Irish storytelling. The "scéalai" as the practitioner of oral literature par excellence

Essay, 2016

7 Pages, Grade: 1,0


The information era and the ongoing globalization are leading to a loss of cultural identity in many countries over the world. While Ireland is strongly connected to the digital Revolution with its many multinational IT-companies, it is even stronger connected to its culture and traditions. One of the most important parts of Irish Folklore is the storytelling. As Gearóid Ó Crualaoich wrote: ‘The perceived heritage of Irish stories and storytelling, taken together, is regarded as having the status of a Grand Tradition’(2000:173).

The aim of this essay is to make an analyses of the Irish storytelling, its typical process, variations and especially the role of the storyteller himself. Since a distinction is made according to the genres of the told stories, this essay will mainly focus on the scéalaí, and if he is the practitioner of oral literature par excellence.

The storytelling as an event can take place in different forms. One of the changing parameter is the location. According to Zimmermann “Narration might take place outside the doors; for instance ‘to shorten the road’ while walking in group” (2001: 453). These short entertaining stories are also ‘expected where cobblers were at work: “He was a shoemaker, and they´d gather in there every evening in the time of the year and sit there till eleven and twelve spinning yarns, and talk of all kinds”(Zimmermann, 2001: 454). But even if there are occasions for storytelling outside, the majority of the events take place inside, typically at the fireside. During the winter months, a common custom was to sit together with neighbours and their families at the fireside and listen to stories. ‘The institution of night visiting had many other names, with regional variations: scoraíocht ( a social evening), also called bothántaíocht, cuairt or cuaird or cuartaíocht (visiting)’(Zimmermann, 2001: 456);

But not only the place where the storytelling takes place can differ, the second parameter which might change is the story itself. Oral narratives can be categorized in different genres like every other kind of story, whether it is written down or oral. The most important genres in Irish Folklore are for example: international wondertales, hero tales, fairy legends, religious tales, songs, proverbs, blessings and cures. (Ó Gealbháin, 2016) Since every genre has its own occasions when they are appropriate and by whom they are told, the choice which story is told depends on the location, the time and the narrator.

The narrator can also be seen as the third parameter. The storyteller himself can be categorized in different ways. Whether it is because of the regularity of his telling or because of the content of the stories on which he specialized in his repertoire. Von Sydow for example distinguishes between the informants and regular practitioners. Informants know stories which they had been told, but will not tell them in public, while regular practitioners do so.(Zimmermann, 2001: 429) A division due to the content of the story delivers Michael Corduff:

Michael Corduff identified five classes of storytellers in North Mayo: 1. Those who specialized in mythological or heroic tales, such as wonder-voyages, tales of magic and wonder and the like. 2. Those who favoured apocryphal and Biblical narratives, religious legends and stories of the supernatural world… 3. Persons who preferred to tell local tales, such as stories of adventures by sea and land of named characters (usually natives of the locality)… 4. Others who specialized in humorous stories or anecdotes for the amusement of their audience. 5. … those whose tales were of a more modern trend, …evictions , resistance to bailiffs, faction fights…(Zimmermann, 2001: 430)

This division is in line with the traditional separation of the two basic categories, scéalaithe and Seanchaithe, which also bases on the content of the story. Scéalaithe matches with Corduffs type one, while the Seanchaithe includes type two, three and parts of type five.(Zimmermann, 2001: 431)

The storytellers which specialized on one of these two categories are called scéalaí or seanchaí. To discuss whether the Irish storyteller is the oral narrator par excellence and if so which category of storyteller is the superior one, both types have to be compared in order to find out where the main differences between the scéalaí and the seanchaí are.

The most obvious point, as already mentioned, is the genre of the in their repertoire included stories. Genres which are associated with the scéalaí are the international wondertale or hero tales, especially the tales of the Fianna (Fiannaiócht) or the Ulster Cycle (Ruaraiócht) which are exclusively told by them. The seanchaí performs mainly legends (Sagen), humorous stories, songs, historic or religious tales or blessings and curses. (Ó Gealbháin, 2016) Since not every genre has the same status or reputation, it is possible to make a first important grading. As Gearóid Ó Crualaoich (2000: 175) illustrates:

A difficulty arises in repertoire terms from the fact that, historically, the type of story most highly valued and even most sought after, in the áirneán of the rambling house, was the hero-tale of the “Adventures of Fionn Mac Cumhill” type, with its stylized rhetorical features and its swashbuckling action. Neither this genre nor the other valued genre of the more international Wonder-Tale… are at all likely to appeal to modern general audiences. On the other hand, the humorous anecdotes and tall tales that prove popular in contemporary storytelling settings must be regarded as somewhat minor items of the narrative heritage.

Bo Almqvist, a Swedish folklorist and former head of the department of Irish Folklore at the University College Dublin is even more direct when he wrote:

First rate storytellers combine pride in the long hero tales and Märchen with a certain measure of contempt for shorter anecdotes and jokes; such rudaí beaga ('trifles') they would know of, but pay little attention to, and they would almost consider it below their dignity to bother to try to remember who told them such items. (Almqvist, 1971: 19)

This shows that the storytellers who perform a scéalaíocht were seen as superior and more respected by their community. But both types of storyteller differ also in the way how they present their stories and connected with that, what kind of function they had in their community. While the scéalaí was seen more as an artist who performed on a very high narrative and rhetorical level, the seanchaí presented his performance on a more modest way in order to sound truthful. (Ó Gealbháin, 2016)

A difference which is still discussed is the role of the gender in storytelling. Both narrative categories are strongly connected to a gender, ‘the category of tales traditionally considered the purview of women is known collectively as seanchas (literally, "history") … scéalaíocht (scéal, "story"), have been regarded as the preserve of men…’(Harvey, 1989: 111). A possible reason for that delivers J. H. Delargy with his quote of Jeremiah Curtin: 'In Ireland I have found few women who can tell tales at all, and none who can compare with the men' (Delargy, 1945: 181). This thesis might have a quite simple background since in the 19th century the distribution of gender related roles was like all over the world quite clear. The household was the task of the woman, while the man went to work. Since the women were also to take care about the children, they simply could not take part in as many storytelling events like their men, and even if it took place in their own house, the wife and mother was busy with sewing or cooking and could not focus on the storytelling. Because of the fact that the storytellers learned their stories mainly by listening, ‘you discovered the craft by listening to older performers’ (Zimmermann, 2001: 436), most of the women simply did not know so many tales. In addition to that, Harvey points out, that during his fieldwork his ‘attention was drawn to the issue of the inadequacy of the documentation of the role of women in the storytelling tradition’, which underlines the ‘second class status of women in the tradition’(Harvey, 1989: 110).

Despite all these differences, the necessary skill-sets to perform as a scéalaí or a seanchas are to a certain extent the same. Firstly a storyteller needs excellent skills in listening and memorizing, since most of the tales are learnt via oral communication. Since, even ‘educated people would find it very difficult, if not impossible, to give an intelligent summary of the common hero-tale, not to mention retelling it as they heard it’ (Delargy, 1945: 34), the amount of gifted storytellers was quite small. But the most important skill, especially for the more artful scéalai is his talent for speaking and presenting himself in front of his audience.

Taking into consideration all the mentioned differences and similarities, the scéalai and his more complex repertoire of long and creative stories and tales can be seen as superior towards the seanchas. Especially the variety of stylistic and rhetorical devices in conjunction with facial expressions and gestures which the audience expects from a good scéalaí, shows that his performances has to be on a higher level than the ones from the seanchas or an ordinary person.

The key question is, if the scéalai is not only superior towards the seanchas, but is he the oral narrator par excellence.

To be seen as a master of his profession, the scéalai has to fulfil several tasks which are connected with the storytelling. The most obvious one is his influence on the story itself. An oral narrator par excellence contributes to the story only because of the way he is presenting it. Séamus Ó Duilearga picked up that point when he wrote:

…the narrative was meant to be recited- to be told- and I do not believe that many of the tales preserved to us in the written literature of medieval Ireland were ever told as they are written. Nobody would listen to them. No! They were elaborated by the individual story-teller inside the rigid frame-work. (Ó Duilearga, 1999: 162)

This shows, that the recital of the story lifts the storytelling as a whole on an upper level. Therefore the narrator needs to be really talented in the use of rhetorical devices and the way he uses them. One possibility to take influence is shown in Irish Tales and Story-Tellers: ‘The tale might be told in the past tense- and, apparently to relieve tedium-for narrative in oratio obliqua can be tiresome-the story-teller may suddenly switch over to the historic present or to the easy conversational style’ (Ó Duilearga, 1999: 162). The switch of times to get the dialogues closer to his audience and to break up the monotony sounds quite simple, but doing this during an oral narration without any notes requires a lot of mental and rhetorical skills to not disturb the development of the story itself. Mastering this complex play between elaborating and not disturbing the story can be seen as the real art of the storytelling and shows why these stories have to be told and not simply read, or as Séamus Ó Duilearga said: ‘The art of the folk-tale is in its telling. It was never meant to be written nor to be read. It draws the breath of life from the men and from the applause of the appreciative fireside audience ‘(Ó Duilearga, 1999: 160). This quote mentions also another important part of the storytelling as an event: the audience. ‘Storytelling takes place under certain physical conditions and with the participation and reaction of an audience, as “the interplay between communicative resources, individual competence, and the goals of the participants, within the context of particular situations” (Zimmermann, 2001: 453). The influence of the audience and their collaboration with the narrator and all other external circumstances becomes even clearer as Zimmermann admits, ‘it is generally true that “ audience members expect, and are expected, to be stimulated by the behaviour of narrators and to respond in ways that in turn stimulate narrators” ‘(2001: 466), this includes that the audience literally intervenes with special expressions at the right time, so ‘it is a fact that the process of listening to a tale can in itself be a creative act’ (Zimmermann, 2001: 466). However it is absolutely important to not cross the limit and disturb the narrator. The storytelling as an event includes a special code of behaviour for the participants which has to be complied. Especially the younger listeners have to take care of not being too conspicuous, since the storyteller is a very high respected person in the community. Of course not every storyteller had the same status and reputation, some were only known by their friends and family while others can also be well-known and famous in a whole region or even more. (Zimmermann, 2001: 451) But during their performance every storyteller, equal if he is famous or not, had a certain status, since the storytelling was especially in the winter months very important to a majority of the community. That is why ‘the role narrator could be more significant than others, when it was considered an essential activity fulfilled to general satisfaction’. (Zimmermann, 2001: 451) However storytellers can easily lose their respect from their colleagues who are sitting in the audience when they do not perform as good as they are. As already mentioned, even most of the listeners are experts and for that reason they can judge the current performance.


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Irish storytelling. The "scéalai" as the practitioner of oral literature par excellence
University College Cork
Irish Folkore
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ISBN (eBook)
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477 KB
Irish Folkore, Oral Literature, Storytelling, Folklore
Quote paper
Patrick Bruendl (Author), 2016, Irish storytelling. The "scéalai" as the practitioner of oral literature par excellence, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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