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"SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH - Munterloney Folk-Tales" - The Glenelly Valley and my Irish Family
by Timothy Lunney, June 2010

Back in 2002, while performing some internet searches using the Irish spelling of my family name: "Luinigh", I came across an obscure notice that an old book was being sent to dead storage at a university library in Oklahoma. The book is titled "SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH - Munterloney Folk-Tales". I was intrigued - a book of folktales bearing my family's ancient Irish name "Mhuintir Lúinigh". I arranged, through my local library in Florida to obtain that book on inter-library loan. Not only does this book bear my family's ancient name, it also contains many of our traditional folk-tales in the original, and now lost, Tyrone dialect of the Irish language.

The name "Mhuintir Lúinigh" literally means "land of the O'Lúinigh" and "the O'Lúinigh family or clan". The O'Lúinigh were part, and sometimes chieftains, of the Cenél Moen tribe of the Tír Eóghain branch of the Northern O'Neill. The area referred to as the "Mhuintir Lúinigh", or "Munterloney" in Professor Ó Tuathail's time corresponded generally to the parishes of Termonmaguirk and Upper and Lower Bodoney in County Tyrone. During the 15th and 16th centuries, the area then known as the "Mhuintir Luinigh" included a much larger area corresponding generally to the Baronies of Strabane and Clogher. The O'Lúinigh lived in this portion Ireland since the early 1200's, and before that, in the area surrounding present day Raphoe in County Donegal since the 800's.

During the 1920's and 30's, the government of Ireland became alarmed at the rapid decline in the number of people who could speak and write the Irish language. The government commissioned the Irish Folklore Institute to send Irish language scholars around Ireland to record, compile and preserve the Irish people's rich heritage of language and oral literature. Between 1929 and 1933, Professor Éamonn Ó Tuathail of Trinity College Dublin travelled throughout the district of County Tyrone in Northern Ireland then called the "Mhuintir Lúinigh" or "Munterloney", to record the oral literature of the few Irish-speaking people still living there.

By the time Professor Ó Tuathail arrived in the Munterloney district in 1929 to record the folk-tales of the area, Irish had ceased to be spoken except by only a small number of very elderly people. The dialect being spoken in the Munterloney district was unique, and differed significantly from the dialects spoken in other parts of Ireland. Even the 1802 "Statistical Survey of County Tyrone", at a time when over one-half of the 250,000 inhabitants of County Tyrone still spoke Irish, noted that "the people of this county in themselves differ as much perhaps as those of separate kingdoms…the inhabitants of [the town of] Strabane and its vicinity seem quite a different race of people from those of Munterloney…" This separation and uniqueness was probably attributable to the fact that the Munterloney district was, and remains, a rather isolated part of Ireland, surrounded by the Munterloney (now called "Sperrin") Mountains. Its isolation is probably also the reason that this was the last area of Northern Ireland where Irish was still spoken as a first language. Professor Ó Tuathail spent four years interviewing, recording and transcribing the folk-tales of those last speakers of ancient Irish in County Tyrone. He transcribed these folk-tales in the unique dialect of the Munterloney district, along with extensive notes in English on grammar and spelling. His work was published by the Irish Folklore Institute in 1933 as "SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH - Munterloney Folk-Tales".

Unfortunately for modern scholars and for the modern descendants of the Mhuintir Lúinigh, Professor Ó Tuathail's book was never fully translated into English. Today, Irish language scholars confirm that it is a unique record of a now lost dialect of Irish. In fact, this book is now used a text for the advanced study of Irish dialects. Back in 2003, I wrote to the Strabane District Council, the local governing body for this area, and brought the matter of the "SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH - Munterloney Folk-Tales" to the attention of the Council. I requested that a project be undertaken to translate and republish this book. The Council kindly approved this request, and formally petitioned the Northern Ireland Assembly to undertake and fund the project. The project was later approved for funding by the Assembly.

During my August 2004 stay in the scenic Glenelly Valley of County Tyrone, the Sperrin Heritage Centre and the Strabane District Council's tourism office offered the Heritage Centre facilities and their assistance to help me to host a lecture about and reading of the "SGÉALTA MHUINTIR LÚINIGH - Munterloney Folk-Tales". Professor Donal O'Baoill of Queens University Belfast, a leading Irish language scholar, kindly agreed to prepare and deliver the lecture and reading. Prior to the lecture, Professor O'Baoill shared a "home-cooked" dinner with me and my family at our rental cottage next to the Sperrin Heritage Centre. The dinner was prepared from locally-grown produce and chicken by my 90-year-old aunt Alice Lunney Gregory. Professor O'Baoill chuckled often during the dinner, remarking that my large and very noisy Irish-American family reminded him of his own family in rural County Donegal.

The lecture and reading at the Heritage Centre was a success, and was well-attended by several Irish-speaking local residents and scholars, in spite of a terrible thunderstorm that evening. One amazing part of the lecture was when Professor O'Baoill played some of the original tape recordings made by Professor Éamonn Ó Tuathail in the 1930's of the folk-tales being recited by the elderly residents of the Munterloney. Hearing these tales spoken in the musical language of my ancestors was a very moving experience for me and my family. After the lecture, we all gathered in the tea room of the Heritage Center, where my family and I were very pleased to meet and speak with several residents of the surrounding area.

Relatively few Irish-American families know where in Ireland their ancestors lived. Fewer still are fortunate enough to visit the beautiful land of their ancestors. Perhaps only a handful have heard their family folk-tales recited in Irish. Thanks to the incomparable hospitality of the people of the Glenelly Valley of County Tyrone, my family and I shared an undoubtedly unique experience.

Timothy Lunney
2507 North Federal Highway
Lake Worth, FL 33460-6369



cellphone: (954)260-8575