Ó Súilleabháin, Seán (1903–96), folklorist, was born 30 November 1903 in Derrylough in the parish of Tuosist, Co. Kerry, second youngest of six children of teachers Eoghan Ó Súilleabháin and his wife, Helena Ní Shúilleabháin. Of the six children, five became national schoolteachers. Ó Súilleabháin was a native Irish speaker and received his earliest education in the national school in Leithead where both his parents taught. Between 1917 and 1920 he attended St Brendan's seminary in Killarney. He passed the NUI matriculation examinations in 1920 but decided to become a national schoolteacher rather than a priest. From 1920 to 1921 he prepared for the king's scholarship entrance examination and spent a number of months in a preparatory school in Beaufield, near Ballina, Co. Mayo. During this period his interest in folklore was first awakened. While there he lived with a family in the locality, which enabled him to socialise locally including attending wakes. On one occasion he noticed the difference in wake customs between those of his native area and those of Beaufield. This prompted him to write about Irish wake games later in his life. After leaving Mayo, he moved to the De La Salle College, Waterford, where he trained as a primary school teacher (1921–3). His first teaching posts were Grange, Co. Waterford and subsequently Slieveroe, Co. Kilkenny. Two years later he transferred to the CBS, Mount Sion, Waterford and continued teaching there until 1935. During this time he spent his summer holidays teaching Irish to national schoolteachers in St Declan's College, Ardmore, Co. Waterford.
Ó Súilleabháin first began to collect folklore in 1923 with the encouragement of Fr Roibeárd Ó Raghallaigh of Tuosist. As a result, he collected the poems and songs of Diarmaid na Bolgaidhe Ó Séaghdha (qv) as well as other Tuosist poets from Donncha Dhuinn Ó Sé, who was the sole source of three poems and an additional source of three others. While living in Waterford he visited the house of the Little Sisters of the Poor every Saturday to record stories from the elderly people living there. Around this time he formed a friendship with folklorist Séamus Ó Duilearga (qv). From 1932 to 1935 he collected material in Cork for the Folklore Institute. Between 1937 and 1938, he was involved in a joint project with the Department of Education whereby national school children collected folklore. The project was a huge success and he received 500,000 pages from almost 5,000 schools throughout the country.
After studying by correspondence for two years and attending lectures in UCD while on leave of absence from his teaching job, he graduated with an honours degree in Celtic studies from the University of London in 1934, apparently the first person to do so. The following year, 1935, he became archivist of the newly established Irish Folklore Commission and spent a number of months training in cataloguing and archiving folklore at the University of Uppsala, Sweden. The internationally acclaimed folklorist Carl von Sydow was amongst his mentors there and he was later to adapt the knowledge he obtained in Uppsala to Irish conditions. After the Folklore Commission was re-constituted in 1971, he became a lecturer in folklore in UCD, and remained there until his retirement in 1974.
Between 1926 and 1932, while still employed as a national school teacher, he undertook translating work for An Gúm. He won second place in a Department of Education competition for a translation of the first act of Macbeth. As a result, he was asked by An Gúm to translate Edmund Downey's (qv) The merchant of Killogue (1894), which appeared under the title Ceannaidhe Cill hÓige (1939).
His main works include a collection of folklore from Tuosist in An Lóchrann (1930–31); Diarmuid na Bolgaidhe agus a chomharsain (1937); Láimhleabhar béaloideasa (1937); A handbook of Irish folklore (1942), a substantial work of 700 pages; Béaloideas xxi (1951–2), a 350 page work containing 135 stories classified under 11 headings, which he had collected from manuscripts in the possession of Coimisiúin Béaloideasa Éireann; Scéalta cráibhtheacha (1952); Caitheamh aimsire ar thórraimh (1961); Folktales of Ireland (1966); Irish wake amusements (1967); Irish folk custom and belief (1968); Storytelling in the Irish tradition (1973); The folklore of Ireland (1974); Díoltas i nDroch-Bhirt: Finnscéalta an phianóis (1975) and Legends from Ireland (1977). He also collaborated with Reidar Th. Christiansen on The types of the Irish folktale (1963) in which 43,000 variants of Irish folktales are listed. Amongst his most important articles are: ‘Ainmneacha méaranna na láimhe’ in Measgra Mhichíl Uí Chléirigh (1944); ‘The feast of St Martin in Ireland’, Studies in folklore (1957); ‘Irish oral tradition’, A view of the Irish language (1969) and ‘Etiological stories’, Medieval Literature and Folklore Studies (1970). In 1967 he contributed a number of articles on European folklore to Feasta. In addition, he contributed to Encyclopaedia of Ireland (Allen Figgis, Dublin 1968), a number of festschriften and also had a regular column in the Irish Press. He wrote the preface to the school edition of Peig and had met both Peig Sayers (qv) and Tomás Ó Criomhthain (qv) during a month spent camping on an Blascaód Mór in 1933.
In addition to French, Latin and Greek, he had a reading knowledge of Welsh, Russian, German, Swedish, Norwegian and Danish.
Ó Súilleabháin took an active part promoting the Irish language and Irish traditional music; from 1935 to 1974 he was a member of the Placenames Commission. He was appointed in 1953 to the newly instituted Comhairle Radio Éireann by the minister for posts and telegraphs, Erskine Childers (qv), and served on the Comhairle until its demise in 1960. It was at Ó Súilleabháin's suggestion that Radio Éireann approached the Folklore Commission for the use of its extensive transcriptions and recordings of Irish traditional music so that contemporary composers might be enabled to make orchestral arrangements for broadcasting. His other notable contribution to broadcasting was the choosing and adapting for radio of folktales to be told by Éamon Kelly (qv) in the ‘Hear's a story for ye’ series.
He was elected MRIA in 1945. In recognition of his lifelong contribution to folklore, the NUI awarded him an honorary D.Litt. (Celt.) in 1976 at a ceremony in UCD. He was subsequently elected patron of An Cumann le Béaloideas Éireann (the Folklore of Ireland Society) and vol. 59 of the journal was issued as a festschrift in honour of his 90th birthday.
He married Maureen Sheehy from Killorglin, Co. Kerry and they had a son and a daughter. Ó Súilleabháin died 13 December 1996 and is interred in Shanganagh cemetery, Co. Dublin. A stone was erected in his honour in Tuosist and was unveiled by his widow at a ceremony during Easter in 1997.