I always knew my Uncle Peter was setting up for a story when he’d lean back in his bar stool. Nothing dramatic, nothing too flashy, just a gentle recline – always followed by a more determined pushing away of his half-drunk pint of Harp and a wipe of the whiskers. Stage set, audience warned, he’d begin by saying “C’mere ‘till I tell you.” By the time that pint of Harp was drained, half the pub would be leaning in to listen and laugh.
The stories he told were the everyday made interesting. They were anecdotes about the butcher or the bus driver, or a screaming match at the end of the street. Every story was true, but embellished each time it was told; embroidered to make the story more entertaining. It’s a way of telling stories that is very Irish. You probably know it better as blarney.
Jack Lynch prefers to call them “tall tales”. As the Chair of Aos Scéal Éireann, or Storytellers of Ireland, Lynch is the man charged with getting the Irish talking again. Incredibly, it seems that we had stopped.
“Many Irish people would have memories such as yours, listening to stories in pubs or living rooms told by aunts and uncles or friends,” Lynch said. But they are just that – memories. “Storytelling is seen as an experience from the past.”
In the shadow of the seanchaí
The story of Irish storytelling’s decline is very much the story of the seanchaí.
The seanchaíwere Ireland’s original storytellers, travelling from village to village to tell tales. Lynch described them as “reporters, entertainers and historians” rolled into one. While specialising in the swashbuckling myths of Cú Chulainn or Fionn mac Cumhaill, they also recorded and passed on local history, and – crucially for Ireland’s rural communities – were a link to local goings on. It was the seanchaí’s skill in making the everyday interesting that brought the Irish to blarney.
Listening to the seanchaí was an oral tradition that stretched back to the times of Gaelic chieftains. But by the 1950s, it was starting to disappear. “Ultimately, radio and then television displaced the storyteller,” Lynch said. “There just wasn’t the audience for them anymore.” Today, with everything from the local news to the latest Scandinavian thriller available at the press of a button on your phone, the seanchaí’s 1,000-year story looks set to come to a close.
The top of the tale
Yet here I was with Lynch. We were in The Third Space cafe in Dublin’s increasingly smart Smithfield district, and he was about to tell the crowd a few stories. Only they didn’t seem to know it.
There was only a single flyer advertising the storytelling event, and the crowd looked more interested in their muffins and Macbooks. For a man who has been telling tales for 15 years, Lynch was surprisingly nervy. I was too. He had no microphone, no notes – and to my mind, no hope of grabbing the crowd’s attention.
After some debate about shifting the chairs to make more of a stage, Lynch strode into the middle of the cafe and launched into a welcome. He told a traditional Irish folk tale, his eyes pinched closed as he swayed and paced while speaking. There was a comforting rhythm to the story – stretches that required concentration but also funny asides. If the initial quiet from the crowd was borne of politeness, by the time the story swung to a halt there were two-dozen heads craning in to listen and seats being shuffled to get a better view.
More storytellers followed. There were heroic myths and fighting faeries, but also local history. Seosamh Ó Maolalaí’s account of the 5th Battalion North Dublin volunteers and their part in the 1916 Easter Uprising was especially poignant. Told just days before the 100th anniversary of the rebellion that put Ireland on a painful path to independence, heads bowed and hands clasped during this story of Irishmen fighting Irishmen.
Afterwards I asked Lynch if events like this are a sign of a revival in Irish storytelling. He grinned. “It’s not a revival,” he said, “because storytelling in Ireland was never quite dead. But interest is growing again.”
New style, same story
And interest is growing fast. The Third Space event is just one of several regular storytelling events and clubs that have sprung up in the last couple of years. And, ironically, it’s the same flick-of-a button technology that endangered the seanchaí that looks set to save Irish storytelling all together.
In Galwa,y I met up with Órla McGovern who set up Moth and Butterfly in 2012. The group has grown from a handful of friends sharing stories to a monthly event that attracts close to 100 people.
Like many of the new Irish storytelling groups, Moth and Butterfly is part inspired by the Moth storytelling groups in the United States, where participants must tell true personal stories in less than five minutes. But, while personal stories are encouraged here, all stories are welcome. McGovern also admitted that you’d struggle to get an Irish person to finish telling you their name in five minutes, so the time limit has been doubled.
The group meets at Ard Bia, a modern Irish restaurant set in a traditional stone cottage on the banks of Galway’s River Corrib. The night I visited, it was a full house with people perched on mismatched furniture and rescued church pews.
There are a backbone of regular performers who run the Moth and Butterfly, but this is also an event where members of the audience can join in. “It’s actually nicer when someone from the audience gets up to tell a story,” McGovern insisted. “It might be less polished, but it’s often more meaningful.”
Two of the regular performers told an improvised story in both Gaelic and English. The first teller gave a little of the story in Gaelic, before the second teller translated and added a little more. It was purposefully chaotic, and by the time we finished the tale of a pig drinking poitín (the Irish equivalent of moonshine) the crowd was in riotous laughter.
When I asked McGovern why she thinks storytelling is making a comeback, she gave a quick nod to our phones on the table in front of us. “It’s a need for connection,” she said. “Yes, technology has made us increasingly connected to the world, but also less connected to each other. I think storytelling nurtures connections with people in real life.”
I could see what she meant. I’d expected college students and highbrow culture braggarts – and they were here – but there were also office workers, pensionable couples and at least two quintessential Irish gentlemen in sports jackets and brogues. Few events could attract such an egalitarian crowd.
I’m not sure what my Uncle Peter would make of telling stories over freshly baked muffins, and I can’t print what he would say about stories that have to be told within a certain time. But while Irish storytelling may have changed, he would still recognise the myths and laugh-out-loud anecdotes. He’d certainly be glad the Irish are talking again.