Over the past century, the artform of storytelling has served many functions in Ireland - entertainment, communication, and the maintenance of memory and historical record that escaped the privilege of more formal preservation.
Paddy O’Brien of the Cork YarnSpinners group is one of those keeping the tradition alive.
“I grew up in Kerry, so I just came in at the time where every house still didn’t have a TV, or radios. I came in at the tail end of visiting neighbours at night. Having the time to stop on the road, because more people were walking then, they’d stop and they’d talk.
“When you’re a child, you see this, and it seeps into your blood. I could see ordinary people loved gossiping, remembering things and turning a phrase. Irish people have always been in love with words.”
For seanchaí Eddie Lenihan, the tradition is his life’s work. Over the course of 40 years, he has sat with people all over the country, at storytelling sessions and visits to peoples’ homes, and built a rich archive of recordings.
“I would never tell a story that I’ve read: the stories I tell are stories that I’ve heard from old people, all. Local legends in particular, that I’m interested in.
“Local happenings that mainly belong to one place: though, a story you might get in one place, you might recognise immediately, just that it has a different slant, the names might be different, but it’s the story that travels, all around the country.”
But of equal importance to his work of preservation while collecting, was his presence in peoples’ homes, providing company, and a listening ear for recollections, legends, glories and disappearing ways of life.
"Kind people, decent people, very often weren’t married, sitting by their fireside, and it was no doubt a great pleasure for them to have someone come in and talk to them.
“We hear now amid the pandemic of loneliness, being the great scourge, which it is, and it always was. I always was delighted to talk to these people, and I saw it then as you see it now: loneliness always was a problem with people.
"To go in and sit down in the winter and talk to these people, there was no better way of passing an evening than to talk. You’d find three, four hours are gone, with the talk, rather than watching the box, as they call it. You’d see the change in their mood, and before you knew it, ‘twas eleven o’clock at night. There was sheer delight in talking, in remembering their friends, who were of course gone. A generation, gone.”
O’Brien talks about the impact of these inherited stories and myths on our national psyche, and its role in a national tradition that’s had to be rebuilt over the past 100 years or so.
“It kept memories alive, on the serious level, but on a whimsical, entertaining level. The biggest and saddest impact of colonialism was the Irish language, but funnily enough, the way the Irish speak English has a load of phrases taken straight from the Irish language, some of them in ways we don’t realise.
“Colonialism was devastating and the effects are still going on, but in the true Irish spirit, in spite of people living in boháns and hovels, and people dying with the hunger, we’ve survived, and it’s only in the last thirty or forty years that we’ve begun to recover from the Famine, and Irish people got a bit of pride back into themselves. There’s a bit more about us now, than there was when we were always looking back.”
Lenihan takes a different tack regarding the modern perception of the craft in Ireland, with pointed criticism and frustration for the country’s arts officialdom and broadcasters.
“Storytelling has always been the poor relation. You’ve Irish music, singing and dancing, but storytelling was never on the national airwaves, [national broadcasters] have never done anything for it. Media in general has rarely done anything for it. Anytime I go abroad, I make that point absolutely clear, that if storytelling survives in this country, it’s by accident: I’m not in the least sentimental about that point.
“America has done more for Irish storytelling than Ireland, which is an awful thing to say, but Ireland has let storytelling down, so much so that I have been collecting and collecting, regardless. I have never had help, it has all come out of my own pocket, but now I have a collection, thousands and thousands of hours of recorded material. What will I do with it? I guarantee you it won’t go to an Irish institution anyway.”
The act of storytelling itself requires the wearing of a few hats: the recall of a canon of stories and their context; the command of a crowd and the ability to interact and improvise; the oratory ability to lend gravitas and authority to your words as a bearer of tradition and the lived experience of others. O’Brien discusses the balance as it plays out across a session of storytelling.
“A good actor gets lost in the part, and draws the crowd in. There’s an unspoken agreement, we know this is not real, but for the next two hours, we’re going with this, and it’s the same with any art, the best ones are the ones you get lost in, and it’s the same with storytelling.
“A teller forgets they’re performing. You have to learn the trade, do it and make mistakes. You make mistakes and remember them, but you do good things and remember them. The very most basic thing of all, is when you have a story you enjoy so much telling, you remember it, and you hardly have to think about it.
“There are stories I’ve told hundreds of times, and the test of a good story is that I still enjoy it. You have to keep the people engaged, and I’m not a man for storytellers that might dress up like Éamon Kelly and copy him word-for-word. Everyone has their style, and there are as many styles as there are people.”
The importance of storytelling especially comes into play at this time of year, with Halloween approaching. Ireland, of course, is the inheritor of a rich legacy of the macabre and suspenseful across its oral tradition: supernatural tales of omens and portents, attempts to outmanoeuvre the Devil, and the Irish people’s ongoing relationship with ‘the other crowd’.
“The Irish fairies aren’t the notion of the fairies that people have at all,” says Linehan, compiler of supernatural anthology.
“With the wings, and pointy ears, and sparkly wands and stuff like that. Fairies are like ourselves. The fairies, as one man, Mick, told me, a mighty storyteller he was too, he told me he met them. And of course, my first question is, ‘what do they look like?’
“He told me, and he was an auld bachelor now, so an open fireplace, and the place was not filthy, but full of turf dust, and he said to me after a pause:
The end of autumn and the beginning of winter marked a halfway-house for the supernatural, says Linehan.
“It’s a changing time of year. Halloween is one, May is another. It was the time of year when the other world, and our world were the closest, and I’ve met many of the old people that wouldn’t go out on a night like that, because they believed that you were taking your life in your own hands. If you went near a fairy fort on that night, you might be brought, or taken, into the other world.”
Of course, there are equally pressing worries in the present day, and the artform has had to adapt in short order. Cork YarnSpinners, among other storytelling circles, has recently conducted online sessions over Zoom. These will never replace live storytelling, but they do have their advantages.
“We’ve been able to have people listen to us from all over Ireland, the USA, from Newfoundland, we’ve latched onto a group of tellers there, and they’re big into recitation, which is still strong in Ireland, too:, and all the big, long ballads. There’s still a grá for them in Ireland.”
While thoughts of how events and sessions might happen might be preoccupied by remote solutions right now, there’s also the matter of the artform’s future, as the last generation of people that lived with storytelling at its cultural peak begins to pass on.
For Lenihan, respect for the person who passed the story on to him is paramount.
“You’re telling a story, you’re looking at an audience, and you see a face, a face, a face. You have to play the story to the faces in front of you, thinking always, in my case at least, of the person who told me that story, with respect for that person.
"This is their story, and I am telling it in memory of that person. I owe it to that person to keep their memory alive.
"That story is that person’s gravestone.”