In most societies throughout time, listening to the tales of storytellers played a crucial part in everyday life. The stories provided a sense of the inherited past, they informed about the dangers and temptations of life, and they provided a set of moral standards that the listener was invited to accept. No less important was the occasion itself – the coming-together of family and friends sitting around the hearth engaged in the common pursuit of reflecting on their shared heritage.
Storytellers were still practising their art in remote parts of Ireland in the twentieth century. The folklorist J. H. Delargy gives a moving description of his encounters of one such, Seán Ó Conaill, a 70-year-old farmer-fisherman who lived in a two-roomed cottage in the hamlet of Cíllrialaig in Co. Kerry in the 1920s. Although technically illiterate
he was one of the best-read men in the unwritten literature of the people whom I have ever known, his mind a storehouse of traditions of all kinds, pithy anecdotes, and intricate hero-tales, proverbs and rhymes and riddles, and other features of the rich orally preserved lore common to all Ireland three hundred years ago. He was a conscious literary artist. He took a deep pleasure in telling his tales; his language was clear and vigorous, and had in it the stuff of literature.