. Croker appears in Maclise's paintings ‘Hallow Eve’, and ‘Group of FSAs’. A portrait of Croker by Maclise was in private hands; however, Maclise's engraving of Croker appeared in Fraser's Magazine (1833) and in the Dublin Magazine (1849). There is a pencil sketch of him in volume iii of the Cork Historical and Archaeological Society Journal. A portrait of Croker by an unknown artist is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London.