Mahon, Bríd (Bridget) (1918–2008), folklorist, was born on 14 July 1918 at 16 Elizabeth Street, Belfast, to Stephen Mahon and Mary Catherine Mahon (née Wall). Her father was an electrician, and she was one of five siblings. When communal and sectarian violence erupted in Belfast in 1922 the family home was burnt out, and they relocated to Donore within the Liberties in Dublin. She spent some of her childhood attending the Irish College at Ballingeary, Co. Cork, and was described in 1952 as a graduate of University College Dublin (UCD).
In October 1939 Mahon was appointed as a typist by the Irish Folklore Commission, which had been established by the government in 1935 to collect information on the folklore of Ireland, and was based in Earlsfort Terrace, Dublin. The position was a temporary, non-pensionable post that could be terminated with a week’s notice by either party. Within a few years she was given responsibility for replying to the Commission’s 500-odd correspondents, who were scattered across the country; in 1947 she also assumed bookkeeping duties. The Commission’s secretary, Máire MacNeill (qv), was also a Gaelic scholar and as such a big influence on Mahon. When MacNeill left the Commission in 1949, Mahon succeeded her as the office secretary; this was also the year the Commission moved to 82 St Stephens Green. Formally designated a folklorist to keep her pay in line with the rest of the staff, Mahon handled the reports sent in by the Commission’s correspondents, also regularly dispatching questionnaires to them. As the only Dubliner on the Commission’s staff, she regretted that it did nothing to preserve Dublin’s folklore.
In her memoir, While green grass grows (1998), she left a detailed account of her years with the Commission, both generous and unabashed in her descriptions of and anecdotes about those who both worked and conducted research there. Prominent visitors befriended by Mahon included J. R. R. Tolkien and Walt Disney; much to the chagrin of the Commission’s staff, Disney only wanted to know about leprechauns. She also related her encounters with Peig Sayers (qv) during her annual visits to Dunquin, Co. Kerry, just across from the Blasket Islands.
As Míchéal Briody has noted, none of the female typists who served the Commission, and without whom it could not have functioned, were mentioned in Béaloideas, the journal of the Folklore Society of Ireland: ‘most of them left the Commission on marriage, took their husband’s name, and passed into anonymity’ (The Irish Folklore Commission, 479). Mahon chose not to marry, despite being proposed to by Nils Holmer, a Swedish Celtic scholar, and so became a long-serving staff member at the Commission. Patrick Kavanagh (qv) also unsuccessfully beseeched her to become his mistress, offering to immortalise her in a poem if she agreed.
The Commission staff were badly paid and had no pension rights, and the government was slow in making good on its 1959 pledge to make them pensionable civil servants. In 1963 the staff of the Commission elected Mahon to negotiate the terms of their receipt of pension rights and civil servant status, which finally became a reality for all full-time staff in 1965. The Commission ran down its activities during the 1960s, as the old storytellers passed away, along with many of the its correspondents and local part-time collectors. In 1971 the Commission stopped collecting material and deposited its archive in UCD’s Belfield campus, where its staff became UCD’s Department of Irish Folklore (now the UCD Delargy Centre for Irish Folklore and the National Folklore Collection). Given the title ‘folklorist (senior research)’, she spent the next seventeen years there researching and lecturing but missed the Commission’s heroic early days when the staff were imbued with a powerful sense of mission.
From the early 1940s Mahon had supplemented her inadequate salary by putting her knowledge of folklore to commercial use. She contributed hundreds of scripts to Radio Éireann’s Children’s Hour programme, and to the BBC. She was also commissioned for a children’s series that was broadcast by American radio networks. Loo the Leprachaun and Báinín the cat, and other stories, originally written for radio, was published by M. H. Gill in 1947. Later she published further children’s books titled The search for the tinker chief (1968), The wonder tales of Ireland (1975) and The Spanish sailor (2001). The search for the tinker chief sold well, and the film rights were optioned by The Walt Disney Company. She also edited a non-fiction anthology My favourite stories of Ireland (1977) and published two works of historical fiction: A time to love (1992), which is about Peg Woffington (qv), and Dervogilla (1994), which is about Derbfhorgaill (qv).
She stopped script writing to become women’s editor of the Sunday Press from c.1960 to c.1970. Her Sunday Press articles, featuring reports of fashion shows and foreign travel, evoke a sense of cosmopolitanism and glamour that contrasted with the reality of her struggles as an underpaid folklorist. She was also Irish theatre critic for the Sunday Express and a contributor to the Catholic Standard. In 1968 she was a guest lecturer at Berkeley College California, an experience that she enjoyed. Despite this, she declined the offer of a more permanent position at the university.
During her time working for the Commission, she forged a close friendship with the author and broadcaster Maura Laverty (qv), to whom she attributes her own interest in the legends and stories connected to food. Her research in the archives of the Commission bore fruit with the publication of Land of milk and honey: the story of traditional Irish food and drink (1991). In this book she attributed the lack of variety in the modern Irish diet to the proliferation of the potato and to the scarring effect of the Great Famine. She also became interested in the history of Irish dress, publishing Rich and rare: the story of Irish dress (2001), continuing an interest that saw her publish volumes on Irish dress, food and folk tales with Folens in the 1970s and 1980s.
Living latterly in Sandymount, Dublin, Bríd Mahon died on 20 February 2008 at Leopardstown Park Hospital, Foxrock, Co. Dublin. Her remains were cremated at Mount Jerome Crematorium, Harold’s Cross, Dublin.