Seanchaí: Irish Storytellers

I always knew when a story was about to be told. My great aunt Bergetta, from County Cork, would sit back in her chair a bit, cup of tea in hand and she would say, “Weeeil, you know now…” And that was the beginning of a story.

Storytelling is as old as humanity itself.

In fact, it’s the oldest form of entertainment, well before the written word, it dates to the times of tribes gathering around the fire to listen to heroic tales and legends. Ireland is famed throughout the world for the art of storytelling. The Irish word for storyteller is seanchaí (shan-a-kee), meaning a bearer of “old lore.” While it’s true that Irish stories abound with tales of heroes and fairies, there are just as often tales of the here and now, and sometimes right down the street! A storyteller will take an incident or person and embellish it beyond recognition, also known as blarney, and entertain a room full of people.

Storytelling is an intimate and interactive art.

The storyteller speaks from memory, rather than reading from a book. A tale is not just the spoken equivalent of a short story. It has no set text but is endlessly re-created in the telling. The listener is an essential part of the storytelling process, and if there’s a seanchaí in the group, sometimes they may take the story and remake it as their own. For stories to live, they need the hearts, minds, and ears of listeners. The Irish audience will sit and nod their heads or agree with a “Yes, it happened just that way.” Without the listener, there is no story.

There is a separate group of Irish within Ireland and they are the Irish Travelers.

The Travelers, or Walking People, are traditionally regarded as amongst the best of Irish storytellers. As a transient community, they historically relied on self-made entertainment, writing songs and telling stories. The Travelers have faced prejudice throughout their history, however, in the old days, it was said that when the settled people heard that the travelers were coming, they would paint the village. Wonderful times and nights were had with them, and many stories were told. The Walking People have made an enormous contribution to the preservation of Ireland’s oral and musical tradition. 

The Irish are the best storytellers in the world without a shadow of a doubt.

Not only are they masters of the spoken word, but also of the written word. Ireland is a small country with a small population, so the proportion of Irish writers who have achieved universal fame is incredible. James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, William Yeats, Jonathan Swift, Samual Beckett, and so many more. They have produced some of the most renowned and significant works of literature in the English language.

The Irish are not the only people who tell stories, each country and culture also has their version of storytellers.

In recent times, there has been a global renewed interest in storytelling. Beginning a few years ago in Sweden, the movement slowly grew to other countries, finally culminating in a worldwide event called World Storytelling Day, which is celebrated on  March 20th. The theme of this day encompasses stories that have words, pictures, signs, or expressions so that all forms of storytelling from around the world are appreciated. The establishment of World Storytelling Day acknowledges the art form of storytelling and encourages all cultures from every country to participate.

Included in this movement is a new generation of storytellers, spearheaded by a program called Young International Tellers, an open-mic program of young Tellers. The stories are told, filmed and released on Vimeo or YouTube. They produce the International Storytelling Festival which is an event where many storytellers from every continent will converge. The theme this year is “Ancestral Voices,” which focuses on the need to meet in person, and the healing power of stories in our world. Other regional and national storytelling festivals can be found from Sacramento to Tennessee, and beyond. We find in this how stories are different and yet the same, cross-culturally. And audiences can listen in wonder and perhaps bring a story or two home.