Tellers and their Tales in the Gaelic Tradition

Seán Ó Conaill (1853-1931), Co. Kerry

When Seán Ó Conaill, Cill Rialaigh, parish of Prior, Co. Kerry, was in his seventies, Séamus Ó Duilearga collected his repertoire, consisting of over 150 folktales and legends, as well as songs, poems, prayers, and other traditional items, and he also recorded an account of his life. This material appeared in Leabhar Sheáin Í Chonaill (1948). In his biographical sketch, Ó Conaill described the linguistic milieu and the storytelling environment in which he grew up:

'When the long nights would come long ago, the people of this and another village would gather together every night sitting beside the fire or wherever they could find room in the house. Many a device they would resort to shorten the night. The man who had a long tale, or the man who had the shorter tales (eachtraithe), used to be telling them. At that time people used to go earning their pay working in County Limerick, County Tipperary and County Cork, and many a tale they had when they would return, everyone with his own story, so that you would not notice the night passing. Often the cock would crow before you would think of going home.

'I used to watch out for anyone with a story, and when the travellers (beggars) would come and one of them would stop in the village, we used to go to the house they stayed listening to them telling stories, and trying to pick them up from them. I had only to hear a story once to have it. These ‘Finn tales" — nobody knows who made them. We never got any account from anyone when they were made or who composed them. They are very fine things to shorten the night in company especially those which have plenty of action in them, for example, a hero's feats of valour…[1]

'In the beginning of my life when I was growing up I was very interested in the Finn tales (scéalta fiannaíochta) if I heard of anyone who could tell them. There was no one very near who could tell them but there was a man in the village called Micheál Ó Conaill, and he used to spend his time after Michaelmas going around the countryside making baskets (cléibheanna) — there were few people at that time able to make them — and he used to be away until Christmas. When he came home after his rounds he had a collection of tales to tell, and I would be well to the fore in the crowd listening to him, and whatever he said I took it from him.'[2]

But even then, in his early youth, interest in storytelling as a form of entertainment was already waning:

'So as I was growing up and taking things in, if I went out at night with anyone and heard a story, I would want to return again and again if someone would come with me, but those of my own age were not interested in stories; they preferred other kinds of amusement...[3]

'And then there came a time when stories and storytellers were no longer in vogue, and when he was no longer being asked to tell tales:

'If I had known thirty years ago [that people would be looking for stories] I would have more of them certainly, but nobody bothered about them, and the pastime then and what has become commonplace for many years past — music, dancing and drinking — makes poor company. Nobody came my way but an occasional withered old man to spend a while [of a night] talking to me...'[4]

[1] Ó Duilearg 1981, xviii.

[2] Ibid., xx.

[3] Idem.

[4] Idem.

previousPrevious - Collecting the Folklore of Ireland
Next - Peig Sayers (1873-1958)next