Irish Storytelling

Irish Storytelling

© Yvonne Healy, 2005. All rights reserved.
The Story Vine, National Storytelling Network, TN 2005.

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Irish storytelling is a delicious stew of ancient mythology, religious legends, delightful folklore and sophisticated literature.

Before Stonehenge, before Egyptian pyramids, the Irish created beautiful and accurate solar calendars in stone. They also created stories featuring wonderworkers who were tall, glorious, gutsy and psychologically complicated.

During Europe’s Dark Ages Ireland’s monasteries and law courts kept civilization and learning alive in the West. They also preserved legends from a spirituality anchored in the very shape of the earth. In these legends “of saints and scholars” the Unseen is as interwoven with daily life as the curving lines of the Book of Kells.

When Europe developed a culture of imperial colonization, Ireland’s conquerors aimed at eradicating her language, civilization and people. The Irish responded subversively by developing a rich oral literature and folklore. Stories from this long era often portray the Irish as childlike and ignorant, neatly deflecting the deadly penal codes which forbade education and outlawed Irish culture. Storytellers and their characters wore the mask of the naïf to outwit the authorities and to disguise the stories’ irreverent humor.

When education was finally allowed, the Irish learned to wield the language of the conqueror so deftly that modern English literature is dominated by Irish names: Joyce, Shaw, Yeats, Wilde, Beckett, Heaney, etc.

With barely 8 decades of independent rule under her belt, Ireland currently is the 6th richest economy in the world with an equally rich artistic culture. Some people decry the loss of the “old days” with its’ moldy thatched cottages, rampant poverty and fireside tales of gullible farmers hunting fairy gold. And the tourist industry gladly supplies this product to them.

But contemporary Ireland supports a vast cultural re-awakening. Today there is a resurgence of people speaking and writing the Irish language and performing traditional dance, music and storytelling and tailoring it to modern life. At formal events, the traveling storyteller arrives by car rather than foot. But the ‘craic is mighty’ and stories are told throughout the land. Family gatherings with my relatives as recent as summer 2004 continued to offer stories galore. Believe me, I wasn’t the only one talking or even the loudest. I left each home carrying a pocketful of stories.

Some tellers reproduce stories in an historical re-enactment of a specific historical period. I’ve seen many Irish-American tellers tell the stories told by their immigrant ancestors. Others emulate the great Eamon Kelly with his western lilt, soft woolen hat and tales from his own turn-of-the-20th-century childhood. In the way that many people do not sleep on a scratchy straw pallet when pillowtop mattresses are available, similarly other tellers keep traditional storytelling alive by choosing tales from various time periods and infusing them with the life of 2005. Any style is the ‘right’ way to tell Irish stories as long as they’re told well!

Irish stories come in many guises offering multiple levels of meaning. Peer deeply into the tales for the shadows that certainly lie within. Masters at using a charming smile to mask a grieving heart, the Irish are well aware that both light and shadow are needed to see the world.

Advice for Tellers:
Beginning teller: Whether Irish or not, tell what you like. Start with a simple plot. Be sure to include humor. Remember that there is much more to Ireland than leprechauns and the Potato Famine. Feel free to be irreverent!

Advanced teller: Seek more than 1 version of the story. Multiple versions exist. If you approach the mythology, read all versions for a more accurate view. Many folklorists and translators allowed their home culture’s low opinion of the Irish to slant their recording. Check the background and biases of the collector.

All tellers: Tell in your own voice: avoid attempting an Irish accent unless you’ve lived in Ireland. Patrick Ball is a wonderful model! He creates and then modifies regionally specific accents making them intelligible to American ears.

Irish Storytelling Resources
Following are some titles to begin your collection of Irish stories. But don’t stop there: my own collection includes about 100 Irish titles in addition to those heard from my family.

  • Lady Gregory, Visions and Beliefs of the West of Ireland, 1920.
  • Jacobs, Joseph, Celtic Fairy Tales, 1892.
  • Verniero, Joan, 101 Read-Aloud Celtic Myths and Legends, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers (New York), 2000.
  • Yeats, W.B., Irish Folk Stories and Fairy Tales, 1888.

Afraid to try Irish tales?
The Irish love storytelling and are not proprietary. As with any culture, the stories grow out of the land and the lives of the people; so do your research. If possible go for a long visit. Storytellers often lead tours in Ireland; I truly enjoyed Richard Marsh’s “Legendary Tours.” Then feel free to tell any story that strikes your fancy.

As me da’ always says:
Never let the truth stand in the way of a good tale. He also says “Ná bíodh do theanga faoi do chrios! Don’t keep your tongue under your belt!”

March 21, 2005

Websites for Irish Storytelling

Internet Sacred Texts Archive (support the site & purchase the CD!)

Conrad Bladey’s Irish Studies Page

Irish Literature, Folklore, Mythology and Drama

Legendary Tours – Richard Marsh

Myth Home – pronounciation of Irish names

About Yvonne Healy
Growing up with one foot on this coast of the Atlantic Ocean and one foot planted on the other, rare tales from Irish myth, folk life and history make up Yvonne’s favorite program, “Faces of Ireland.” Both comic and haunting, it’s a healthy elixir of fantasy and fact crowned by the Irish hallmark of irreverence. Also shared are her family treasures. Yvonne’s parents tucked her into bed with stories they’d recorded for the Irish Folklore Commission. Her family stories give first-hand accounts of the birthing of a new nation and the withering of the old.

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