Storytellers of the Past

Storytellers of the Past

Ireland has a long and rich storytelling tradition and there are many storytellers that are remembered to this day. In studying Irish folklore, I noticed the names of a few storytellers coming up repeatedly. These storytellers were able to preserve their work by writing it down and storytellers today still refer to their works in their storytelling. These people have had an important impact on how Irish folktales are told today.

Anna Nic an Luain lived from 1884 to 1954. She was a housewife who married into the McLoone clan, one of the principle families in the Donegal area. She had memorized an impressive number of folktales, fairytales, legends, prayers, songs, and information on the history of the area. She was known for being able to tell tales that lasted the whole night, recite songs of twenty or more stanzas, and for having an impressive collection of riddles. Sean O hEochaidh from the Irish Folklore Commission visited her area in 1947 to record the stories, history and traditions of the community in the Donegal area which is how he came to know Anna Nic an Luain and record her stories. He spent about three years in the area and focused a lot on Anna in his first year there. He had a great respect for her and her abilities. Her house was always full of people, especially neighboring children who came to listen to her stories. She was a great example of a storyteller who kept to the old Gaelic traditions and she was very respected and loved by her community.

Image of Peig Sayers from

Peig Sayers lived from 1873 to 1958; she was born on the mainland of Ireland, but after her marriage, she spent most of her time on the Great Basket Island. Prior to her marriage, she had worked as a domestic servant and at one point planned to move to America. She began telling her life story to various scholars who visited the island to study the Irish language. The stories she recited were recorded by several scholars, including the Celtic Scholar Kenneth Jackson and Robin Flower of the British museum. Like Anna Nic an Luain, her stories were collected by the Irish Folklore Commission, dictating around 350 legends, ghost stories, religious works, and folk tales to Seosamh Ó Dálaigh. Not only were the stories she performed recorded, Peig Sayers also told her life story to her son Micheál who wrote everything down and sent her story off to Máire Ní Chinnéide who edited it and published Peig in 1936. The book was criticized for being overly morose in its depiction of rural hardship, but was still required reading for secondary school students for many years. Peig Sayers is remembered today for both her remarkable recitation of stories as well as telling her own life’s tale.

Eamon a Burc lived from 1866 to 1942. He also recited his stories for the Irish Folklore Commission to Liam Mac Coisdeala. Eamon a Burc was of the opinion that they should have started collecting the stories forty to fifty years sooner when it would have been worth while doing it. Eamon a Burc was most well-known for reciting tales from the Ulster and Fianna cycles, specifically for telling epic stories over several nights. He is also credited with telling the longest story ever recorded from the oral tradition. When he told the story Eochair mac Ri in Eirinn or Eochair a King’s Son in Ireland in October 1938, he set this record with the story containing about thirty thousand words. Eamon a Burc was unique among the storyteller’s who had their stories collected by the Irish Folklore Commission, as he was not a regular storyteller. The area in which he lived did not have the same continuous history of a storytelling culture, rather the culture had been revived when he was reciting his stories to the commission. As such, he believed that the storytelling tradition in the area would die down again once Liam Mac Coisdeala left. Eamon a Burc also often spent a few days recalling stories before he recited them for Mac Coisdeala and Mac Coisdeala believed that several of the stories he recorded were never recited by Eamon a Burc a second time.

The work of the Irish Folklore Commission operated from 1935 to 1971 and the stories they collected are maintained today by the National University of Ireland in Dublin in the Irish Folklore Collection. They created recordings of not only the folklore of different areas of Ireland, but also regional dialects of Irish and Gaelic, some of which were dying out at the time. I have included here a couple of video recordings from the Irish Folklore Collection to illustrate the type of work they preserve. The first is a short limerick recorded on St. Stephan’s Day in 1946 and the second is a short story recorded as part of a study of the revival of traditional Irish storytelling.

Works Cited in this Section

Anna Nic an Luain (1884-1954). (n.d.). Retrieved November 8, 2015, from

Éamon a Búrc (1866-1942). (n.d.). Retrieved November 8, 2015, from  

MacDonald, M. (1999). Traditional storytelling today: An international sourcebook. Chicago, IL: Fitzroy Dearborn.

Peig Sayers. (n.d.). Retrieved November 8, 2015, from

Modern Storytellers

Complete Works Cited

Storytellers of the Past

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