A word is more enduring than worldy wealth. — Irish proverb
At the discovery, several years ago, that I have a pair of Irish ancestors, I smiled a little. They’re pretty far up my dad’s family tree, having left Dublin a generation before the Great Hunger. I haven’t found any other genetic connection with the Emerald Isle to date.
Nevertheless, it tickles me to have this faint connection to the Irish and their Gaelic forebears. I have to love a people who place such high value on a good story.
Like their fellow Celts in Scotland and Wales, pre-Christian Gaels in Ireland developed a respected caste of oral storytellers, poets and historians. With writing limited to Ogham inscriptions in wood or stone, clans depended on the memories of filid, brehons, and bards.
Like druid priests, a fili, or poet, studied for years. Instead of focusing on religion, filid memorized lore, history, and genealogies. Their purpose of protecting and guarding knowledge is still reflected in modern Gaelic. The highest rank of fili, the ollam, is now Gaelic for professor. Filid also composed elaborate poems to praise their chieftain or patron (or satirize him if suitable payment had not been forthcoming for the last poem).
A brehon specialized in legal knowledge. The poetry and stories they learned focused on laws, customs, crimes and punishments – the equivalent of modern case law, perhaps. It’s not clear whether they functioned as advisors to chieftains and kings, or if they had the authority to pass judgement themselves. Either way, they held a valuable position within the household or clan.
Less scholarly, and less prestigious, bards provided entertainment. They wrote songs as well as poems, accompanying themselves with a harp to amuse a feasting crowd or a circle of villagers gathered by the hearth. Like the filid, though, they could praise a good patron or heap scorn on a stingy one and they garnered respect.
Christianity brought Latin and slightly increased literacy to Ireland. Monks recorded many of the oral histories in manuscripts like the Yellow Book of Lecan, but the traditions of the poets and bards remained strong. Neither Viking nor Norman settlement could entirely do away with them. But when the English conquered Ireland, official policy was to superimpose their language and Protestantism over the Gaelic-speaking Catholic population.
Marginalized, the Irish clung to their native language, music and history, and so the seanchai, or storyteller, developed from the old bardic traditions. Like bards, a seanchai learned old tales from older storytellers, gathering them year by year without any help from the written word. Often they journeyed from place to place, swapping an evening’s or several evenings’ worth, of entertainment for room and board.
Thus legends and myths of heroes, queens, kings, lovers, and saints were preserved, along with cautionary tales of sidhe and their inhabitants from the Other World. By memorizing and re-telling these vestiges of Irish history and customs, generations of seanchai safeguarded the language and culture of their people until interest in the old language and ways revived.
Behold the power of story.