"That is my story! If there be a lie in it, be it so! It is not I who made or invented it." - Traditional storytellers' ending
In the tiny mountain hamlet of Cíllrialaig in County Kerry around 1920, a strange figure might have been seen among the farmers returning from market. An old man toiled slowly up the hills behind his grey mare, reciting stories to the back of the cart!
He was none other than Seán Ó Conaill, a farmer-fisherman of seventy years, master-storyteller or seanachie (shanachie) of those parts. Once the center of cultural life, be it at holiday gatherings, weddings or wakes, he was now no longer needed in a rapidly-changing modern world, and was forced to practice his art without an audience, lest he should lose his skills altogether.
But in his youth, there was no shortage of listeners. From ancient times, it was the custom in each Irish village to start the Celtic New Year on November 1st with storytelling every night until May brought the summer back. Only in the dark evenings could the tales be spun - it was unlucky to tell stories during the day. The "magic casements" could only be flung open at night: it could be dangerous to allow fantastic Otherworldly goings-on to invade the normalcy of day.
The villagers in Seán's heyday would gather round the peat fire, and from such a master, could expect a different tale for every night of the winter. A visiting professor described how Seán, who had never been to school, and would have been considered illiterate by educationists, was
"one of the best-read men in the unwritten literature of the people whom I have ever known, his mind a storehouse of tradition of all kinds, pithy anecdotes, and intricate hero-tales, proverbs and rhymes and riddles ... He was a conscious literary artist. He took a deep pleasure in the telling of his tales: his language was clear and vigorous, and had in it the stuff of literature."
As he spun a tale, using all his well-honed skills of gesticulation and narrative emphasis, the audience would respond "with a hearty laugh at the discomfiture of the villain, or at some humorous incident ...(and) applaud with appropriate remarks the valour of the hero fighting against impossible odds seven-headed giants or monsters from the sea, or the serried ranks of the armies of the King of the Eastern World."
When he finished speaking, he would lean forward and take a burning ember from the fire, press it down with a horny thumb on the tobacco of his pipe, lean back in his straw-bottomed chair, and enjoy the vigorous applause of listeners who were no doubt familiar with the tale from previous winters. After a while, the conversation would turn in a desultory way to local news and gossip, until a visitor would request another story from "the man of the house", and for the next hour or so, the assembly would be transported once again into those Otherworldly islands of story.
Many of the tales in the repertoire of an Irish or Scottish story-teller were so long they would burn a dip candle down in the telling or last the whole night long. A far cry from a modern evening of television fare punctuated by sound bites and commercial breaks! Where we now move in and out of an virtual world by a trip to the fridge or to answer the phone, once the seanachie began, There was, in old times, and in old times it was, a king of Ireland..." or, perhaps, "There was a fisherman once in Kinsale who had seven children.." you knew you were setting sail on "perilous seas in faery lands forlorn" for a long voyage.
For centuries ago, many of these fireside tales were once the property of the Celtic aristocracy, recited in hall or battle-camp by men of the highest rank, known as filidh, These men were members of a learned order within the privileged class, guardians of an oral-based culture and living repositories of its history and mythology. They underwent at least twelve years of intensive training in developing memory and concentration, and learned literally hundreds of stories and verses, histories, and genealogies. A fili's repertoire had to include tales of Destructions, Cattle Raids, Courtships, Battles, Deaths, Feasts, Adventures in the Otherworld, Elopements and Visions. He was a composer,too, who had mastered the art of crafting verse in intricate metrical forms.
Such a long education was rewarded well: on graduating, a fili wore a cloak of crimson and yellow feathers, and carried a golden rod. Each year he received twenty-one cows, food for himself and twenty attendants. He could keep six horses, two dogs, and was granted immunity from arrest for any crime save treason or murder.The tales he told were even longer than the seanachie's: "serialised", as we would say, over several evenings in a chieftain's hall, which as Jeffrey Gantz points out, "would be in the storyteller's interest once during that time he would be enjoying his host's hospitality."
When the written word was introduced into Ireland at the beginning of the Christian era, the "Men of Art" were forbidden to write their knowledge down. So precious was the gift of memory, it was not to be jeopardized, impaled on the point of a pen. Stories shifted shape like the characters within them, from extemporaneous prose to complex alliterative verse, here embellished by the harp, there settling into formulaic passages familiar to all.
Moreover, the spoken word held the power of breath, was literally inspiration, which was considered a gift from the great goddess Brigit, patron of poetry and divination. As such, the spoken word could make magic, invoke the divine. A very fine line existed between story, poetry and incantation in early Celtic culture. The title fili, generally meaning "poet" or "storyteller" interchangeably, has also been translated as "weaver of spells." Hence the famous verse of Amairgen, one of the sons of Mil who invaded Ireland from Spain, probably about 500 B.C. Standing on the deck of his ship, he declaimed:
"I am Wind on Sea,
I am Ocean-wave,
I am Roar of Sea,
I am Bull of Seven Fights,
I am Vulture on Cliff,
I am Dewdrop,
I am Fairest of Flowers,
I am Boar for Boldness,
I am Salmon in Pool,
I am Lake on Plain...
I am a Word of Skill..."
As Rees and Rees comment, "Potentially the whole of creation is bound up in Amairgen," and the story is much less about a historical invasion than it is a cosmogony, Amairgen being the "Word of Skill" that brings a new world into being. In another "creation incantation" he conjures fish into the waters of his people's new land:
Burst of fish-
Fish under wave-
With courses of birds-
A white wall-
With hundreds of salmon-
A port song-
A burst of fish."
In the high age of pre-Christian Celtic culture in Ireland, the filidh were part of a threefold division, along with the druids and bards. The bardic order like the druids, withered under the virulent opposition of the Catholic Church; some of the bards sold their souls to the new order and became purely composers of praise poetry to the highest bidder. Others took up the wandering road, telling tales and singing songs to whoever would listen in return for a meal and bed for the night. Thus the great oral legacy of high Celtic culture became intermingled with the coarser peasant stock of "Jack" tales and humorous anecdotes.
But the filidh managed to survive - and actually flourish, too, taking over many of the ancient secular and religious functions of the bards and druids. They were in fact much more than storytellers - they were teachers, judges, royal advisors and seers down to the 17th century when so much of the surviving Celtic culture fell beneath English rule. And so the tapestry of story was unraveled: some of it, the high myth and hero-tale, surviving in manuscripts written by church clerics in the early Middle Ages, some in the rag-bag of wonder-tales and folk-legends of the countryside.
Where today we experience the old tales at a psychological distance, regarding them as fiction at worst, or as containing archetypal symbolism at best, the Celtic storyteller in the early years of this century did not question the truth of the tale. If such marvels did not abound today, no matter: "There was magic in old times!" But the fili neither believed nor disbelieved - he made the journey to the Otherworld himself, and this was an unquestioned fact to his listeners. A true walker-between-the-worlds, he knew intimately the territory of Tír na nÓg, and brought back its treasures in the form of stories and prophetic utterances.
To reach the Otherworld and gain its knowledge, the filidh performed rituals to induce trance. One of these involved killing a bull whose meat and broth was eaten by the fili who then was wrapped in its hide, whereupon he fell into a sleep or trance in which he gained access to Otherworldly vision and knowledge which he translated into stories of this wondrous realm or used for prognostication. This ritual was banned by St. Patrick, but a form of this was actually witnessed as late as the 18th century among the country-people of Gaelic Scotland. On the Isle of Skye in 1769 a traveler named Pennant witnessed a local seer being wrapped in a bull's hide and placed in a recess behind a waterfall to attain supernatural knowledge. Obviously repelled by such a barbaric custom, he reported:
"A wild species of magic was practiced in the district of Trotternish, that was attended with a horrible solemnity: a family who pretended to oracular knowledge practised these ceremonies. In this country is a vast cateract (sic) whose waters falling from a high rock, jet so far as to form a dry hollow beneath, between them and the precipice. One of these imposters was sewed up in the hide of an ox, and, to add terror to the ceremony, was placed in this concavity; the trembling enquirer was brought to the place, where the shade, and the roaring of the waters, increased the dread of the occasion. The question is put, and the person in the hide delivers his answer."
As the practice of seership faded out among the filidh, the ritual of gaining poetic inspiration by lying in the dark still persisted. In early 17th century Ireland, the poet Ó Gnímh describes himself as following the traditional custom of composing while lying on a bed in a darkened hut; and the ritual still persisted in some measure among the peasant storytellers themselves. A 19th century visitor to Ireland reports that some were known to recite their tales this way:
"Many a winter's night...have I heard the old chronicler, lying on his back quietly in the bed beyond the fire, repeat the "deed of old" to delighted listening ears, but in language so ancient as to be now almost unintelligible to most Irish speakers of the modern school."
For unlike oracular practice, when the fili enters the Otherworld and merely reports what he sees, storytelling demands that the teller take the listeners with him and be their guide or psychopomp into the inner worlds. Thus may the seanachie ritually set the context for the tale with:
"Once there was, and once there was not...", defining the storyteller as someone who can enter into another reality at will.
Some of these traditional ritual openings are reminiscent of techniques used in modern hypnosis to alter consciousness. For example:
"Once long ago, and a long time it was. If I were there then, I should not be there now. If I were there now and at that time, I should have a new story or an old story, or I should have no story at all..."
The everyday mind is arrested and confused, as time loops back on itself, the world of cause and effect is suspended, and we enter those marvelous realms where what seems like a day's visit turns out to be a hundred years. Or a masterpiece of spatial disorientation:
"Once it was where it was not beyond seven times seven countries and the Sea of Operencia behind an old stove in a crack in the wall in the skirt of an old hag and there in the seven times seventh fold...a white flea; and in the middle of it the beautiful city of a king."
The world is turned upside down, and the listener dizzily emerges in the Otherworld.
And because this magical realm is outside time, it will always be there, shining and distant, waiting to be told to a new generation of listeners. The seanachies bore its spirit bravely through the centuries after the filidh had been laid to rest, and weathered the double persecution of disapproving religions and governments bent on destroying a culture. Somehow the memories of such as Seán Ó Conaill succeeded in carrying the stories through to the millenium: today the Celtic countries are seeing an authentic revival of the art of storytelling. There is Padraig O'Neil, for example, a member of a travelling family, who is considered a living library of traditional tales which, depending on his audience, he tells in Gaelic or English. On the Isle of Man, a young woman, Emma Christian, tells Manx stories to the accompaniment of her harp. And in many parts of Scotland there will be one or two people quietly recognized as the local seanachie, although unknown outside their area.
By the peat-fire, in the shieling, can still be heard the ancient tales of the Fianna, the Seal People, the tragic Children of Lir. Echoes of the fili's craft sound in the beautiful ranns, passages that desribe conditions at sea, the battle fury, or the quietness of evening descending. Like the hero in a mummer's play, the storyteller appears to die, then leaps up again to the delight of the audience. For those that walk between the worlds seem not to be touched by time, as a traditional storyteller's introduction proclaims:
"Under the Earth I go,
On the oak leaf I stand.
I ride on the filly
That was never foaled,
And I carry the dead in my hand."