Stories are at the core of what makes us human. They contain important truths that we can relate to on an instinctive level, and the very act of storytelling proves as an important social bonding tool and form of entertainment throughout history.
This project provides an insight into fifteen people currently working as professional storytellers in Ireland. Each portrait is accompanied by a short extract of our interview.
“My grandmother was a storyteller, a seanchai from Galway. I grew up listening to her telling stories. She died when I was very young, a long time ago, but the stories are still there. For me, stories and storytelling is a constant reminder that the world is a wonderful place and it is to be enjoyed, not to be endured. One of the things I do is visiting hospitals that care for kids with illnesses. You can see their eyes light up with a good story. They forget all the misery and the fact they have tubes coming out of them. It’s the little things like that, and people in general, such as older people. When you hear them reminisce and see that sparkle in their eyes. I’m a firm believer that storytelling is a form of healing.”
“I think when you look at a tree you only see the part of it that’s above the ground, but very often the roots go out as far as the crown of it. I think it’s the same with people, you look at people and you see what’s visible, but the part you don’t see is their story and song. In many ways we’re all connected together by a system of roots and branches, what you can see and what you can’t see. When you delve into folklore, stories and songs, you get a sense of the energy that connects it all.”
“I do a Dublin storytelling walking tour, and this, the Setanta Wall, is one of the stops. I give out a single A4 sheet explaining what all of the images are. They show all of the major events in the life of Cú Chulainn, a great Irish hero. People keep thinking of making a film of him, but they never quite get around to it. Tourists and Irish people come here and often they don’t know what this mural is. I think it’s important to preserve the wall but the owners of it are planning to move it closer to Nassau Street. I got in touch with the family of the artist, who passed away a few years ago, and they’re with me on this. They’re very interested in conserving and doing work to renovate the wall.”
“Irish people are optimistic pessimists. We are happiest when things have gone wrong, and very comfortable when things don’t go to plan. That's the Irish attitude, the worse it is, the happier we are. I don’t know what it is about us that makes us catastrophists but when everything goes upside down, we go “Yep, knew it.” We’re like psychology prepared somehow. It gives us a certain resistance. I think it has something to do with colonialism but it predates that. When we look at the old Irish myths and the stories that persisted, why are all of them stories sad? If only we could have one story where someone didn’t die tragically at the end.”
Seosamh O' Maolalai
“I started storytelling when I worked in the public libraries. My boss, a good friend of mine, she said they had a class coming down to the library, and asked if I would read them some storybooks from the children's library. I picked some storybooks, and some big picture books as they were a young class. I told them a couple stories, they seemed to enjoy it, and I did too. I said I’ll do that again, and if there were ever a class coming down I was the one telling the stories. Libraries have a tradition of the revival of storytelling, to be traced back to New York public libraries where the librarians read from picture books to children. It's a great way to introduced kids to the joy of reading and literature.”
Aindrais de Staic
“I was a musician for years, and I still am. Somehow, particularly when I was in Australia, I noticed people liked my accent, the musical accent. I was able to tell little stories that seemed to work between the tunes. I started getting booked more and more as an entertainer because the stories where good as well. My father was a traditional storyteller from Co.Clare who passed away last year. He was a writer and a storyteller. He played music, but he didn’t use it in his stories. For me, I was very confident as a musician, but not as a storyteller. I used the music to fill in the gaps. More recently in the last 10-12 years I’ve developed stories that use music, so if I’m telling a story about two giants, I’ll give them both a theme tune. I developed this unique style that used music in it.”
“I would say this, stories give roots to people, value to people and people know they’re worth something if they know the stories of their place. That place they live in, come from and where they grew up. Your stories are yours, and no one else’s are the same. Thats why you are you.”
“I tell the stories I've heard and the ones I've made up to anyone who'll sit still long enough to listen to them. I’ve always loved stories. Partly it’s because there is so much truth amongst all of the beautiful lies. Personally, I believe that narrative gets closer to the truth of human experience than science, philosophy, or anything else you care to mention. As a city boy, there was no fireside apprenticeship for me at the knee of grey-haired sage. For me, it started with a love of books and because I can turn my hand to anything, I tried to develop an ear for a good yarn or turn of phrase.”
"If I'm acting, and if I'm in a play, then I'm involved in the character and acting out the scene. You shouldn't really be paying attention to how the audience are reacting to the situation on the stage. There is a disconnect, a fourth wall. If I'm telling a story, you're looking directly into people's eyes and you can see every single facial expression, particularly if they completely lose themselves in a story."
Mark Ó Géaráin
"What motivates me is just a love of stories. I grew up at the bottom of the Dublin foothills, overlooking the Hellfire Club, so when I was really young I became obsessed with ghost stories. I spent my time in the library, grabbing whatever books I could. I became obsessed with characters such as Cú Chulainn, Fionn mac Cumhaill, and Queen Medb."
Diarmuid O’ Drisceoil
“I’m not precious about stories. Folklore is a great resource, it’s a great place to search for stories and folklore collections but they’re fossilised unless you adapt them for telling today. In the end, a story is something that is told, you need a human voice, an audience, and a teller. It is all of that which makes a story, not just the content of the story as might be recorded on a page. It’s the performance, the atmosphere, the interaction. If the storyteller is precious about the material, and will only tell the stories as they were recorded one or two hundred years ago, then that storyteller is failing in my book. You cannot be precious.”
“I got started during my childhood, my father was always telling us stories, making them up as he went along. I never really took storytelling more seriously until I was in a school for children with special needs. We tried to teach them, but it didn’t work. It wasn’t until I began to tell them a story that I was able to get their attention. Years later, I went to become an apprentice for Liz Weir, in Co. Antrim. I fell in love with storytelling, the life of a storyteller, and just travelling around telling stories. I thought this was a dream. I came home and told my parents I wanted to be a storyteller and they said “No way!”. So I finished being a teacher, all my teacher training, and went to Ireland and became a storyteller.”
“I think really why I got into storytelling is that it combined an awful lot of things that I liked. I have a love of history, the land, and the small details of places. I also love being able to find where a story is located and exploring that area. Particularly with older stories where you might have enough detail to find the actual spot where the story is set. Whether it actually happened there, or not, is less important to me but it gives an excuse to get out and explore the country. Then there’s the ego side of me, who loves performing. I can’t sing or play an instrument, but I can tell a story. There’s a buzz from it when it’s going well, you know you’ve captured an audience and there’s a physical connectivity between you and them. I find that buzz really satisfying.”
“I consider folklore to be the art and the belief systems of the people which has developed for as long as people have been alive and communicating, independently to those who are in power. It is the stories, the music, the beliefs, the entertainment of the people.”
“I was a librarian here in Belfast from 1976 to 1990 when the troubles were at their full height. Children couldn’t easily come to the library, so we took the library to them. We went out to play centres and shared stories with them. I hired students to do it with me, we mostly read from picture books, and we were also promoting the libraries. I noticed when I told a story, it had much more impact.”