The Seanchaidhe: Irish storytellers past and present

The continuity of Irish storytelling creates narrative bridges from the past through the present to the future…The legacy of the Irish storytelling tradition is inextricably linked to the Irish language. The gradual loss of that language and the subsequent loss of its native language storytellers have changed the tradition forever. Nonetheless, the tradition of storytelling is still living, even as tellers, their tales, venues and audiences change. (Warren 2008, n.p.)

The Irish Seanchaidhe (singular, Sean-chai), “bearers of old lore” and custodians of an indigenous non-literary tradition, have had a distinctive and integral role in Irish socio-cultural history, and despite the assaults on and compromises to its linguistic and textual traditions, the Seanchaidhe still exist today.

Poet Eavan Boland reflects:

…you only have to read Daniel Corkery’s Hidden Ireland (1925) to know that long after the bards were abandoned by history, they are remembered and quoted in Ireland. The drama of all that still backlights Irish poetry – the painful memory of a poetry whose archive was its audience. (Schmidt 1997, n.p.).

Bards were professionals, highly trained in their craft, their most distinctive ability being their eloquence of delivery and the compelling nature of the stories they told. The Irish Triads speak of: ‘Three glories of speech: steadiness, wisdom, brevity’ and of ‘Three things that constitute a poet: knowledge that illuminates, knowledge of incantations [and] improvisation.’ (Warren 2008, n.p.) The quality of the oral expression nurtured was extremely important to Irish culture, and the English language spoken in Ireland today has been shaped by this inheritance.

Oral literature (poetry, song, storytelling etc) was held as sacred, learned over a long period of time, or given by the gods (or animal messengers); the storyteller was the conduit between the sacred and its audience, between the Otherworld and humankind, their literature infused with magical meaning, and while revered, in as much as being closer to the gods than the ordinary person, the storyteller was never seen as more important than the gods from whom their inspiration and compositions came.

As officials of the court of the king or chieftain, bards were expected to have a highly-developed knowledge of the history of local places (an understanding of the origins of placenames and the traditions surrounding events, characters, and the places associated with them being essential for the study of Irish mythology), which they would then teach to the elite classes they served. The Metrical Dindshenchas, or Lore of Places is believed to be the foremost surviving example of Irish bardic verse. Bards were also chroniclers and satirists; it was their job to praise their king or chieftain and to research and record their lineage, and also to revile their employer’s enemies. (Irish Poetry, 2009, n.p.).  Boland remarks that ‘bards wrote poems to their patrons that ranged from christening odes to the darkest invective.’ (Schmidt 1997, n.p.)

Role distinctions were made within the profession:

…there were professional storytellers, divided into well-defined ranks – ollaimh (professors), filí (poets) baird (bards), seanchaithe (historians, storytellers) – whose duty it was to know by heart the tales, poems and history proper to their rank, which were recited for the entertainment and praise of the chiefs and princes. (McKendry 2008, n.p.)

However, it would appear that these pre-Christian roles eventually merged, the bards assuming the functions of the fili, and the seanchaidhe eventually fulfilling the role of the bards. Regardless of their title, their function would remain in one form or another for centuries to come, until their status and the reverence in which their cultural role was held was challenged by Ireland’s English invaders.

Poets and storytellers, homespun, humble carriers of an ancient culture, preserved until a century ago an oral tradition…and an oral literature unrivalled in Western Europe. Kuno Meyer, in a memorable phrase, has called the written culture of medieval Ireland “the earliest voice from the dawn of Western civilisation. (J.H.Delargy The Gaelic Story-teller, Sir John Rhys Lecture 1945 in McKendry 2008, n.p.)

The earliest known literature in the Old Irish language, some religious, others secular, included lyric poems, epic prose, even riddles. Their themes were either religious or of the divine or of the natural world. The oldest surviving examples of Irish poetry are from the sixth century, and appear to have been written by scribes within the margins of the illuminated manuscripts they were copying, allowing us a highly evocative image of the layering of Irish cultural and textual history.

The Ossianic poetry (about the son of Fionn Mac Cumhaill/Finn McCool), was a move from epic prose stories to verse tales, while the Kildare poems of the early 14th century, written in Middle English and making reference to the wider Western European Christian tradition, represent the early stages of the ‘second tradition’ of Irish poetry (Irish Poetry, 2009, n.p.).

The Elizabethan conquest of Ireland, marked by The Battle of Kinsale (1601), had a profound and detrimental effect not only on the everyday life of the population, but particularly on the Irish language, and on the influence of the bards and the bardic system of education. The early 17th century saw a new kind of Gaelic poetry, written by marginalised Catholic clerics in what is now called Early Modern Irish: ‘A good deal of the poetry of this period deals with political and historic themes that reflect the poets’ sense of a world lost’ (Irish Poetry, 2009, n.p.) The Irish Rebellion of 1641 compounded the Irish language poets’ profound disaffection, as did the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland (1649-53). However, some were pragmatic despite their nationalism, and wrote for their new English lords. The eighteenth century was effectively the end of the old Gaelic order of patronage and protection on which the bards had depended, yet, the poets and storytellers still wrote. In a recent email, beekeeper, forester and sometime poet Micheal MacGiollacoda (MacGillycuddy) refers to ‘the four great Irish poets’ of this era:

… Aodhgan O’Rathaille, Piaras Ferriteir, Eoghan aO’Sullivan and Seafrai O’Donoghue. I have learned off many of their poems, and frequently recite them when I am on my own. They spoke a lot about the sky woman who would appear to them in their dreams. She was really Ireland in the form of a fairy woman, who would beseech them for help to free her from bondage. (2009)

The 12th century Book of Leinster categorized 187 tales according to subject i.e.: battles, tragedies, cattle-raids, courtships, voyages, visions etc.  Writers associated with the Irish Literary Revival of the late 1800s, like W.B.Yeats, Lady Gregory and J.M.Synge, attempted to create a new literature from this heritage, however, a common problem in the translation from Irish to English was a loss of imagery, vitality and ‘natural’ Irish speech.

Despite this, the ‘cross-fertilization’ of the two languages has produced textual narrative of many forms which are culturally and historically enlightening, and which function positively for Irish literary culture and identity.  ‘Paradoxically, perhaps …the English language is improved by its contact with the Irish, or, rather refreshed by sea wind and drifting clouds… ‘(Pierstorff 1990, 9-10). While the contemporary Seanchaidhe are particularly associated with the Irish-speaking areas of Ireland – the Gaeltachtai – storytellers are also found in English speaking districts.

Poetry was not the only Irish literature. The term “folktale” has been used to describe the narrative stories passed on orally from one person and from one generation to another, the principle forms being myths and legends, and fairy tales, folk stories and fables. While some tales were written down, many others were, and remain part of the oral tradition of the Seanchaidhe, and as such, have gathered their own particular elements, influenced by the individual storyteller and their region, while retaining the essence of the original tale.  Daithi O’ hOgain describes folklore as: ‘… the communal voice speaking through personal creativity’ (2008), while Eavan Boland refers to the ‘communal aspect to the identity of the Irish poet that has an effect on the contemporary lyric’ (Schmidt 1997, n.p.).

The domestic seanchas of today is the cell on which the living Irish culture is built, or the channel through which the past flows to inform the future. It may deal with deep things in the house of the scholar; in the cottage, it is satisfied with legendary tales (Aodh be Blacam, Gaelic Literature Surveyed 1929, 349, in McKendry 2008, n.p.)

The ordinary man, woman and child in contemporary Ireland are still connected to their heritage by way of the Seanchaidhe and through the learning of, or reconnection with, the Irish language. MacGiolla Coda (who is, incidentally, my great-uncle) writes:

…storytelling and poetry…is very much part of our Irish culture. We lost so much when we lost our language, as the ordinary people had a wonderful culture which involved poetry, music and song as well as the telling of the stories…handed down from father to son and mother to daughter by word of mouth. I have had the experience of listening to some of those old storytellers or Seanachai as they were called. Some of their stories could go on for hours as they were the epic tales of the Fianna and the Red Branch Knights…in later years I developed a great love for the Irish language and now speak it at every chance I get. I [also] listen to the Irish language station on the radio. (2009)

In other conversations he has talked of the central role of poetry, stories and folktales at wakes, weddings and other social occasions, giving a glimpse of the communal role that storytellers and storytelling continue to play in Irish life. Contemporary storytelling is still seen as unifying both the storyteller and their audience to their culture, allowing each to connect with past and present, and to discover the “magic” that encompasses all (Eddie Lenihan, 2002), a way of embracing those ‘communal shadows’ that fall across the writing and the telling (Schmidt 1997, n.p.). Irish storytellers carry within them the very message of life and Irish identity.

The roles of literature and the writer, of Irish stories and the Irish storyteller, remain pre-eminent ones, despite – or perhaps even because of – the influences of modern technology. Technology is part of the dissemination of culture: through public performances, YouTube and social networking sites and audio tape and DVD recording. This means that many Irish (and non-Irish) people can share in the continuum of this tradition, and in the creation of new writing and performance.

The developments occurring in contemporary Irish literature and poetry suggest that the voices of women, for instance, are being articulated and heard more clearly, enabling them to move away from the confines of the archetype of ‘Muse’ to being  the writers/creators of Irish cultural heritage. (Burke 2009, 85-94). Stories can motivate, persuade and inform, and can help people to make sense of their place, their personal story, and their role in community; they are the key to true engagement, inspiring emotional connection with each other (Storytelling in Business 2007, n.p.).

These are the foundation stones on which the Irish storyteller stands. Throughout, and despite, the seismic shifts occurring in Ireland’s cultural and linguistic history, from the introduction of Christianity and the Elizabethan conquest of Ireland, and through the Gaelic revival and Modernism to contemporary Irish literature, storytelling and poetry, we witness the essential part played by the text, the writer and particularly the Seanchaidhe in disseminating and progressing Irish culture.

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