The Art of Storytelling: Who is the Seanchaí?

Posted by Bridget Beirne
March 17, 2014

My father's side of the family is of Irish decent by way of Roscommon. I grew up with more than a dose of Irish humor, stories, fisherman's knit sweaters, and a family that could naturally spin a good yarn. I remember looking at a beautiful book as a small child entitled "Irish Fairie Stories". It seemed to be full of magic- tales that were different (yet somehow, the same) as the fairy tales of Cinderella and Hansel and Gretel that I grew up with. They seemed older and more mysterious. 

the art of storytellingWhen I visited Ireland as an adult, I was amazed by how many of the clichés were totally, totally, true. The countryside was extraordinarily green- almost unbelievably so. The people were kind, relaxed, open to chat. And the stories were all around us.

There is no separation from history when you visit- Irish history is not behind glass. In fact, it is almost disturbingly out in the open. Beehive huts built hundreds and hundreds of years ago are available for a walk through- no guide, no distance, just you and ancient civilization. Castles, artifacts, and long-forgotten forts dot the roadways- just sitting there, eerily unguarded and available, reminiscent of a road-side food joint in their lack of protection and exclusivity. 

We spent a lot of time in Kinsale, which holds an interesting place in the history of Irish storytelling. The seanchaí is the Irish storyteller. As with many cultures, Irish history and traditions were long passed down by these oral historians. The seanchaí was a very well respected member of the community, often supported by "patrons" to preserve the goings-on of great houses, tribes or aristocracies. They put time and effort into their telling, crafting the performance of the story as well as the story itself. They were lauded and necessary.

The  seanchaí suffered a blow at the Battle of Kinsale.The entrance into the inner harbor of Kinsale is home to the ghosts of two looming forts- James's Fort and Charles Fort. In 1601, Charles Fort was the site of the Battle of Kinsale- a great loss for the Irish in one of many battles for independence from the English. Although the Irish clans succeeded in their long march to meet the Spanish who were coming to their defense in the southern port town of Kinsale, the English won the day. The culture of Ireland suffered greatly as a result- as the English took more control, the Irish aristocracy fled or were broken. The patrons of the seanchaí disappeared, and with them, many of the seanchaí themselves.

Yet the rich tradition of storytelling remained. Why? Because we are the seanchaí. Humans of every country, culture and creed are natural storytellers, and we can't help but continue to record the tales of our lives. Just like the seanchaí of old, we put time and effort into the telling of these tales, regardless of whether they are about our personal, business, or cultural histories. The Battle of Kinsale may have damaged the seanchaí, but it certainly wasn't their death knell. Look- we're still telling the story today.

We are the seanchaí. Every time you stand before a crowd and give them new information, you are the seanchaí. The opportunity to tell a story to a waiting crowd should be celebrated and embraced. This St. Patrick's Day, I honor not only the storytellers of my heritage, but all cultures, as well. May we continue to make an effort to tell the stories, and to incite as many reactions from our listeners as their are tales. May we continue to care not only about why we tell them, but how. And may we continue to realize that, across cultures and throughout time, the shortest distance between two people is, truly, a story. (Thanks, Patti Digh!)

Learn more about the Battle of Kinsale here, here, or here


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