Storytelling Traditions

A history of stories

What was the first story ever told? Or what was the first story you heard ? Perhaps it was a fairy tale of long ago ? No doubt you’ve heard countless stories since. The practice of storytelling is so ingrained in us that you could say our ability to process language is much of what makes us human.

Storytelling helps to organise our thoughts adding emotion and consequences to our actions. Perhaps the absolute answer to what was the first story is irrelevant but could be summed up by two children quarrelling who have just been surprised by an adult, one points to the other saying “he started it”. So it begins, by putting us in a story of actions and consequences, the storyteller brings us into the past and weaves a path through the events that guides us inevitably to the present in which we find ourselves.

Funnily enough, this is how Homer’s Odyssey begins. The night before he returns home, a home he has not seen in some twenty years, Odysseus tells us how he got here.

His years of war at the walls of Troy followed by his wanderings across sea and land driven by the fates, wilful Gods and, angry monsters. This is a classical tale of epic proportions and yet it has a familiar feel.

In The Táin, a bedtime chat between a king and queen turns into point scoring. Proud boasts are repeated outside the bedchamber and then heard as threats. Friends become enemies and arguments turn to war, death and destruction.

A Time For Stories

Often stories are set in the recent past- There was a time my uncle told me when… So the story happens in a familiar but not immediate time. This is a feature of storytelling, one foot in the past where the story is set and one in the present, where the storyteller sits with us.

They then take us into the story and it unfolds like and ancient maps as the teller relives that journey we are making.

Oral Storytelling

Long ago, before books and writing, ours was a world of oral stories, news was carried in the ear and related by word of mouth. Our culture was conceived, developed and matured in this oral world, it is only in recent times that literacy has become widespread, and our stories have become inky skeletons fixed to the page. In a world of oral stories words are living things and we breathe life into them when we tell a story.

Oral Storytelling is an intimate, interactive art. Unlike a literary short story there isn’t a set text but an endless re-creation in the telling. Told from memory, stories are shaped in the moment, words fly out, living forms of meaning and emotion.

Improvisation and adaptation are key to oral storytelling, even though it is like acting oral storytelling is different, because it needs an audience. An actor may recite a monologue to a camera, but a storyteller conspires with an audience to will a story into existence. This act of collective imagination needs listeners to participate, otherwise there is no magic.

When we tell stories we relive the moment of the story, even if it is not something that happened directly to us, we relive a version of it from our own lives. The audience senses our lived emotion and mirrors it from their own experiences.

We are present in that moment, sharing in a narrative, and if it is even slightly ambiguous we will project our fears and biases on to it. So this is both an intimate individual and collective experience.

We know that Storytelling is a group experience and everybody in the group influences the whole so it only exists in that moment. As Philosopher says “ you can’t step in the same stream twice”.

Fairy Tales

Once Upon a time, in a land that was faraway and nearby there lived… Now we know the story has begun and we set aside our humdrum cares in the expectation that something magical is going to happen.

There are many books written about fairy tales perhaps there are even more books about fairy tales than the tales themselves and this reflects the enduring power and mystery of these stories.

Perhaps the power of fairy tales lies in their universal and archetypal nature. We can all relate to the childhood fears of deep woods and savage wolves as we process the unknown and the mysteries of our emotions. When we tell stories, different listeners can take different meanings from them. Many stories retain an ambiguity that allows the listener and the teller to project meaning on to the story.

Bringing the supernatural into stories allows for ambiguity, flights of fancy, and archetypes. These are important components as we grapple with universal themes in a multicultural world.

Fairy tales give us psychological space to observe the actions of loosely drawn characters so we may draw impressions of their motivations without the bias of familiarity. We can then make use of these in our own way. In books illustrators provide the “colour” that the oral storyteller would conjure into being.

Irish Fairy Tales

These differ from the European concept of fairytales. Elsewhere in Europe these are regarded as literary traditions rather than recorded or living oral traditions. There are different reasons for this but we have an important collection of folklore in Ireland and a literary tradition that stretches back some 1500 years.

Here in Ireland landscape and story are linked. Specific places are tied both to a story and as a place of the Sí The good people of Ireland. There is a strong attachment to the supernatural that goes far beyond a mere tales. Forces we are only dimly aware of can shape and influence the lives of the living and the dead.

Listening in

A good storyteller is by necessity a good listener, picking up on the subtle cues from their audience in the moment. Listening to other storytellers they collect turns of phrase and runs of thought that meets the unfolding needs of the narrative. All this on top of remembering the story from start to finish. Some longer stories may take several hours to tell others such as epic tales may require a few evenings to complete.

In a post literary society, where the ability to communicate is augmented by technology, storytelling skills become more important. Our emotions and complex ideas will require subtlety and skill for teller and listener to communicate meaningfully.

Turning In

Our brains and emotions are wired for stories. We love to extract meaning from situations and arrive at conclusions which fit a narrative that resonates with us. Our memories are amplified by stories, and we follow a coherent story path to arrive at logical though often fallible endings.

As we develop an ear for stories our ability to discern abstract patterns improves. We begin to see, from random and diverse points of information, the possible outcomes of a story as it evolves.

Stories can also show us different points of view as characters that we may not meet in our ordinary lives take centre stage.

It has been shown in FMRI studies that there is more brain activity in people listening to an oral story than any other means of communication and that includes reading from a book, videos an all other forms of media.

Like any other skill the more we do it the better we get at it.

A museum of stories

Here at The National Leprechaun Museum, we bring diverse audiences together with our storytellers. Our focus is on traditional Irish tales, and we present these in an accessible way to participants. Here storytellers chose their own stories and how to tell them. Our emphasis is on teaching and developing our storytellers to improve their skills and deepen their repertoire.

With the Leprechaun as our guide we can delve into the deepest parts of the tradition or scale the heights of absurdity as the Leprechaun is not confined to the logical, stoical or bound by the laws of common taste or regulation. They wander freely between this world and the next and care only for the simplest comforts and the delight of a tale well told and adventure undertaken and a wrong righted.

We don’t know why they are only found in Ireland but that is lucky for us and long may they continue to frequent the leafy corners of this ancient land.

Ireland has the second largest folklore collection in Europe and a literary tradition that stretches back some 1500 years. Further back stories were told for the entertainment of the masses and the guidance of kings. So we are not short of source material!

Storytelling is a nuanced craft and may only be judged in its practice, as an art form it is for the listener to discern what quality it holds. As the founder of the Folklore Commission Seamus Delargey says “Is rud deacair é”