Growing Up in Rural Ireland: The Games and Toys of Donegal and Offaly in the Schools’ Folklore Collection, 1937

‘Girls do not play the same kind of games as boys’ was the opinion of Florence McCollum at Drumfad National School, County Donegal, in 1937. Florence was one of thousands of children who participated in the Irish Folklore Commission scheme known as the Schools’ Folklore Collection (Bailiúchán na Scol). Over fifty thousand schoolchildren in their final year of primary school, from five thousand schools in the twenty-six counties of Ireland (Northern Ireland was excluded), were invited to collect local folklore. Seán Ó Súilleabháin, archivist for the Commission, developed a booklet containing guidelines entitled ‘Irish Folklore and Tradition’, which was distributed to all schools. The folktales were recorded first in the children’s homework copybooks, then corrected by teachers and re-written into official notebooks which, when combined, became the manuscript collection. The children wrote down folklore and folk practices gleaned from older people in their families or local community. In the manuscripts, however, we can also find the voices of the children themselves, as they wrote about their own personal experiences with games, toys, and pastimes under headings such as ‘Games I Play’ or ‘Games We Play’. This blog considers the evidence from Donegal and Offaly and looks at how gender and play interacted.

So what kinds of games were played? Some of the most popular were variations of games played all around the world, throughout history, which are still played today (See Figure 1). These included ‘Hide and Seek’ and ‘Blind Man’s Buff’. The majority of the most popular games mentioned by the children, were games which required players only to play and did not require any props. This indicates a necessary reliance on the imagination as poor economic circumstances would have prevented many children from owning shop-bought games and toys. Games in which children assumed adult roles were very popular. ‘The Farmer Wants a Wife’ is a popular example of a singing game teaching about courtship and marriage. The ‘farmer’ closes his eyes and chooses a ‘wife’ who joins him in the circle. ‘Little Sally Walker’ was another game which involved rituals of courtship and marriage. Each child takes a turn to choose another child to ‘love’, and the remaining children sing verses relating to their courtship, marriage and subsequent childbearing. ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’, an adaptation of the song ‘The King of France’, originates from the early seventeenth century. In this game, boys and girls get into two lines and march up and down, back and forth, in pairs.

Other popular games mentioned by the children in the Schools’ Collection were associated with particular festivals. ‘Here We Come Gathering Nuts in May’ was a popular singing game in the month of May. Here, the ‘nuts’ might actually come from the Anglo-Irish word ‘knots’, denoting posies or bunches of flowers.  Bunches of flowers were gathered by children on Mayday, or Lá Bealtaine, to decorate the May Pole or to make the May Bush. Other events are celebrated by children through play, with particular games being played at Halloween, Easter and others. At Halloween, many games are cited in the Schools Collection’: ‘Catch the Apple’, ‘Ducking for Apples’, and ‘Nut Cracking’. The making of ‘Turnip Lanterns’ (The Irish version of modern-day pumpkin carving) is also described. Games which deal with death and burial such as ‘Jenny Jones’, ‘Green Gravel’ and ‘Old Roger is Dead’ are also popular within the Schools’ Collection. Historians have found that such games were obsolete outside of Ireland by the 1950s but continued to be popular here. This may be as a result of steadfast Irish traditions of death, waking and burial.

Regional variations in games played are evident in the Schools’ Collection. It is interesting to note that ‘Glasgow Ships are Sailing Down’ (a wordplay on ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’) is only found in County Donegal in the Schools’ Collection, highlighting the close relationship of the county with Scotland. On the other hand, ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’, can be found in the Schools’ Collection in various other counties in Ireland including Wexford, Mayo, Meath, Cavan, Cork, and Monaghan. Another Donegal child cites the game ‘How Many Miles to Dublin’ (a version of ‘How Many Miles to Babylon’). This highlights the physical and metaphorical distance between Donegal and Dublin. Similarly, this game is not described by children from any other county in the Schools’ Collection. In Offaly, one finds a game called ‘Bullagoo’ described by children. I have not found this game described anywhere else in the country outside of County Offaly. One child in Cloghan described it as follows:

This game is generally played by boys. Each boy puts his cap sitting beside a wall, in a row. Then one boy is chosen as a ‘pitcher’. He gets a ball and stands about 10 feet away from the caps. He rolls the ball towards the caps and tries to put it into one of them. If the ball rolls into a cap the owner has to run and pick up the ball. In the meantime all the other boys have started to run away. The one holding the ball throws it and tries to hit one of the runners. If he succeeds a stone is placed in the cap of the one who was struck. He then becomes pitcher. If the pitcher fails to hit a runner with the ball there is a stone placed in his cap and he has to pitch again. He gets three chances to roll the ball into some cap. If he fails the three times there is a stone put into his own cap. When any player has 2 stones in his cap he has to take it up and leave the game. In this way all the players are knocked out one by one. The last player left is the winner of the game.

Figure 1: Games, Toys and Physical Activities most frequently mentioned in Schools’ Collection for County Donegal

Evidence for toy play was found among the manuscripts, although much less frequently. Among the most popular toys mentioned in the Schools’ Collection were marbles, spinning tops, and dolls. Board and table games were also mentioned, including snakes and ladders, ludo, draughts and cards. The other popular category were toy guns, catapults and bow and arrows. The children of the poorest families often made toys from materials readily available to them. Their ingenuity is evident where the children describe turning a spool of thread into a spinning top, moulding a short, thick stick into a toy gun, and shaping ash branches into bows and arrows. They also used items which were discarded from the domestic environment, such as bottles or boxes, and the mud and water which could be found all around. Board games and items such as balls or marbles were more likely to be purchased, although may also have been handmade. A number of children even described the making of dolls from scratch with old rags and buttons.

Figure 2: ‘Children at Play’, no. 2 (London), MS33468, Leslie Daiken Archive, National Library of Ireland

During this period, perceptions and anxieties around masculinity dominated discourses about Irish boys and their games. The feminine, ‘sissy’ boy, carried connotations of sexual inversion, excessive maternal attachment, and a poor prognosis for healthy adulthood. Boys play and physical culture would produce a strong body and strong mind. On the other hand, the image of the ‘ideal’ Irish girl and her role within the domestic sphere is reflected in girls play and toys. There was an expectation that girls were to be trained instead for their role as future mothers and wives.  In 1926, readers of the Irish Monthly were warned that ‘modern girls’ were in need of ‘refinement’, given their unashamed ‘vulgarity’, and it was highlighted that knowledge of the domestic economy/science, hygiene and needlework were considered essential for girls. Advertisements for girls toys (usually only to be purchased by the wealthier middle and upper classes) included a cookery set, tea set, baby doll bathing set, a loom, a sewing box, various types of dolls, and prams, whereas mechanical toys, train sets, and model bridges were marketed exclusively to boys (See Figure 2 and 3). The design and engineering activities associated with model toy building were associated with masculinity.

Children were aware of these expectations, and the Schools’ Collection highlights the way in which they perceived gender, and how they modified and transgressed gender norms through play. The majority of the children who mention gender do indicate that boys and girls played different games, and these are often listed. In Figure 4, a list compiled by a child at Esker school, County Offaly, even states that girls play ‘House’ while boys play an array of sport. An Irish speaking child in Donegal said the following: ‘ní hé an cineal céadna caitheamh aimsirí atá ag na gasurí is atá ag na giorsaraí’ which translates as ‘the same types of games are not played by the boys and girls’. Another child wrote that girls and boys do not play the same games and inferred that girls do not play ‘rough’ games such as football that the boys play. However, another child disputes this completely by saying the following:

In this district many of the girls play the same games as the boys. They are to be seen playing football with the boys and even in some instances they can play better than some of the boys. The more refined girls play tig, hide and go seek, the robbers, high winds, and many other such games.

In this way we can see that children were aware of the gender norms imposed on them as boys and girls, but that they sometimes chose to antagonise this by playing games and toys which were supposedly more suitable for their gender counterpart.

Why not dip in here. You can buy the book from Offaly History shop and online


The Schools’ Collection 1937, National Folklore Commission, University College Dublin, (

Mary Hatfield, ‘Games for Boys: Masculinity, Boyhood and Play 1922–1939’ in Rebecca Anne Barr, Sean Brady, Jane McGaughey (eds) Ireland and Masculinities in History (2019, Cham) pp 133-153.

Megan will further discuss this subject and various other aspects of childhood in rural Ireland in her Offaly History talk on December 12th, 2022.

Megan McAuley is a third-year PhD Candidate in the Department of History, Maynooth University, researching the lifecycle of rural children in County Donegal, c.1850-1950, under the supervision of Dr Jennifer Redmond. She wishes to graciously thank her research funders: Offaly History and Archaeological Society/P&H Egan, National University of Ireland (Denis Phelan Scholarship) and Maynooth University John and Pat Hume Postgraduate Awards.

Children at Geashill school in the 1870s. The book is out of print but you can see it at Offaly History Centre.