Ireland has a long and rich oral tradition that survives to this day. Seanchai are still around telling the tales that have been passed down through the generations. Overtime, these stories have gone from being told exclusively orally to now being shared in many different formats. There are many books that share Irish folklore, recordings of story performances, festivals where storytellers gather to share Irish lore, storytelling tours and pub crawls, and television shows and movies that share these tales. While there are now many ways to share these Irish folktales, there is a special magic that is created in an actual live performance. Hearing a story told in person creates a suspension of belief that allows us to believe all the most fantastic elements that we loved as children. Listening to a story when gathered around a fire brings the fairies, banshees, mythic kings and warriors to life in a way that a book or movie cannot quite capture. Preserving this magic is why seanchai work so hard to keep the old stories alive, why people like Eddie Lenihan fight to preserve haunted and magic places in Ireland and why we still listen and care about the art of storytelling.
I learned a lot while writing and researching this blog. I loved all the stories I got to read and listen to as part of this assignment. There were several stories and heroes I had heard of before and many new stories as well. I earned my bachelor’s degree in history, so learning about the history of Irish folktales and how they were collected and preserved over the years was particularly interesting. The work done by the Irish folklore commission has an enduring impact to this day and it was fascinating to the see the work they have collected and archived at the National University of Ireland in Dublin in the Irish Folklore Collection. I spent a lot of time looking at the resources they have available online. Overall though I must say my favorite discovery was learning about Eddie Lenihan. It is now one of my life goals to hear one of his storytelling performances in person. I have a lot of respect for his work in preserving both the stories and magical places of Ireland.
Modern storytellers keep the oral history of Ireland alive today through several different ways. This includes storytellers who are part of groups dedicated to continuing the tradition and who may even compete in contests for who gives the best story performance. There are also people who perform as part of the tourism of Ireland working on storytelling tours or performing in pubs for tourists and locals alike. Some of today’s modern storytellers also write books to help preserve the stories they tell.
Eddie Lenihan is a great example of a modern storyteller. He does many performances of stories and records the stories he tells both by having his performances recorded and by writing books to record his stories. He was born in 1950 and resides in Crusheen in County Clare, though he is a native of Brosna in County Kerry. His research and storytelling have taken him all over the world, including forty states in the United States, all over Europe and even to Dubai and China. In Ireland he is known for frequent performances at schools, libraries, prisons, and literary festivals. The following is one of his performances captured on video.
When looking at his written stories, he has amassed quite the body of work as the author of seventeen books and a dozen recordings. Most recently, he has published a trilogy of Fionn MacCumhail adventure stories for young readers, though he has published works for readers of all ages. He continuously preforms at both public and private events and is regarded as Ireland’s greatest living storyteller. In addition to preforming and recording Irish folklore, he also works as a preservationist. As rural parts of Ireland become more industrialized, Eddie Lenihan works to save places that are important to folklore traditions. His preservation efforts have saved a hawthorn bush where fairies gather, as well as hill forts and rural dwellings. He uses his storytelling and the rich tradition of folklore to inspire people to preserve these cultural areas. Eddie Lenihan also researches the fairies and other magical creatures of Ireland. He travels to haunted places, explores fairy paths and other magical landscapes and incorporates this research into his work as a storyteller and preservationist. The following video shows him discussing a fairy bush near his home.
Eddie Lenihan is a great example of a modern seanchai. He not only gives many great performances, but also works to preserve the culture and history of folklore traditions. His works have inspired many other modern Irish storytellers and he has traveled the globe to share the folktales and magic of Ireland.
While Eddie Lenihan may be the best known modern Irish storyteller, there are many others who work to continue the tradition of Irish storytelling. The following video shows highlights from the 2013 Cape Clear International Storytelling Festival.
This festival takes place every September and brings together storytellers from around the globe and allows the greatest storytellers from the Irish tradition a chance to share their work with a larger audience. The 2015 artists included the Irish performers Clare Muireann Murphy and Colum Sands, who is both a storyteller and musical performer. In addition to storytelling festivals held in Ireland, there are other festivals around the globe where Irish storytellers perform and even festivals designed to honor Irish storytellers like the North Texas Irish Festivals which features Irish Folklore performances. For those who wish to see a traditional Irish storytelling performance in Ireland, there are a variety of tours and pub crawls where tourists and locals are able to hear storytellers share their work in a more traditional setting. Finally, due to the popularity of Irish folktales, there are many published books and recordings allowing people the ability to enjoy and share these stories in their own home.
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.
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.
There are many similarities in the folklore of different cultures. All folklore traditions have stories that explain the creation of the world and their people, though these stories may be very different across the globe. There are also common themes among different cultures with similar themes and types of characters.
One element that Irish folklore shares with many other folklore traditions is the trickster tale. These tales are often about, or at least feature, animals and are defined by having a main character who tricks the other characters in the story for their own benefit. The trickster can serve as an example of cleverness prevailing or as a warning for others to not fall victim to this type of trick. The story of The King of All Birds is an example of the prevailing trickster. The birds of Ireland decide to have a contest to see who should be the king of all birds, they decide the most fair thing to do is to declare that the bird who can fly the highest the king. In the story, the Eagle thinks he has won the contest when the Wren hops off his back and flies above his head becoming the king of the birds. The wren is rewarded for his cleverness and the story explains how he became to be regarded as king of all birds. Alternatively, the story The Coldest Night serves as a warning about tricksters. In this story, the eagle Leithin is tricked by the Crow of Achill. The crow imitates one of Leithin’s hatchlings and sends him on a journey to discover weather last night was the coldest night in history. He first goes to the oldest stag who cannot remember a colder night, next the hatchling sends him to ask the oldest blackbird, and finally the oldest salmon. It is Goll the salmon who not only remembers a colder night, but also knows of the trickery of the Crow of Achill. He asks Leithin how a new hatchling could know of all these old beasts and warns him that the crow is sending him off so that he can steal food from the true nestlings, when Leithin returns to the nest he finds that he is too late and the crow and his nestlings are gone.
There are also stories in Irish folktales that tell the history of the Irish people. These stories may still have some commonality with the folklore of other cultures, but tell the unique history of the Irish. These stories can be divided into cycles. There are four cycles: the Mythological Cycle, the Fenien Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, and the Historical Cycle. These cycles overlap at times, but have distinct characteristics. These cycles were not used by traditional storytellers, but were later defined by historians in their studies of the stories.
The Mythological Cycle is the first cycle. This cycle is defined by the magical characters. While they often have human qualities and characteristics, they also have larger than life magical qualities. These characters do interact with mortals, but remain superior to them. These are the old Irish Gods. Additionally, these stories depict the earliest parts of Irish history and tell the tales of the Tuatha De Danann as well as the Partholonians, Nemedians, Fir Bolg, and Milesians. One of the most famous tales from this period is The Children of Lir, which tells the tale of an evil stepmother who turns her four stepchildren into swans.
The Fenien Cycle is also known as the Fionn cycle, after the main hero of this period, Fionn Mac Cumhail and his warriors the Fianna Eireann. It is also known as the Ossianic cycle after Fionn’s son Oisin, who is believed to have written many of the poems found in this cycle. This cycle had the greatest popularity around the 1200s and there are many written accounts from before this time. Fionn Mac Cumhail is regarded as a decedent of the Druids and is a heroic or kingly figure.
The Ulster Cycle tells the tales of the Uliad of Eastern Ulster and Northern Leinster. This period is supposed to have taken place around the time of Christ and many of the writings from this time come from the early period of the Christian Church in Ireland. Historians have mixed views on this period and some believe that this period is purely mythical. The stories often have elements of pre-Christian aristocracy and legendary elements with some authenticity from that time combined with purely mythological elements.
The Historical Cycle is regarded as having more historical accuracy than the previous periods. It takes place in the medieval period when monks and other educated people were recording stories as they occurred. These stories are a combination of historical elements that can be confirmed than legends that are less clear in origin, because of this it is often hard to tell which aspects of stories from this period are based in truth and which are purely fiction. It is clear however, that many of the characters from this period are actual historical figures.
These stories come together to show the changing history of Ireland, but share many elements. Stories throughout these periods feature the same type of personification of animals, with some animals like the salmon and eagle cast as wise leaders, while others like the crow are seen as swindlers. They also feature many of the mythical creatures that are common in multiple stories and periods like leprechauns and banshees. The mythology of Ireland may share many common features with different cultures, but it also has many distinguishing features as well.
Works Cited in this Section
Cross, T., & Slover, C. (1936). Ancient Irish Tales. New York, NY: Barnes & Noble.
This series of blog posts was written for INFO 281, a storytelling class at San Jose State University. I was in part inspired to take this class by memories of my father’s storytelling ability. He passed away when I was nine years old and one of the things people comment on most when reminiscing about my father are the stories he told. His side of the family is Irish, so many have commented on how this storytelling ability must be in his blood. The Irish have a great history of storytelling. Throughout history, seanchaí (alternatively spelled shanachie and spelled as seanchaidhe prior to the Irish language spelling reform of 1948) means bearer of old lore. These storytellers have operated as historians as well, passing on history through the stories they tell.
Historically, seanchaí have been the keepers of the oral tradition of storytelling. These stories were often passed down generation to generation with seanchaí being a family position. They were held in high regards and places of honor by the leaders of their clan. Other seanchaí were travelers who offered their services as storytellers in exchange for food and shelter. Historically, seanchaí are primarily associated with the Irish speaking part of Ireland, but they were also found in the English speaking parts of the country as well. In modern times, many of their stories have been recorded both by writing down the stories and recording performances of these stories which captures the inflection and movement that are part of the traditional stories. There are also groups that still preform traditional seanchaí stories and even festivals where modern seanchaí can meet and compete in storytelling performances.
Storytelling remains an important part of Ireland’s history and attracts great audiences. This form of entertainment is popular with both locals and tourists who visit Ireland. People can hear stories told in libraries, pubs, and even on special storytelling tours. In this blog, I will explore this rich history of storytelling, highlighting some of the traditional stories, Irish folktale characters, famous historical storytellers, and the modern performers who are carrying on the tradition today. Each blog post will feature the works cited in that section, the link to the next blog post, and the link to the complete works cited page for the entire project. The complete works cited page also contains the links to each blog post for the project so that readers can navigate through the entire project.