Archivist Tom Munnelly dedicated his life to preserving the traditions of Irish folk music, recording, transcribing and indexing more than 20,000 songs and launching the careers of singers including John Reilly and Tom Lenihan. Born May 25, 1944, in Dublin, Munnelly began working as a machine operator in a textile factory at age 15. His interest in folk music was ignited at scout camp and nurtured during a stint with An Óige, the Irish chapter of the International Youth Hostel Federation. In time, Munnelly acquired a tape recorder and began collecting songs, at first to expand his repertoire. In 1965, he befriended Reilly, recording his rendition of the ballad "The Maid and the Palmer," the song's first official documentation in more than 150 years. (The Irish group Planxty later recorded a much beloved version under the title "The Well Below the Valley," and through Munnelly's efforts also learned several other songs from Reilly's repertoire, among them his interpretation of "The Raggle Taggle Gypsy.")
By 1969 he was a rising authority in the field and was hired as a research assistant by D.K. Wilgus, professor of Anglo-American folk song at UCLA. A year later, Munnelly and Irish dance music expert Breandán Breathnach co-founded the Folk Music Society of Ireland. When Breathnach convinced the Irish Department of Education to fund a national traditional music program, Munnelly was installed as its full-time collector of folk songs. Four years later, the program merged with University College's department of Irish folklore, and he was appointed folk song collector and lecturer despite his absence of conventional academic credentials.
In 1978 the London-based Topic label issued the Reilly collection The Bonny Green Tree: Songs of an Irish Traveller, the first commercial release of material from Munnelly's archives. The album was widely acclaimed and soon after he relocated to the County Clare region to expand his archival pursuits further. He settled in Miltown Malbay, previously home to the late uilleann pipe legend Willie Clancy and now site of the Willie Clancy School, a weeklong celebration of Irish music, dance, and culture -- Munnelly was quickly appointed its chairman. Around the same time, he met and began recording Tom Lenihan, a local singer with a wealth of Irish songs and folklore to share. (The double album The Mount Callan Garland: Songs from the Repertoire of Tom Lenihan was finally released in 1994, accompanied by a book written by Munnelly.)
He traveled from town to town, visiting pubs and asking employees and patrons about local singers -- he often recorded his subjects in their homes, along the way unearthing now-celebrated figures including Michael "Straighty" Flanagan and Junior Crehan (the latter is the subject of an acclaimed two-part study published in the academic journal Béaloideas). Munnelly founded the Folklore and Folk Music Society of Clare in 1982, organizing all of its lectures for close to a decade. He also launched the Clare Festival of Traditional Singing, and also served for years as a member of the Arts Council of Ireland. In all, Munnelly recorded in excess of 1,500 tapes of folk songs and folklore, the largest and most comprehensive collection of traditional song ever compiled by any one individual. After a long battle with cancer, he died in Miltown Malbay on August 30, 2007.