Cronin, Elizabeth (‘Bess’) (1879–1956), folk singer, was born 30 May 1879, the eldest of the five children of Seán ‘Máistir’ Ó hIarfhlaithe and Maighréad Ní Thuama. Her father was headmaster in the school of Barr d'Ínse in the Fuhirees area of West Cork, near the Cork–Kerry border. The family could trace its ancestry back through a long line of distinguished local poets, several of whom presided over the Dámhsgoil or Poetic School of Muskerry based in Baile Mhúirne (Ballyvourney). Bess (as she was usually called) had four sisters and one brother, as well as two half-brothers (by the Master's first marriage). In her mid teens she was sent to help on the farm of her uncle Tomás Ó hIarfhlaithe and his wife, who were childless.
Bess was recognised from an early age as a remarkable singer, and her first public performance was in 1898 at a feis (music festival) in Macroom (Co. Cork). An account in Fáinne an Lae (8 Jan. 1899) remarked that her songs and recitation ‘were much admired for their beauty and the naïve simplicity with which they were rendered’. She acquired a vast repertoire of traditional songs in Irish and English (including many of the so-called Child Ballads), and was much sought after by collectors of folk songs. Séamus Ennis (qv) described her as ‘The Muskerry Queen of Song’ and introduced her to many collectors, such as Brian George and Marie Slocombe (BBC), Alan Lomax (Library of Congress), Jean Ritchie and George Pickow (USA), and Diane Hamilton (USA). The acetate trial recordings of her singing made in May 1947 were the earliest such recordings made by the Irish Folklore Commission's mobile recording unit. In a BBC talk of 1956 Brian George remarked of her: ‘I must say that, in all my experience of folksong collecting, I have never found greater satisfaction, nor such wide variety.’ After she married Jack Cronin (d. 1941), she moved to the Plantation in Ballymakeera, Ballyvourney, which became a regular venue for music- and song-lovers, and where many recording sessions took place.
Cronin was also a noted storyteller and had a vast range of lore about life in her native area. Her rich idiomatic Irish reflected the many centuries of poetry and literary composition in the Muskerry region and included a substantial number of rare and unique words. She was one of those consulted by Professor Brian Ó Cuív (qv) in the preparation of his study The Irish of West Muskerry (1944) and the collection of rare words Cnósach focal ó Bhaile Bhúirne (1947). The Irish of Ballyvourney was cited frequently for many of these rare words in the famous Irish–English dictionary compiled by Fr Patrick Dinneen (qv).
Cronin had five sons and one daughter. One son, Seán Ua Cróinín, was a full-time collector in Co. Cork for the Irish Folklore Commission (1939–65). Her youngest son, Donncha, was professor of Irish in Our Lady of Mercy Training College, Carysfort, Dublin (1948–77). Elizabeth Cronin died 2 June 1956.