The Irish Storytelling Tradition: A Delicate Revival

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Storytelling is a unique part of Irish culture and heritage. Rich and vivid tales of Celtic warriors and legendary battles, along with folk tales detailing the lives of ordinary people, were passed on orally for centuries. Although the seanchaí of old no longer entertain the towns and villages of Ireland, the tradition of storytelling is undergoing something of a delicate revival in Ireland.

By Elaine Kavanagh

A couple of years ago I brought my young son to a story-telling event at our local library. My curiosity about the content of the stories and their appeal to the audience was well rewarded: storyteller Niall de Burca told wonderfully tall tales and, in the spirit of the best entertainers, caught the entire audience in his spell. There were plenty of laughing children and smiling adults. It struck me that perhaps the art of storytelling is not dead. Of course, I was aware of Ireland’s rich storytelling  tradition but assumed it had been relegated to the history books.

 

Not so, according to Nuala Hayes from Storytellers of Ireland, a voluntary organisation which has been promoting the practice and preservation of oral storytelling since its inception in 2003. In fact, she says, the tradition has been undergoing “a delicate and organic revival” for the past twenty-five years.

Nuala compares the Irish storytelling tradition as it currently stands to “an underground stream that’s still alive and every now and then bubbles up to the surface.”  Interestingly, this revival is not just an Irish phenomenon. Storytelling has been growing again internationally since the end of the twentieth century. Nuala notes that while technology has been a great aid to its growth, this in itself didn’t spark the revival. It began before the advent of the internet.

The Revival

So, what were the sparks of this revival? According to Nuala, different generations discover storytelling as if for the first time, and she mentions the cultural revival in Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century as an example. Nuala feels that storytelling fulfils a basic human need to understand our lives through stories rather than economics or facts. And, she says, perhaps at the birth of the age of technology, people began to feel a need to gather in groups and explore stories once again.

Woman in medieval dress looking into distance

The Irish storytelling tradition is as old as the hills

The rebirth of Irish storytelling can be traced back to the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of its pioneers was Liz Weir, an accomplished storyteller and Belfast librarian from Co. Antrim. Influenced by British librarians who had been organising storytelling events for children during the 1970s, Liz set up a storytelling group in the Linenhall Library in Belfast in 1985.

Despite the sectarian issues in Northern Ireland at the time, the Belfast  Yarnspinners brought people from both sides of the community together to tell stories and find a means of connection rather than division. With Liz’s encouragement, many in the group began to share their stories and a new community of storytellers was born.

It was the early 1990s when Nuala first became interested in the storytelling tradition. With a background in theatre, she was working along with other artists at a series of workshops in France. A group of French storytellers in the workshop next door came to her attention because they seemed to be having great craic. Every now and then, Nuala would hear one of them introduce an Irish story. This gave her pause for thought – would there be an audience for storytelling in Dublin?

A New Irish Audience

Nuala and Ellen Cranitch, a flautist and composer who now works for Lyric FM, decided to find out. They booked Mother Redcaps, a Dublin pub known for its traditional music. Four nights of music and stories were organised, to take place in November 1991. Eamon Kelly, John Campbell, Len Graham, Matt Cranitch, Máire Breatnach and Frank Harte were among the many storytellers, singers and musicians who took part.

The event was a very well received. Each night, a packed house chatted during the musical pieces but listened with great interest to the stories. The event’s biggest achievement, according to Nuala, was that it “shook up an audience” for storytelling in Dublin. Scéalta Shamhna, as it became known, grew over a ten-year period into a month-long celebration of storytelling in venues throughout Dublin.

Gradually, yarnspinning groups began to establish themselves around the country – north and south of the border – with the help and encouragement of Liz Weir. Nuala began to explore the old legends and started storytelling herself. She especially liked the less well-known stories, the ones we didn’t learn in school. Nuala thinks we’re very fortunate that the Irish monks recorded a wealth of stories which might otherwise have been lost. This means we have a rich store of stories to draw from. Not only that, we also have a unique tradition because Irish stories tend not to be moralistic, but rather to veer into the subversive with fantastic leaps of imagination.

Storytelling Festivals

In 1994 the first Cape Clear International Storytelling Festival was held, and it has grown slowly and organically into one of the most renowned storytelling festivals in the world. Each year at the end of August, a programme of international and homegrown storytellers gather on the island off the coast of West Cork to entertain festival goers. There are also workshops, story swapping sessions, storytelling boat trips and folklore walks.

Cape Clear Island

Cape Clear: The home of the world-renowned Cape Clear International Storytelling Festival

In fact, there are now a wealth of storytelling festivals and events taking place around the country. There’s a good chance you’ll find one close to your corner of Ireland at some point during the year. There’s the Sneem Storytelling Festival in Kerry, the Glens Storytelling Festival in Antrim and the Slieve Bloom storytelling festival in Tipperary to name a few. In Bray, Co Wicklow, the Yarn Storytelling Festival takes place for a week each November. The intention with the Bray festival is to get storytelling out of the arts centre and into community. With that in mind, it includes lots of storytelling and musical events at various locations in the town, with all ages catered for.

There are also many one-off events and storytelling groups. You can find details of the festivals, events and local groups on the Storytellers of Ireland’s website. You’ll also find a directory of storytellers available for bookings, as well as interviews and articles related to storytelling. Storytellers of Ireland is not just for storytellers, it is open to anyone interested in the art of telling stories. If you’re interested in storytelling they want to hear from you.

Tell Your Own Story

So it seems clear that the art of storytelling is within our reach once more. I asked Nuala how we can bring it into our lives. Her advice was simple – start telling stories! She suggests that parents tell stories to their children, or that community groups organise dedicated times to share stories orally.

Alternatively, you can look up the Storytellers of Ireland and find a local group near you. You can even listen to storytellers online – the marvellous Eamon Kelly, for instance can be found on YouTube. According to Nuala listening doesn’t have quite the same magic as the real thing. That said, it could be a good starting point.

Nuala’s passion for storytelling is inspiring. I’m left with the impression that the Irish storytelling tradition owes a lot both to herself and the community of people who have kept this underground stream bubbling for the past twenty-five years.

To finish, I ask Nuala about her hopes for the future of storytelling in Ireland. To answer my question, Nuala explains that many storytellers have collected a wealth of documents, videos and other materials. In addition, the National Folklore Collection at University College Dublin houses many records relating to the oral tradition. Nuala would love to see the establishment of an all-Ireland centre where all these materials can reside. Perhaps it could act as a place where the stories of our past guide our future.

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