Mythology and the Irish Storytelling tradition

June 19, 2015 – Culture

If you look at any list of the greatest english language writers of all time, you’ll probably see a disproportionate number of Irish names on the list. Writing in a variety of styles about a variety of topics, Irish writers like Joyce, Wilde, Beckett, Behan and Bernard Shaw as well as many others have had an impact on literature all over the world. One possible explanation for this ability to breed great writers could be Ireland’s rich storytelling tradition, going all the way back to the seanchaí.

Traditionally it was the job of the seanchaí to serve the Irish people by preserving information that was considered important (but not so important you’d need to write it down apparently). This information was usually Irish folklore and history, and was preserved through the medium of storytelling, passed on orally from one seanchaí to another. If you grew up going to school in Ireland you’ve no doubt heard about the various tricks they used to help them remember this information, like rhyming, repetition, alliteration and everything else you’re asked to look out for when dissecting an unseen poem for the Junior Cert. While many seanchaí served clans and were considered teachers for the youth and entertainers for the older members, others travelled around the country exchanging stories for food and shelter.

Not only did this Irish storytelling tradition have the function of passing down history and folklore, in a time when the ability to read and write was possessed by very few, but it was also considered the reward for a hard days work. It was considered a “nocturnal pursuit” so much so that, unless you were a fisherman pulling in his nets, it was considered bad luck to tell stories during the daylight hours. And it wasn’t just the odd seanchaí who was expected to be able to tell a few tales at the end of the day. It was everyone. As Eamon Kelly put it beautifully “the man without a story to tell was about as welcome as a drop of holy water in the Devil’s whiskey”.

Eamon Kelly is probably the classic example of the modern Irish storyteller. In the 1950s he was known as “The Seanchaí” and presented a storytelling programme on RTE 1 called “The Rambling House”. Take a minute now to check him out on Youtube. Chances are you’ll see a video of an old man, looking like an extra from Darby O’Gill and the Little People, in a tweed jacket in front of a turf fire, telling stories to children who are sitting on the beaten-earth floor of some cottage in the West of Ireland. Its pretty much what we assume most foreigners assume Ireland is like, although, to be fair, I myself am guilty of showing these videos to friends whenever I’m abroad and insisting it’s all anyone watches back home. And the only song we listen to is Ireland’s 1994 world cup anthem “Put ‘em Under Pressure”.

Eamon’s stories are pretty much just rural irish stand-up sets, with punchlines he seems to enjoy far more than anyone else. But as the name would suggest, it’s in the telling of the story that the real art of the Irish storytelling tradition is seen. He constantly interrupts his own narratives to drop a few facts not only to help set the scene for his story, but also to sneak in little Irish history lessons. Its because of these stories I know all about how tea was distributed when it was first introduced to Ireland or the rigorous inspections Irish migrants were subjected to upon arrival in Ellis Island. The stories are also full of great little Irish similes and metaphors that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else. In one story, he describes a group of people leaving a room, in his thick Kerry accent, “like dirty water out of a bucket”. In another, he refers to going to the bathroom as “shedding the tear for Parnell”. This last one I used to say as a joke, but it’s now well and truly worked its way into my vocabulary – a little anecdotal evidence of how effective the storytelling tradition is for preserving our culture.

One recent event, which celebrated the Irish storytelling tradition was the 2nd annual ‘Mythfest’ which took place across the grounds of Trinity College between the 3rd and the 7th of June. This event, organised by Trinity’s Players Society comprised daily performances of eight plays, mostly between 20 – 40 minutes in length in outdoor venues around the campus as well as the Players Theatre. The theme of these plays was mythology, both Irish and international. The idea for Mythfest came about after organisers saw that despite Ireland’s rich storytelling heritage, there were very few references to it in contemporary Irish culture.

They aimed to “provide a platform for the revisiting, reimagining and interrogation of Ireland’s unique and incredibly vibrant allegorical history. We want to bring mythology to life and immerse people in the creatures, characters and colours of ancient Irish legend (with a few international nods thrown in for good measure). Through creative engagement with the tales of yore, we hope to rejuvenate them for a contemporary audience and incite new excitement and debate in both the stories and the concept of myth itself.”

Because of the emphasis on the actual telling of the story, many of these performances included the creators of these stories as both narrators and characters. An example of this is the version of “Homer’s Odyssey” performed at Mythfest, with Homer himself sitting to one side telling the story to the audience, while also having to deal with criticisms over the many contrived plot points from Odysseus and co. This style of 4th wall breaking storytelling is quite telling of what the storytelling tradition looks like today. We know the stories and characters so well, it’s far more fun and interesting to see a version where the characters know the tropes as well and are completely self aware. This allows for surreal moments, like the greek soldiers inside the wooden horse, arguing with Homer as to why the Trojans would ever want to bring a giant wooden horse inside their walls. In another piece performed on the day “Ahoy! Tales of Piracy” this storytelling tool is again used in an interesting way as five famous pirates, each narrating their own story of how they came to be pirates, eventually come to realise that their stories are interrelated.

While these are examples of how contemporary storytellers can tell old stories and keep them interesting, the last performance of the day was a completely new piece – “The Unquiet Hour: A Tale of Faeries”written by Will Penswick and directed by Ciara Fleming, and inspired by W.B. Yeats collection “Fairy and Folk Tales for the Irish Peasantry”. The performance took place in Trinitys Front Square under the Campanile, which was used to symbolize the gateway between Human world and the World of the Faeries. The Unquiet Hour tells the story of a group of Faeries, some of them living in our world, some of them living in the fairy world, some of them somewhere in between, and all of them wondering if they’re in the right place, debating what they stand to gain or lose by moving through the gate. It also touched on some deeper, more philosophical ideas, in particular the relation between memory and identity. The piece had a musical accompaniment provided by the cast alternately on flute, xylophone and acoustic guitar and stage directions which were performed almost as one continuous choreographed piece. rarely was there silence and at no point was anyone onstage idle, giving the piece a dreamlike flow. This was added to by the seamless and clever transitioning between characters and stories and the language, which seemed like something straight out of a Yeats poem.

After the performance, there was a reception in the players theatre. Listening to other audience members discuss what they had just watched, there seemed to be no clear consensus about the story and the roles of certain characters, although everyone seemed to have their own understandings. This is perhaps a perfect example of where the Irish Storytelling Tradition is today. Like most art forms in the 21st century it’s become postmodern and completely open to interpretation. Just like Homer’s Odyssey or even Eamon Kelly’s stories as they’re watched today, it may be that it’s not the stories themselves that are valued most but finding unique and novel ways to tell these stories.

Words: Shane Murphy

Image: Conor Nolan