Ó Duilearga, Séamus (James Hamilton Delargy) (1899–1980), folklorist, was born 26 May 1899 in Cushendall, Co. Antrim, son of James Delargy, publican from a long line of seafarers, and Mary Josephine Delargy (née McQuillan). He had one brother. His father died when he was two, and the family moved soon after to nearby Glenariff. They moved to Co. Wicklow in 1907, and then to Dublin. He received his schooling in Glenariff, in a convent school in Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow, and in Castleknock College, Dublin, where his lifelong interest in the Irish language was first awakened by his teacher Proinsias Ó Fathaigh. After leaving school, he entered the Vincentian novitiate in Blackrock. He left before long and went to read Celtic studies in University College Dublin (UCD), under Douglas Hyde (qv) and Osborn Bergin (qv) among others. His later scholarship bears the mark of Hyde's romantic passion for the past and for the language, and of Bergin's scientific approach and attention to detail. It was ‘the kind and discreet intervention of the formidable but shy … Bergin’ (Whitaker, 27) that enabled him to continue at UCD when, during his second year, a combination of illness, depression, and lack of money made him consider abandoning his studies. He excelled at his subject, receiving a first-class Bachelor of Arts (BA) (1921) and a Master of Arts (MA) (1923). In the summer of 1923, dissatisfied with the standard of his spoken Irish, he first travelled to the Uíbh Ráthach Gaeltacht in west Kerry, where he became acquainted with the noted seanchaí Seán Ó Conaill. His friendship with the latter later culminated in the publication of his seminal collection of Ó Conaill's stories and anecdotes – a lasting monument to the memory of both men. Upon his return to Dublin, he was appointed assistant lecturer in UCD's department of modern Irish (1923). Within a few years, his fear that the lore of the countryside would soon be lost forever prompted him to play a central role in founding the Folklore of Ireland Society (1926). He was the first editor of the society's journal Béaloideas, a post he held for forty-six years. He travelled widely (learning several European languages in passing), establishing links with many of the Continent's foremost folklore scholars and importing their advanced techniques of folklore collection and interpretation into Ireland. He was instrumental in setting up the folklore society's successor, the Irish Folklore Institute (1930), which received some government support and of which he was made honorary director. In 1934 he became a lecturer in folklore in UCD. In 1935 he was made honorary director of the completely state-funded Irish Folklore Commission, which he helped to found as a replacement for the Folklore Institute. He was professor of folklore in UCD from 1946 until he retired from the university (1969); he stayed on at the commission until it was subsumed into the department of Irish folklore in UCD (1971).
It is no exaggeration to say that he was twentieth-century Ireland's greatest folklorist. He was a driving force behind the belated recognition of the importance of Ireland's fast disappearing folklore heritage – much of which, but for his efforts, would have been lost forever. He also collected much material himself, recruited many renowned scholars to the field (including Caoimhín Ó Danachair (qv), Seán Ó Súilleabháin (qv), Calum Mac Gill-Eain, and Seán Ó hEochaidh (qv)), and was responsible for the foundation of the huge archive of folklore material now housed in UCD – probably his greatest single achievement. He will be remembered too for his publications, particularly ‘The Gaelic storyteller’ (1945 ), Leabhar Sheáin Uí Chonaill (1948), his many contributions to Béaloideas, and his edition of Seanchas ón Oileán Tiar (1956) collected by Robin Flower (qv) from Tomás Ó Criomhthain (qv). A complete bibliography to 1975 is to be found in Hereditas. His successor in UCD, Bo Almqvist, notes that Ó Duilearga was also active abroad, having a hand in setting up the Manx folk life survey, the Welsh folk museum, and the school of Scottish studies. He even tried unsuccessfully to interest the Vatican in a project aimed at collecting folklore in mission territories. In recognition of his achievements he received honorary doctorates from several foreign universities and was decorated by the president of Iceland and the king of Sweden. From the time he first heard a folktale (in Glenariff, from the village barber when he was receiving his first haircut), or the time he collected his first story in Irish (from Jimmy McCauley on nearby Red Bay pier), Ó Duilearga was always motivated by a sentimental attachment to what he saw as the noble, dying culture of a bygone era. Of course, this outlook was not without its critics from among the ranks of those who thought that Gaelic Ireland was still very much alive and kicking – most notably the irrepressible Máirtín Ó Cadhain (qv). The latter poked fun at what he memorably christened an t-olagón duileargúil (‘the Delargic whinge’), criticising what he saw as the fetish-like obsession with the dead or dying of those who lived under spéir dhúinte an bhéaloideasa (‘the closed sky of folklore’). According to Ó Cadhain, Ó Duilearga and his cohorts, with all their uachtar reoite rómásaíochta (‘romantic ice-cream’), seemed intent on turning Irish culture into a tóstal. . . leipreachán (‘leprechaun pageant’). He humbly suggested that, rather than patronising the ‘peasants’ of the western seaboard, folklore collectors might find fit subjects for their attention among the folklore establishment itself! Nor did Ó Duilearga and his co-workers escape the satirical wit of Myles na gCopaleen (qv), who recounted in An béal bocht the happy tale of an academic building his reputation on a traditional story collected from one of the loquacious piglets of ‘Corca Dorcha’. Ó Duilearga was married to Maud McGuigan; they had a son and a daughter. He died 25 June 1980 and was buried in Deans Grange cemetery.
More information on this entry is available at the National Database of Irish-language biographies (Ainm.ie).