Declan Kiberd, ‘Story-Telling: The Gaelic Tradition’, in The Irish Short Story, ed. Terence Brown & Patrick Rafroidi (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1979), pp.13-26.

In 1888, that prince of literary diplomats, Henry James, observed with some tact that it the little story is but scantily relished in England, where readers take their fiction rather by the volume than by the page [1]. Pondering this text almost seventy years later, Seán Ó Faoláin remarked with a kind of baffled triumph that ‘the Americans and Irish do seem to write better stories’ [2]. The short story as a literary form has flourished in many countries besides Ireland and America [where] has had gifted exponents such as Katherine Mansfield. The Russians of the past century are rightly regarded as masters of the genre and Chekhov is justly celebrated as the master of the Russians. France, too, has produced many great story-tellers in the tradition of Daudet and Maupassant. In his study of the genre, Mr. Ó Faoláin attempted to explain why the English, who have given the world so many great novels, should have failed so spectacularly to master the short story. He concluded that English readers preferred the social scope of the novel to the more private concerns of the short story. English writers, he believed, found a natural form for expressing their social philosophy in the extended narrative. The short story, on the other hand, was ‘an emphatically personal exposition’ [3]. Mr. Ó Faoláin offered various explanations for the strength of the shorter genre in other countries. The form had [13] prospered in the United States because ‘American society is still unconventionalized’, in Ireland because her people were still ‘an unconventional and comparatively human people’, and in France which was ‘the breeding ground of the personal and original way of looking at things’ [4]. These are pleasant arguments but there may be deeper reasons for the success of the form in such countries.

It seems, at least to the present author, that the short story has flourished in those countries where a vibrant oral culture is suddenly challenged by the onset of a sophisticated literary tradition. The short story is the natural result of a fusion between the ancient form of the folk-tale and the preoccupations of modern literature. We can, with some accuracy, even begin to identify the place and time of such a fusion. For example, the frontier in nineteenth-century America gave us the ‘tall tale’ of Mark Twain’s west, in stories such as “The Man that Corrupted Hadleyburg” or “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County”. It was this tradition which provided the basis for the episodic narrative art of Huckleberry Finn. In this work, a sequence of anecdotes told in folk idiom became the classic novel of a young nation and, according to Ernest Hemingway, the source of subsequent American literature. The same might be observed of the frontier in Australia and New Zealand, where an indigenous folk culture came into creative conflict with a developing literary tradition. In Russia the vibrant culture of the peasants inspired Nikolai Leskov to write superb short stories at a time of national upheaval. In more settled countries, such as France, it is no accident that the form was pioneered by writers such as Maupassant, who hailed from Normandy where an oral tradition was still a force in the lives of the people. Indeed, many of Maupassant’s finest stories take as their theme that very clash between ancient and modern standards in regional communities which made the development of the genre possible.

For the past eighty years in Ireland, the short story has been the most popular of all literary forms with readers. It has also been the form most widely exploited by writers. Whereas the great Anglo-Irish writers of the Literary Revival, such as Yeats and Synge, excelled in poetry and drama, the short story has been mainly pioneered by the ‘risen people’ - the O’Kellys, O’Flahertys, Ó Faoláins and O’Connors. The genre had a particular appeal for the writers of the emerging Catholic bourgeoisie [14] who hailed from regional towns. To take a clear example, Seán Ó Faoláin and Frank O’Connor both grew up in Cork, strategically poised between the folk and the literary tradition. From lending libraries in the city, they could read the classic works of English literature; but in the countryside all around Cork, the folk storytellers still delighted peasant audiences around cottage firesides and blacksmiths’ forges. Even in the heart of the city itself, one or two old people - immigrants from the surrounding countryside - plied the story-teller’s art. It was inevitable that such a town would produce, in the twentieth century, some of the nation’s greatest exponents of the short story, a genre which was poised, like its authors, between the profane world of contemporary literature and the pious world of the folk. By nature of its origins, the form was admirably suited to the task of reflecting the disturbances in Irish society as it painfully shed its ancient traditions. O’Connor himself has observed that without the concept of a normal society, the novel is impossible [5]; but the short story is particularly appropriate to a society in which revolutionary upheavals have shattered the very idea of normality. In the years in which the modern Irish nation took shape, the short story was the form in which many writers chose to depict their vision of the emerging Ireland. In the earliest phase of the Literary Revival, at the beginning of this century, many of these writers looked to the Gaelic folk tradition for inspiration.

The art of oral story-telling in Ireland goes back over a thousand years and is very similar to that of Brittany. Léon Marillier, in his introduction to Anatole Le Braz’s collection, La Légende de la Mort en Basse-Bretagne, draws a classic distinction between two types of folk narrative. On the one hand, there is the ‘conte’, a tale of international provenance with a durable form which scarcely varies from one country to the next. On the other hand, there is the ‘légende’, which is infinitely variable and deals with more homely matters [6]. The tellers of the ‘contes’ put little of their own personalities into their remote and marvellous tales, but the ‘légendes’ arose from the lives of ordinary people and were rooted in a particular place [7]. In Ireland, the same distinction holds good and a discrimination is made between two types of story teller. The ‘sgéalaí’ enjoys higher status as narrator of the ‘sean-sgéal’ - or international tale, while the ‘seanchaí’ narrates local tales and lore concerning familiar places, family genealogies. fairies and ghosts [8]. The [15] ‘sgéalaí’ was always a man but the ‘seanchaí’ could be male or female. The tales told by the ‘sgéalaí’ were long and difficult to remember, filled with amazing adventures and remote wonders narrated neutrally in the third person. The ‘seanchaí’ told his story as if he himself had witnessed it. These stories were sometimes translated into English, but the versions in the native language were far superior, as J.M. Synge discovered on the Aran Islands [9].

Perhaps the finest account of the Gaelic story-teller and his art was given by Séan Mac Giollarnith in his collection published under the title Peadar Chois Fhairrge [10]. As a rule, stories were told at night around the winter fire from the end of the harvest until the middle of March. The stories held in highest esteem were tales of heroes such as Oisin and the Fianna, full of astonishing feats and marvellous incidents. Many of the old storytellers believed in these marvels and would suppress the questions of cynical youths in their audience with the exclamation: ‘a Bhiodh draiocht ann sa tsean-shaol! (There was magic in the old times)’ [11]. The tales were often told round the fireside of the a sgéalaí himself and folk from the surrounding countryside would crowd into his house to listen. Audiences were critical and not slow to correct a teller who stumbled and made a mistake. They loved to hear a familiar story again and again, having a deep admiration for the skill with which it was told. They became deeply involved in the plot, murmuring with apprehension or sighing with fear as the story progressed. The tellers were often shy, sensitive artists who had to be coaxed into a performance and who did not like to perform before a harsh or unfriendly audience. One famous lady story-teller was so shy of her more critical neighbours that she always locked her kitchen door before starting a story. Very often, a pipe was passed around before the entertainment began and then the ‘sgéalaí’, would sit back in his chair and prepare himself for delivery. Sometimes the person next to him would hold his hand as he spoke by way of encouragement. A most moving account of a Kerry teller in his eighties was given by Tadhg Ó Murchú in the 1930s:

His piercing eyes are on my face, his lips are trembling, as, immersed in his story, and forgetful of all else, he puts his very soul into the telling. Obviously much affected by his narrative, [16] he uses a great deal of gesticulation, and by the movement of his body, hand, and head, tries to convey hate and anger, fear and humour, like an actor in a play [12].

The Cork in which Daniel Corkery was born in 1878 was surrounded by a countryside in which traditions of story-telling were still a powerful force. Corkery was a teacher and a writer, a man equally at home by the story-teller’s fireside or in the scholar’s library. Like his future disciples, Ó Faoláin and O’Connor, he found in the short story the form most suited to his purposes. He saw his role as that of an artist mediating between two cultures. In 1916, a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement wrote that ‘Mr. Corkery’s stories read as if he had heard them from old Irish peasants and set them down in his own way ... very deftly, so that the endings of his tales come with a queer, unexpected, epigrammatic turn’ [13]. Many of the techniques employed by Corkery in his stories are closely related to those of the folktale. For example, in “The Spancelled”, a story from A Munster Twilight, we read at the start of a paragraph: ‘Now, as to the spancelled man who was to meet this spancelled woman, John Keegan his name was ... [14]. The opening three words, ‘now as to ...’, were frequently used by oral story-tellers to introduce sequences of action, just as passages in the native language were often introduced by phrases such as - nós iomarra, or a maidir le - or - iomthúsa, after a digression on the part of the speaker. The second sentence reproduces the exact order of the words as they would be spoken by a teller, but they would certainly never be written in this way in standard English. A number of Corkery’s stories were unashamedly introduced by their ‘author’ with the information that they had been gleaned from the folk. There is a sense in which Corkery presented himself not as an artist, but as a collector of folklore, recording the stories of the people and examining the very way in which a story was told. A revealing passage at the close of “The Lady of the Glassy Palace”, from A Munster Twilight, runs as follows:

Of course, Watchpole found humour in it, but not for a few days. In this way he now begins the tale: ‘Did ye ever hear tell of how Mick Hosford kilt two birds with the wan stone?’ As a matter of fact, he killed only one, though at the wake Hawky Sullivan did conduct himself with the reserve that [17] befits one who has had a narrow escape [15].

In this way, Corkery reasserts his authorial presence and corrects exaggerations in the folk anecdotes with a witty and acid turn of phrase. Each of his oral tales is framed by a literary reference in this fashion. This device is used even with a series of tales, such as those grouped under the collective title, The Cobbler’s Den.

Corkery was the forerunner of a host of Munster writers who set out to base their stories on folk idiom and belief. In the Irish language, this attempt to preserve the continuity of the Munster folk tradition in the transition to a written literature was even more powerful. The leader of this movement, an tAthair Peadar Ua Laoghaire, explained his policy: ‘In order to preserve Irish as a spoken tongue, we must preserve our spoken Irish. That is to say we must write and print exactly what the people speak ... I am determined to write down most carefully every provincialism I can get hold of. Then I shall be sure to have the people’s language’ [16]. Even within the language movement, however, there were many writers who dissented from this principle. Aodh de Blácam called instead for a modernist literature which would express ‘the individual mind’ [17]. The most influential apostle of Gaelic Modernism was Patrick Pearse. In a major statement in the Gaelic League paper, An Claidheamh Soluis, as early as May 1906, he explained why a vital modern literature could never be founded on the folk-tale:

We hold the folk tale to be a beautiful and gracious thing only in its own time and place ... and its time and place are the winter fireside, or the spring sowing time, or the country road at any season. Thus, we lay down the proposition that a living literature cannot (and if it could, should not) be built up on the folk tale. The folk tale is an echo of old mythologies: literature is a deliberate criticism of actual life ... This is the twentieth century; and no literature can take root in the twentieth century which is not of the twentieth century. We want no Gothic revival [18].

One month later, Pearse insisted with uncanny accuracy that the future of Irish literature lay not with the folk tale but with the short story: ‘We foresee for this type of composition a [p.18] mighty future in Irish and indeed in European literature’ [19]. Three years later, he defended his own famous story, “Iosagán”, against the traditionalists: ‘”Iosagán” has been described as a ‘Standard of Revolt’ . It is the standard of definite art form as opposed to the folk form.’ [20].

What can Pearse have meant? In the statement of May 1906, he asserted that ‘personality’ was the quality which distinguished the individual artist from the folk tradition. This was an elaboration of a point which he had made as far back as 1903: ‘Style after all is another name for personality. One cannot always stick to the folk formula and genealogies are out of fashion’ [21]. For Pearse the virtue of the short story was that it permitted intense self-expression. Because he lacked the social scope of the novelist, the writer of short stories was bound to select a single aspect of life through which he might reveal his personality. Seán Ó Faoláin was to make the same observation many years later in his study of the genre:

What one searches for and what one enjoys in a short story is a special distillation of personality, a unique sensibility which has recognized and selected at once a subject that, above an other subjects, is of value to the writer’s temperament and to his alone - his counterpart, his perfect opportunity to express himself [22].

It is this scope for self-expression which distinguishes the short story from the folk-tale. The folk-tale was impersonal, magical, and recited to a credulous audience in a public manner. The short story is personal, credible, and written in private for the critical solitary reader. The folk story-teller could win the assent of his listeners to the most impossible of plots. The modern writer is confronted with an audience of lonely sceptics who insist on a literature which reflects their everyday lives. James Delargy has described folklore as ‘the literature of escape’ through which ‘the oppressed and downtrodden could leave the grinding poverty of their surroundings, and in imagination rub shoulders with the great, and sup with kings and queens, and lords and ladies, in the courts of fairyland’ [23]. When Lady Gregory went to collect tales in a Galway workhouse, she was ‘moved by the strange contrast between the poverty of the tellers and the splendours of the tales’ [24]. In the modern short story, however, the teller no longer seeks to flee from his humdrum [19] surroundings, but rather to confront them in all their banality. His motto is that of Katherine Mansfield who promised to tell how the laundry-basket squeaked. Such a literature describes no longer the exploits of kings and princes, but rather the minor triumphs and small sadnesses of the commonplace man. Frank O’Connor has even gone so far as to assert that the short story marks ‘the first appearance in fiction of the Little Man’ [25]. In the opening chapter of The Lonely Voice, O’Connor articulates his belief that the short story is characterised by its treatment of ‘Submerged population groups’ [26], of those lonely people who live on the fringes of society because of spiritual emptiness or material deprivation. America is offered as an example of a society composed almost entirely of ‘submerged population groups’ in their respective ethnic ghettoes after immigration from Europe. This takes us back to the present writer’s contention that the short story flourishes on any cultural frontier, where solitary men daily confront the ambiguities of a changing society which is based on rival folk and cosmopolitan traditions. O’Connor goes on to assert that the short story grew out of folklore and that such stories are ‘drastic adaptations of a primitive art to modern conditions to printing, science, and individual religion’ [27]. In the work of writers as diverse as Carleton, O’Kelly, Colum, Stephens, Corkery, O’Connor, Lavin and MacMahon, we find undeniable signs of that adaptation. For example, many of these writers employ in their stories a style which verges on the conversational and this mode of delivery characterised not only the ancient sagas but also the modern Irish folk-tale [28]. To a greater or lesser extent, each of these writers has been conditioned by the Gaelic tradition of storytelling.

Having said that much, it is only just to add that the greatest collection of short stories to come out of Ireland, Joyce’s Dubliners, bears positively no trace of the oral tradition. Where the oral tradition took the spectacular as its subject, Joyce finds poetry in the commonplace. Where the oral tales climaxed in blood-baths and supernatural reversals, Joyce’s epiphanies describe nothing more momentous than the passing of a coin. Nor is Joyce alone in this proud immunity to the Gaelic tradition. George Moore and John McGahern might also be cited as writers of real class whose work bears no trace of the folklore of the rural Ireland in which they grew up. One reason for this may lie in the [21] fact that a tales which had previously been told in the Irish language passed over into English only to a very small extent [29].

In such a situation, it might have been expected that the Gaelic tradition of story-telling would have exerted its most profound influence on writers in the Irish language. The work of Micheál Ó Siochfhradha (“An Seabbac”) in An Baile Seo Againne is an impressive example of this kind of writing. All too often, however, those who relied on folk-tales for inspiration did so because they had no art or theme of their own. Anyone who looks back over the literature of the past seventy years will find that the prophecies of Pearse have been vindicated. The finest short stories in Irish have been written by Pádraic Ó Conaire, Liam O’Flaherty and Máirtin Ó Cadhain, not one of whom relied on the art of the folk tradition which was their logical inheritance. Ó Conaire dealt most often in his stories with the middle class rather than the peasants and he rigorously excluded all idiosyncrasies of folk dialect from his prose. Some of his finest collections, like Joyce’s Dubliners or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio, are built around a single theme. For instance, the short stories in Seacht mBua an Éirí Arnach all deal with the ways in which the Easter Rising impinged on the lives of ordinary people. Ó Conaire began to write at the start of the century under the influence of European Realists. With later writers such as O’Flaherty and Ó Cadhain, the short story in Irish became unashamedly modernist. Ó Cadhain even denied that it was a a story n as such, preferring to see it is a dramatisation of an incident, of a state of mind. or of a person simply passing on the road. For Ó Cadhain, the form is intensely compressed, like that of a lyric poem. More is left unsaid than is said. The story can cover only a short period of time, an hour, a day, a week, and, like the classical drama, it calls for a unity of time, place and action [30]. By these searching criteria, few stories in modern Irish, apart from O’Flaherty’s and Ó Cadhain’s, would survive the test. O’Flaherty’s simple lyric descriptions of children, of animals, and of evanescent moments in a human relationship. mark off Dúil as the finest collection of short stories in the Irish language. These stories have also been published in English, the language in which O’Flaherty composed all his subsequent writing. This leaves Ó Cadhain as the undisputed master of modern prose in Irish. Although his masterpiece is the novel, Cré [21] na Cille, his short stories betray similar evidence of his gift for dramatising the human consciousness. Ó Cadhain loved folklore and collected and published many superb tales from story-tellers in Galway; but he did not believe that folk-tales should be made the basis of a modern literature. In a radio broadcast on the short story, he observed wearily that he would prefer to read a single folk-tale in its original form than twenty listless adaptations of that tale in the shape of the short story. In such versions, the distinctive art of the folk-tale is not so much adapted as destroyed.

This leads to a final point. Too many bad short stories are written in Ireland today and too few good novels. Foolish people convince themselves that the short story is easily written and that it requires little effort. They know that rewards from newspapers, radio and television are handsome, so they sit down to write. The truth is that the short story, like the lyric poem, is one of the most difficult forms in literature, requiring a concentration and intense economy of effect possible only to a true artist. Nevertheless, a particularly fatuous type of story, which claims to record a the pieties of the folk,, has recently enjoyed a sudden revival. Every town in the west of Ireland has produced some schoolmaster who fancies himself to be a past master of the art. Summer festivals are held in these towns and foreign tourists flock into public houses to applaud the maudlin performances of these rustic geniuses. These men write as if Daniel Corkery were the only model to follow in Irish literature, as if Joyce and 0 Cadhain had never put pen to paper. Such ignoble exercises, carried out on the fringes of the tourist industry, have no artistic value for the contemporary Irish writer or reader. Nevertheless, the phenomenon is worth pondering. It was Corkery himself, in that controversial opening chapter of Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature, who declared that every Irish writer is faced with a decision - whether to express Ireland or exploit her [31]. The choice lies between expressing the life of the nation to itself or exploiting that life for the delectation of a ‘superior’ foreign audience. In Corkery’s time, that audience was composed mainly of upper-class English readers who chortled over novels which recorded the foibles of the peasants. In our own day, the nature of that audience has changed, but not the nature of the attendant temptation. The current audience is composed mainly of Irish-American tourists who come to confirm their fondest hope that [23] the fairies are still at the bottom of the garden. Those writers who entertain these tourists by teasing the beautiful old folk-tales into shapeless short stories are exploiting their native culture rather than expressing it. They do a signal disservice to the integrity of the folk-tales which they travesty.

The folk-tale was a valid and beautiful means by which the Gaelic story-teller expressed the Irish people to themselves at a certain phase in their history. That phase lasted for hundreds of years, but it is now past. The vibrant tradition of oral storytelling was one major reason for the triumph of the short story as a characteristic Irish literary form. Seeing this, many writers, with varying degrees of success, applied in the short story the techniques of the folk-tale. Some minor writers even tried to adapt folk anecdotes to the form of the short story in the years of national upheaval at the start of this century. This, too, was a valid means of expressing the nation to itself at a time of selfconscious cultural revival. That period, also, is past. It is now clear that the greatest short stories, in both Irish and English, owe more to the narrative genius of their authors than to the Gaelic tradition of story-telling. Pearse’s prophecy is fulfilled and it is the modernist artists who have written, in Joyce’s lucid phrase, a chapter of the moral history of their country.

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1. Henry James, Partial Portraits (London 1888), p.264.
2. Seán Ó Faoláin, The Short Story [2nd edn.] (Cork 1972), p.43.
3. Ibid., p.44.
4. Ibid, pp. 44-45.
5. Frank O’Connor, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (London 1963), p.17.
6. Léon Marillier, Introduction to La Légende de la Mort en Basse Bretagne by Anatole Le Braz (Paris 1892) p.xviii.
7. Ibid., p. x.
8. Ibid., pp.v, xiii and xiv.
9. J. M. Synge, The Aran Islands in Collected Works: Prose, ed. Alan Price (Oxford), 1966, p.61.
10. Seán Mac Giollarnith, ed., Peadar Chois Fhairrge (Dublin 1934).
11. James Delargy, ‘The Gaelic Storyteller’, in Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. xxxi (London 1945), p. 8.
12. Quoted in Delargy, ‘The Gaelic Storyteller’, p.16.
13. Quoted in frontispiece to Daniel Corkery, The Threshold of Quiet (Dublin 1917).
14. Daniel Corkery, A Munster Twilight (Cork 1967), p. 57.
15. Ibid., p. 51.
16. Quoted by T.F. O’Rahilly, Papers on Irish Idiom (Dublin 1920), p.138.
17. Aodh de Blácam, ‘Gaelic and Anglo-Irish Literature Compared’, in Studies (March 1924), p.71.
18. Patrick Pearse, ‘About Literature’, in An Claidheamh Soluis (26 May 1906), p.6.
19. Patrick Pearse, ‘Literature, Life, and the Oireachtas Competition’, in An Claidheamh Soluis (2 June 1906), p. 6.
20. Quoted by Máirtin Ó Cadhain, ‘Conradh na Gaeilge agus an Litriocht’, in The Gaelic League Idea, ed. Seán Ó Tuama (Cork 1972), p.59.
21. Patrick Pearse, ‘Reviews’, in An Claidheamh Soluis (14 March 1903), p. 3.
22. Ó Faoláin, The Short Story, p.44.
23. Delargy, ‘The Gaelic Storyteller’, p.24.
24. Lady Gregory, Poets and Dreamers: Studies and Translations from the Irish (Dublin 1903), p.129.
25. O’Connor, The Lonely Voice, p.15.
26. Ibid., p.18.
27. Ibid., p.45.
28. Delargy, ‘The Gaelic Storyteller’, p.33.
29. Seán O’Sullivan, The Folklore of Ireland (London 1974), p.15.
30. Máirtin Ó Cadhain ò an Gearrscéal sa nGaeilge, Radio Eireann, 1967.
31. Daniel Corkery, Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature (Cork 1931), pp.10-11.

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