A Story to Tell: The Culture of Storytelling and Folklore in Ireland

By Englehart, Deirdre Sheridan | Childhood Education, August 15, 2011 | Go to article overview

A Story to Tell: The Culture of Storytelling and Folklore in Ireland


Englehart, Deirdre Sheridan, Childhood Education


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Come with me, far across the blue depths of the sea to a magical land. Come with me and we will meet wondrous creatures great and small, from the past and present that inhabit the Emerald Isle.

Even before I could walk, I was told of leprechauns. I knew they were small, because we had a wee shillelagh (wooden walking stick) that belonged to a leprechaun in our living room. Ireland was an enchanted land filled with leprechauns, fairies, and, of course, princesses like the one I was named after--Deirdre! Stories were a part of my life and the Irish culture of my family. As I grew older, I would tell friends about the ghost of my grandfather. My father had seen his ghost when he was only 2 years old and could describe the suit he had worn when he has buried. My mother told the story that wailing in the night, coupled with a simultaneous knock on the door, meant someone had died. I worried about hearing the banshee call, for fear it meant that someone would die.

Come with me ... for there's a story to tell!

Traditionally, Irish folk are considered to have a bit of the blarney, or the gift for talk. In fact, the Seanachie (pronounced shawn-a-key), or storyteller, has been an honored profession throughout Ireland's history. The folk literature of Ireland includes stories of the Irish people that have been passed down through generations through such storytelling (Young, 2004). Ireland's history is one of tragic events and invasions; many of these events factor into its tradition of literature and storytelling. Jacobs (1968) notes that "the Celtic folk-tales have been collected while the practice of storytelling is still in full vigour" (p. ix), contributing to the richness of the tales.

"The Irish oral tradition is one of the richest in the world--stories have been told around our firesides for thousands of years and the tradition has never died" (Doyle & Sharkey, 2000, Introduction). Wit and humor are strong characteristics of Irish literature, as are religion and superstition (O'Suilleabhain, 1970). Magical creatures are an integral part of Irish folk literature, and many of the heroes have godlike characteristics (Hyde, 1980).

A HISTORY OF IRISH LITERATURE

Medieval folk literature is very rich in Ireland. It was transmitted orally for generations until about the 7th century, when monks came to Ireland and began to record the oral traditions. This literature can be grouped into four categories, or "cycles."

The Mythological Cycle contains stories about the Tuatha De Danann, a magical, mythological race. The stories address a race of men, their relationship to the old pagan gods, and the struggle between good and evil in the earliest history of Ireland.

The Heroic Cycle of literature involves the history of the Milesians, considered relatives of the present-day Irish race. This cycle is also called the Red Branch Cycle and includes stories related to Ulster, or the northern province of Ireland. Stories from this cycle do have some historical basis, but still include some "work of imagination or poetic fiction" (Hyde, 1980, p. 293). Welch (1996) indicates that the events described in these stories can be placed between 100 BC and 400 AD.

The Fenian Cycle stories relate to Finn MacCumhail and the Fenian army. These popular stories were written for the "common people" (Fallis, 1978, p. 39). Finn is considered a folk hero in Ireland's history, and many stories about him were full of comedy and exaggeration. The time line for this cycle is around the 3rd century.

The Cycle of Kings, or historical cycle, involves a mixture of legend and history and preserves tales about Irish kings collected from court historians. The stories in this cycle date back to the 9th through 12th centuries. "A number of the tales originating in the 10th century deal with specific events of historical record" (Welch, 1996, p. …

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