"Year of the Adopted Family" book release

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Today's Bards & Seanachies: Irish Wisdom in Storytelling Techniques

Having the "gift of gab" by kissing the Blarney stone is not enough to be a storyteller. An Irish proverb says, "Time is a great storyteller."

The number of stories you know, the principles learned within them, and the time it takes to apply the principles can measure intelligence.

Whether bard or seanachie (pronounced Shawn-ah-key), both well-known Irish storytellers during the Celtic era, 300 or more stories were committed to memory and shared with village people to Gaelic nobility.

During that period, people respected the role of the storyteller.

Wise people today still do.

Nowadays we have professional storytellers, and perhaps you count yourself as one. Or maybe you love to tell tales around the kitchen table or at the workplace or around a campfire. Regardless of the "stage", you probably have characteristics similar to bards/filidh and seanachies.

Consider personal connections to the following--

Traits and Qualities of the Bard/Filidh:
  • 100% focused on the storytelling craft and supported by patrons
  • 12+ years of intensive training through expensive schooling
  • Skilled in storytelling, poetry, music composition, singing, and playing of at least one instrument--usually harp
  • Repertoire consisted of long stories that took two or more hours to tell and some that had to be told over the course of several nights
  • Learned stories, verses, histories, and genealogies
  • Upon graduation of training, then wore cloak of crimson and yellow feathers and carried a gold rod
  • Each year received 21 cows, food for himself and 20 attendants, kept 6 horses, 2 dogs, and immunity from arrest for any crime save treason and murder
Bard-Types of Today
We have few, if any, apprenticeships that would compare to the bardic schooling. However, many universities offer storytelling as a course and some places, like East Tennessee State University, have a complete Masters program. Some storytellers further their education by receiving doctorates in related fields such as Folklore or Theatre. (Click here for list of higher education programs.)

The National Storytelling Network has promoted apprenticeships through the creation of the J.J. Reneaux Mentorship grant.

Attending storytelling conferences and festivals are always places of learning. Some of the most popular are the National Storytelling Conference and the National Storytelling Festival. These kinds of events remind the storyteller of how many truly embrace the art.

You can see some of these tellers at listings like Storyteller.net, the Professional Storyteller social network site, and the National Storytelling Network directory. Some state guilds like the Florida Storytelling Association or the Utah Storytelling Guild have websites showing their members.

As for style, some tellers rely purely on the spoken word while others enhance their stories through song, music, or dance. There is not a right or wrong way.

Traits and Qualities of the Seanachie:
  • Most of his time focused on another occupation than storytelling though he told as opportunities came
  • Audience mainly composed of small and poor communities, which is why known as "village storyteller"
  • More affordable than bard and often told stories when a bard could not be secured
  • Some stayed in one location as a storyteller while some traveled and were paid in food and shelter
  • Keepers of the history and lore of a certain folk
  • Learned distinctive gestures to emphasize points in story
Seanachie-Types of Today
At times I have heard touring storytellers wish that they could stay in a place long enough to know their audience. Circuit and festival tellers are the "rock stars" of the art as they are most visible and celebrated by the media.

Some communities are realizing that their homes and neighborhoods are full of stories. It could be said they are searching for their seanachies to remember the folkways.

StoryCorps, a National Public Radio (NPR) initiative, was formed to "[create] an oral history of the United States using the stories of everyday Americans" with the help of two mobile recording studios traveling on a cross-country tour. The stories will be archived in the Library of Congress.

Then there is the [HEAR]SAY project at St. John's, Newfoundland of Canada, which is a pioneering project of story mapping through recorded oral histories. Signs are posted throughout streets and people can call the telephone number on the sign to hear the story connected to that area.

Arthur Rowan, who wrote The Lore of the Bard, said, ". . .if it is the myth and legends of the folk that you love, and your desire is to keep the magic of those traditions alive, then the way of the seanachie might be for you."

Storytelling Techniques through The Triads of Ireland:
Liz Warren, English and Storytelling Professor at South Mountain Community College in Arizona, stated, "The Irish Storytelling Tradition is one of the most thoroughly studied, documented and celebrated of any in the world."

In Summer 2008, Warren led a study abroad in Ireland on storytelling. Her syllabus online mentioned The Triads of Ireland, a collection of 214 Old Irish sayings that list three qualities at a time. The third item tends to be the climax or the anticlimax of the list.

Warren referenced three of those triads that relate to storytelling--
  • Three glories of speech: steadiness, wisdom, brevity
  • Three hateful things in speech: stiffness, obscurity, a bad delivery
  • Three things that constitute a poet: knowledge that illumines, knowledge of incantations, improvisation
Glories of Speech--(my interpretations)

This is not a common word that storytellers outside Ireland may choose to be important in storytelling. It could refer to the storyteller having a calmness or control over the sharing of the story. Perhaps this promotes the idea that every moment within the story contributes in some way to the main purpose of the story, thereby creating a "steadiness" in the telling.

Bards and seanachies believed in the stories they told. Their audiences knew not to question. If a feat or achievement seemed too remarkable within a story, then the storyteller would justify that it was a time of magic. I like to say that every story is true. Some stories are more true than others. Even in the tallest of tales, principles are being taught.

Considering that the bards and seanachies knew two-hour and longer stories, brevity seems a strange "glory of speech". At the same time, the Irish are known for their blessings, jokes, and anecdotes. Length may not be the issue as there are times in all of our lives when we have shared more details than necessary to relate a story.

Hateful of Speech--(my interpretations)

Other words for "stiffness" are "frozen" or "fake". Memorized stories have a danger of sounding "stiff". A bit of improvisation and reaction to the audience's feedback allows life to be blown into the story.

When a storyteller begins or ends a session with stories of gloom, then the audience's trust in the storyteller is shaken. Serious stories can be shared though the storyteller must give a sense of hope or some hint of positive emotion at the end.

A Bad Delivery
Inappropriate or boring remarks could constitute "a bad delivery". Part of the problem could lie in a lack of passion or excitement in the story choice. Audience members can sense from the storyteller's tone of voice and body language of the disinterest in the tale.

Anyone has potential to be an honored bard or seanachie.

You can bask in the glory of speech beyond the "gift of gab" and onto the honored status of storyteller by applying the Irish storytelling techniques.

Here is an Irish blessing to guide you on the path of storyteller--
May you have the hindsight to know where you've been
The foresight to know where you're going

And the insight to know when you're going too far

Online Sources or Interesting Sites:
Online Videos:
Collections of Irish Stories, Anecdotes, and Sayings:
Other Interesting Irish Books:

Until we tell again,

Rachel Hedman
Professional Storyteller
Former Co-Chair of Youth, Educators, and Storytellers Alliance
Tel: (801) 870-5799
Email: info@rachelhedman.com
Performance Blog: http://familyfamine.blogspot.com
Other places to find me: Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Professional Storyteller


eddiestack.com said...

Interesting. According to Prof. Seamus Delargy of the Irish Folklore Commission, my local area in Clare produced one of the largest collections of folktales in Europe. I have read Prof. Delargy's diaries + his description of the tellers and the gatherings and agree that the greatest change to the tradition was the crossover from the Irish language to English. Many, many stories did not translate into the new language...I can only identify 4 out of a pool of 500+. We were a very poor people and our community was sustained by music, dance, song and storytelling. Except for storytelling, all the other traditional arts survived. There were at least 15 active storytellers in our community.

Yvonne Healy www.MichiganStoryteller.com said...

What interests me is that over the past century, the focus of outside interest in Irish storytelling has switched from the Renaissance interest in mythology and legend to the folklore of the countryside seanachie. Also, does anyone know of any American recognition of the Irish oral tradition of the 'party piece' which is often mentioned in obituaries for the last many decades? (Please understand, I'm the daughter of a Gaelic League romance. My dad is a farmer who grew up with weekly visits by the seanachie and married a city woman who heard stories in crowded urban parlours. )
- Yvonne Healy