Week 4 A Millennium of the Story of the Story

From Christianity (5th Century) to Henry VIII (15th Century)

The Irish Story Tradition between 6th and the 12th Centuries

One of the central characteristics of an oral storytelling tradition is its evanescence.  The telling may well have been completely enchanting for all the listeners. It could even have had, in the subtle ways that story works, a transformative effect on individual and community. But to all intents and purposes within a very short matter of time, it is gone, the experience is gone. There is no record.  And so, those tales at the fireside of a peasant told over centuries, even millennia are an important matter around which there is little to no evidence.  We can use the imagination, fantasia, or even our own experiences of oral storytelling today as the basis for hypotheses but we will most likely have few, if any, direct facts.

We do know from sources like Zimmerman (The Irish Storyteller) and Gerard Murphy (Irish Storytelling after the Coming of the Normans) that it was only in the late 18th century that ‘peasant storytellers began to emerge from obscurity’. We do hear from the remarkable Robin Flower, Deputy Keeper of Manuscripts in the British Museum from 1929 – 1944 of an encounter with an old man of over eighty years, an Irish speaker living on the Aran Islands reciting ‘a long tale of Fionn and his companions’ (The Irish Tradition p104 / 105). As Flower puts it, ‘I was hearing the oldest living tradition in the British Isles…older than the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf…it lives on still upon the lips of the peasantry, a real and vivid experience’.

An oral tradition stretching back millennia, passed on from generation to generation in a predominantly oral culture, is what is suggested here. But there is very little hard evidence. So as Zimmerman puts it, ‘the nature of Irish storytelling before the twelfth century remains obscure’. (Zimmerman p66).  We are left to make something of occasional representations of Irish storytelling and storytellers from the literature. One of the more important of these representations was mentioned in Briefing Note 6, the encounter of Fionn MacCumhaill’s son, Caílte and Oisin with St. Patrick recounted in Acallam na Senórach.  Patrick, it will be recalled, was very well disposed to the stories he heard and asked that they be written down.

So to begin to build a picture of the Irish story tradition in that period before the coming of the Normans and after the arrival of Christianity, we can draw on a number of written sources. It was from the end of the 7th century that Irish written literature developed. A network of monasteries had been established and importantly the Irish vernacular literature was written down. Greek and Latin texts were also copied along with Christian to form a cultural mix that was to continue to the 12th century. Yes, the monks did filter the material adding their own often significant tweaks. And you don’t need to do much to a story to totally change its meaning.  But it is the monks that we have to thank for learning this vast and unique compendium of stories.

We saw in Briefing Note 1 how Ireland’s mythic history was fitted into a Universal (mythic) history based on the Old Testament in Lebor Gabála Erenn from the Chronicles of Eusebius and others. And what emerged was the Senchus Mór, the Great Tradition. Here kings, monks and poets had collaborated to collect and capture the national heritage but in a way that was inclusive of other influences and thinking.

The result was to create great centres of scholarship and learning in places like Bangor and Movilla. They were to educate the scholars and monks who were to play such an important role in the Europe of the so-called Dark Ages. The reputation of these centres was, as the venerable Bede recalls, that English students were coming to Ireland in great numbers to pursue their learning (His Eccl III XXVII). Bede himself credited his studies in Ireland and this is important evidence of how Irish scholarship was regarded over the sea.

Other evidence is the ‘training’ the future fili had to undergo in pursuit of their profession. B. Byrne in an article ‘Senchas’ (Historical Studies 9 (1974) p 158) referenced the twelve years for fili of the highest rank, and that ‘they had to learn many tales… said to be seven times fifty’. Clearly being immersed in the oral (now written) story tradition was a central, highly valued professional competence. Zimmerman also collects the many examples of narrative storytelling and its effects in the campus of stories. These include where the central character narrates: Fintan MacBochra, Tuan mac Cairill, Cormac MarAirt. Also where a protagonist is mentioned as a teller but not represented: Diarmuid and Grainne, Midir and Etain, Niall of the Nine Hostages, Bran, Máel Dúin etc. The evidence is indirect but important in pointing to the prevalence and importance of the storytelling traditions.

What emerges then during this period is a picture of an enduringly vibrant oral culture, but also of an equally strong monastic culture whose written work was central in providing records of a unique literature.  Irish culture of this period had the best of a very professional bardic tradition along with a monastic tradition working side by side. We learn from Robin Flower that the relations between the poets/bards and the monastic men ‘was close but sometimes uneasy’ (The Irish Tradition p75). We also learn that Lebor Gabála, The Book of Invasions, the gathering of Ireland’s poetic history, mythology, biblical and classical influences was to become canonical. It was taught in the schools and the teachings reproduced down to the 12th century.

In conclusion what we can say is that much is indeed obscure and will remain so. However, working with the sources that there are, and filling in some gaps with careful use of the imagination and indeed current experiences of oral storytelling, we can build a picture of a culture in which these “arts” were clearly valued and respected. And probably the strongest indication is the degree to which the learning and scholarship were such that many students from Britain and Europe found their way to the centres of learning. In turn, the very significant impact of the Irish monks who followed the path of ‘white martyrdom’ and went on a journey of exile to found places of learning and wisdom all over the continent during the Dark Ages is also testament to the culture in which the oral telling of cultural myths and wisdom played a central role.  

Briefing Note 10

The Story of the Story in the Norman Period 13th to 16th Centuries

Some of the most important of the surviving manuscripts that exist were compiled around the second half of the 12th century. They include Lebor Gabála, The Book of Invasions; The Book of Leinster which includes the Tain; and the Book of Dun Cow which includes the Tuan mac Cairill and Máel Dúin stories. There is a unanimously held view among Celtic scholars that these were copied from earlier sources, for the language is as old as the 8th and 9th centuries.

This period of history also saw the first colonial period, the Anglo-Norman Invasion. The first phase of this conquest was to introduce a feudal system of land tenure and inheritance, the institution of the manor, new agricultural methods and new ways of conducting war. By the middle of the 13th century roughly two thirds of the country was under Norman control. But then this trend was to be reversed. Outside all but parts of Leinster, Gaelic power was to reassert itself and the Anglo-Normans were pushed back. The Black Death famine of 1348-9 was to lead to the death of many colonists and after the pandemic many were to return to Britain.

In the West of Ireland families of Norman influence lived amongst the Irish. The English influence was largely within the Pale. This of course means that an important one third of the country, especially in the West, was untouched by the Norman invasion. Its oral traditions, we can assume, could and would have carried on untouched. The Normans did not seem to have a cultural agenda. They were not bringing a ‘new’ religion nor the kind of agenda that would characterise the Tudor conquest and beyond.

The fact that the ruling group took over the task of the preservation and perpetuation of the narrative tradition is very notable. It surely is an indication of how highly valued was the tradition, the culture. But it could also have been the primary form of entertainment. A bit of imagination (fantasia) applied to life in that pre-electricity, pre-social media, pre-TV/radio world points to just how likely it was that the storytelling evening, especially in winter, would have been great fun, as well as a means of reflection and indeed education. They would surely have lifted everyone – as they still do today.

What also emerged in this period was the ‘secular’ bardic schools. This was a rigorous training in style and in composition (prosody). The court poet was trained to be an ‘authority on all kinds of native learning, the legendary and the historical as well as the poetic lore, but they also absorbed a great deal of the Latin culture of the period’ (J.E. Caerwyn Williams – The Court Poet in Medieval Ireland in Proceedings of the British Academy 57 (1971) 123). Because of the number of stories/myths they were expected to know, they would have been able to draw on a vast store to be relevant to any situation, crisis, or occasion.

The experience we have in Bard Mythologies in these oral tellings suggest the Bardic role would have been a way of collective reflection, of addressing difficult subjects safely and indeed even being a way of speaking truth to power. The Greeks in their Great Dionysia, the festival of Tragedy and Comedy would have had the same effects on a grander, more dramatic scale. But it seems probable that the Bards would have played a role in sustaining cultural traditions or indeed moving them on as appropriate.

One of the significant changes related to taste for a type of story. What research has revealed is that the heroic/warrior dimension of the Ulster cycle ceased to develop. The stories of Cu Chulainn, Ferdia, Medb and Conor were less popular. In contrast the Fenian cycle became a favourite theme for storytellers and their audiences. In part this picked up the contact of Patrick with Fionn’s sons in Acallam na Senórach.  This tradition became divided into two branches: in one the relationship of saint to hero was very courteous and respectful, in the other much more hostile.

What also became popular during this period were chivalrous romances of the French and Arthurian type. These were translated into Irish. Alan Bruford in Garlic Folk-Tales and Mediaeval Romances looked closely at this genre and felt that they were meant to be part of the oral tradition and read out loud.

Meanwhile, outside the ‘big house’ we still have no direct evidence of how the ‘oral tradition’ was operating among the rural and peasant class. There is reason to believe that in the absence of any interference the tradition simply continued, hence Robin Flower’s encounter on the Aran Islands with an old islander quoting a long Fianna story in the 20th century. As Flower puts it, ‘I was hearing the oldest living tradition in the British Isles…older than Beowulf’.

So in conclusion, it does seem that the Anglo-Norman period was marked with some significant changes, especially regarding the secularisation of the Bardic art, patronage and education, amid which the respect for the story tradition continued unabated. And in the meantime, new editions of the manuscripts moved things on by way of preservation.

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