Prof David Hopkin at the Folklore and the Nation conference organised by the Folklore Society in Derby on the weekend that the UK was due to leave the EU. Photo: Ciarán Walsh.

What has folklore got to do with Brexit? That was one of the themes explored at the recent Folklore and the Nation conference in Derby, which opened on the day that the UK was due to leave the EU. The conference was convened with one eye on Brexit and the other on wider nationalist movements. It asked ‘how, why and when folklore has been deployed in the context of national ideologies and ideas of nationhood.’

I made a twenty minute presentation entitled “Leaving the Union: Haddon, Home Rule and the Anti-Imperial Agenda in Anglo-Irish Folklore.” It represented, as Haddon would said, the ‘first fruits” of a six year investigation of “the skull Measuring business” in Ireland in the 1890s.

Charles R. Browne and Alfred Cort Haddon measuring Tom Connelly during field work undertaken by the Dublin Anthropometry Laboratory in the Aran islands in 1892. Courtesy of the Board of Trinity College Dublin.

My research was funded by the Irish Research Council in partnership with Shanahan research Group, Maynooth University, and the School of Medicine TCD. It represents a major re-assessment of Haddon’s contribution to anthropology, focussing on the politically radical and formally revolutionary fieldwork undertaken by him in Ireland between 1890 and 1895.

Leaving the Union”explored the role that folklore played in the political and cultural arguments that were generated by home rule; the campaign to take Ireland out of political and economic union with Great Britain, which dominated Anglo-Irish relations in the the 1880s and 1890s.

The White Horse in Derby 29, March 2019. Photo: Ciarán Walsh

There are some obvious parallels with Brexit. The Customs Union and a backstop for the Protestant minority [1] in Ireland featured in the first Government of Ireland or Home Rule Bill of 1886. The bill was defeated by the Conservatives supported by Unionists.

The differences are far more significant.

Ireland was a colony and the intertwined campaigns for home rule and land reform were confronted with “coercion” legislation[2] and the mobilisation of imperial forces. Cultural forces were also mobilised in a debate about the compatibility of the Celt and the Anglo-Saxon in relation to nationality and governance.

Victoria Square, Birmingham. Photo: Ciarán Walsh

Folklore collectors – the practical wing of domestic ethnology – provided evidence of a pre-conquest nation that survived in the edgelands of Empire in Ireland. This is generally treated as a resource for cultural nationalism and I was not arguing with that.

What I proposed was that there was a far more  radical, anti-Imperial movement in Anglo-Irish folklore and that it was led by Haddon, the head-hunter. I presented evidence that Haddon was influenced by stateless anarchists and other radicals and that this influence shaped his approach to fieldwork in Ireland.

This turns the history of anthropology in Ireland and England on its head.



[1]   The backstop consisted of a ban ‘on the establishment or endowment of any religious denomination’ (Shepard 1912: 565).

[2]   Criminal Law and Procedure (Ireland) Act 1887 was introduced by Arthur “Bloody” Balfour, the political leader of the British Administration in Ireland.

This research was funded by the Irish Research Council in partnership with Shanahan research Group, Maynooth University, and the School of Medicine TCD