The seanchaí were the storytellers of Ireland; the word means bearer of old lore. The seanchaí were preceded in Ireland by the bardic poets, who were central to the preservation of knowledge from ancient times until the seventeenth century.
Bards were powerful and respected figures. Their stories and poetry recalled the myths and heroes of ancient Ireland, recorded genealogy, and preserved local history and other important information during a time when knowledge was passed on through word of mouth.
Ireland’s Oral Tradition
Irish myths date back to pre-Christian times and were passed on orally for generations. Then, from the sixth century, monks in Ireland began to write things down. And it wasn’t just religious material they recorded, but local history and stories too.
Since Irish culture hadn’t been influenced by the Roman empire, it was better preserved than many others in Europe, so the monks had a wealth of unique material to draw from. While this ensured the preservation of many Irish myths, it also meant that they were no longer altered in the telling as the oral tradition would allow.
The oral tradition of the bards coexisted with the written records of the monks for centuries. The bards eventually disappeared with the demise of the period known as Gaelic Ireland in the mid-1600s, but their storytelling tradition lived on with the seanchaí.
These storytellers were a major source of entertainment before the spread of the written word, or the coming of film, radio and television. People would gather round the fire and the seanchaí would enthral them. Some of these storytellers travelled from town to town, and many renowned seanchaí came from the travelling community.
Eamon Kelly, who passed away in 2001, was one of the most notable seanchaí of recent times. His skill in telling stories will be fondly remembered for many years. Eddie Lenihan, who has been called Ireland’s greatest living storyteller, began his journey as a seanchaí telling bedtime stories to his children, and has published many books and recordings. You can find out more about Eddie or buy his books here. Peig Sayers was another famous seanchaí who might trigger questionable memories for anyone who passed their school-days in Ireland.
The Cycles of Early Irish Literature
Many of the tales told by storytellers have their roots in Early Irish literature. There are four major categories (called cycles) of stories from Early Irish literature:
- The Mythological Cycle are the oldest stories. Their focus is the pagan gods of Ireland, known as the Tuatha Dé Danann, said to have inhabited Ireland before the arrival of the Celts. The most well-known of these stories is The Children of Lir, in which the four children of King Lir were transformed into swans by their jealous stepmother and spent hundreds of years in exile.
- The Ulster Cycle brought us the stories about Cú Chulainn and the Red Branch Knights. These are thought to date from about the 1st century AD. Perhaps the most well-known of these stories is Táin Bó Cúailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley). In this story, Queen Maev of Connacht, seeking to elevate her wealth above that of her husband, raises an enormous army to invade the Cooley peninsula and steal a prize bull. When her army is defeated by Cú Chulainn, she captures the bull herself and brings it back to Connacht.
- The Fenian Cycle relates to stories about Fionn and the Fianna. Dated slightly later than the Ulster cycle, although with some overlap, they incorporate some of the most well-known stories in early Irish literature, such as The Salmon of Knowledge and Tir na nÓg.
- The Cycle of the Kings (or historical cycle) recorded tales of the legendary kings of Ireland. These stories were recorded by bards charged with preserving and embellishing the history and genealogy of the family they served. They range from the mythical to the historical; the tale of Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf is one of the most famous of these stories.
The seanchaí also told stories drawn from the lives of ordinary Irish folk, with themes that people could easily identify with. According to Eamon Kelly, there is a misconception that Irish stories are about freedom fighters and the country’s struggles against the English oppressors. In an interview with Dublin Magazine (courtesy of Storytellers of Ireland) Kelly explained that this is not the case at all.
Lots of the older stories, of course, they have to do with the fundamental things of life, like love and the chase and fighting and food and things of that kind. The things that you do hear about are landlords. But they don’t talk about them in an English sense. They just talk about them as somebody who charged rent.
And according to Kelly, many of the stories related to America because that’s where Irish people went; when news filtered back to communities at home, bits and pieces would work their way into stories. So, it seems these stories reflected the goings on of ordinary folk in Irish society.
Interpreting The Ancient Myths
In the same way, ancient Irish mythology tells us much about our society as it existed centuries ago. The Children of Lir might be interpreted in terms of exile and the sadness it brought, as the children spent hundreds of years away from home. In some versions they were baptised before they died, a twist probably added by monks who recorded the story. This reflected the coming of Christianity and its influence on Irish mythology.
The Cattle Raid of Cooley tell us about a country divided into separate kingdoms, often at war with each other, where wealth is represented by cattle. It also suggests that it wasn’t unheard of for a woman to be in a position of power. In fact, Maev is introduced as a woman of great authority:
But though Ailell was king, Maev was the ruler in truth, and ordered all things as she wished, and took what husbands she wished, and dismissed them at pleasure; for she was fierce and strong as a goddess of war, and knew no law but her own wild will.
This excerpt is taken from T. W. Rolleston’s Myths and Legends of the Celtic Race. Published in 1910, the book narrates the major stories from all four cycles of Early Irish Literature. It’s still in print – you can buy a copy or access it online.
Interestingly, Rolleston tells us that the Fenian cycle evokes a time when life was gentler, with more people living in settlements and towns. In the Fenian stories, themes of romance and beauty take precedence over heroism and self-sacrifice. This suggests that Irish society was relatively stable during these years.
Decline of the Seanchaí
Ultimately the advent of television and radio saw the decline of the seanchaí and their unique storytelling tradition. People were no longer reliant on them for entertainment, news or information. However, it seems we haven’t completely lost our love for this unique aspect of Irish culture. Here’s hoping the delicate revival which began twenty-five years ago continues to gather pace.