Seanchai – The Irish Storyteller
Updated: May 11, 2020
On my first ever trip to Ireland, I remember strolling along the banks of the River Liffey with my now husband, when we encountered a group of skateboarders harassing an old man sitting on a bench.
At least, I thought they were harassing him, but as we drew closer, I realised that he was talking, and they were listening. His voice rose and fell in melodic, hypnotic waves, and the teenagers milled about, their growing bodies restless, but their faces rapt.
We passed by, on a mission of places to be and things to see, but to this day, I have always wondered about the story he was telling them.
As the recently departed Seamus Heaney could arguably be called Ireland’s most famous and best loved poet, so his equal in terms of storytelling must be Eddie Lennihan, an Irishman famous for his tales of Ireland’s folklore and mythology.
You can see him in action here.
The Seanchai ( pronounced ‘shawnakee’) was a traditional Irish storyteller. They memorised and recited epic stories and poems from Irish mythology for the enjoyment of their audiences. You have to remember, in those days, there were no movies, tv, radio, computer games. Few had access to books, or could read.
In pre-Christian Ireland, there were two types of poet; the elite class of the Fili, and the lesser caste of the Bard.
They normally served a clan chieftain, keeping all their clan’s lore and history, and were highly respected. Some belonged to a community, and served at community ceremonies and events, while others belonged to no particular area or lord, but traveled, offering their skills in return for board and lodging.
Fili meant ‘seer’, so it is not beyond the realms of possibility that part of their role revolved around the foretelling of the future. In fact, originally the Fili may have served many functions, such as sorcerer, judge, keeper of law, chieftain’s adviser as well as poet and storyteller.
At some point, these responsibilities seem to have been divided, with the Brehons specialising in the legal aspects, the Druids taking on the religion and ritual, and the Fili concentrating on history and poetry.
The chief Fili in each province was known as the Ollamh (pronounced Ollav), which means ‘most great’, and would have been equal in status to the provincial King. Over all, presided the Ollamh Eirean, who was ranked equal to the Ard Ri, or High King of Ireland, so there was plenty of scope for promotion.
The advent of Christianity, however, put quite a strain on the Kings’ resources, as not only did they have to provide lands, titles and funding to the Fili, but also to the bishops.
In the 6th century, the decision was taken to limit the number of Fili purely to those families where the position of the poet was seen as a birth right. This was the beginning of the end for this role in Irish society, and much lore was lost.
Fortunately, however, the Christian monks did their best to conserve as much as they could, and so what was left of the ancient Irish oral tradition was finally put into writing.