Book Picture Ireland and their oral traditions

Early on in my reading of Irish History and Culture I came upon references to the “Irish Oral Tradition”. The simple meaning of this phrase is that at one time all knowledge was passed on orally or by word of mouth. The early nomadic clans had “kings” serviced by bards or poets who were expected to remember all relevant information up to that point in the clan’s existence.

These men were expected to memorize all knowledge and have it available on request or demand from the high king. How much of this is speculation or truth is a matter of conjecture. It makes for a romantic back drop on which to unfold the Irish myths and legends. I for example like the idea that within any clan there were one or two individuals whose primary purpose was to remember everything and be able to recall it when needed.

Imagine how devastating it would be for a clan to lose one of these special people for whatever reason. They were expected to remember all the battles and stories of the clan’s existence plus all of linage or ancestors of the king. This information would be passed down to the next generation simply by telling and remembering the words of the previous generation.

Think about how prized an individual would be who could remember and retain all of this information. This person was often called upon to entertain the court in song, poetry and story. Our understanding of this is based on what has been passed down from generation to generation - orally. The early Irish didn’t have a written language. There are stone carvings and hieroglyphs but nothing approaching a written language. Scientists have made a great effort to “read” the antiquities but again it is supposition and an imaginative response to what can be observed.

Interestingly a great many sites have not yet been excavated by modern archeologists. Some of those that were excavated have led to remarkable discoveries. Others are very slow to give up their secrets. In many cases all that is “known” about a site is what has been passed down as myth or legend, again orally.

An early form of recording information was with the Ogham markings generally denoting an individual, marked on a stone beginning in the 4th AD century and running into the 6th century which is late in comparison with Latin. There is evidence that wood was also used but of course wood is not as permanent. Ogham writing is a complex subject which has a number of theories to explain its significance. My point was that the Irish had no written language and depended for the most part on orally transmitting information.

With the coming of St. Patrick and the conversion of Ireland also came the Latin which is the language of the monks. From the Monks came many illustrated bibles, of which several can be viewed in Trinity College, Dublin. The most famous of which is “The Book of Kells”. The work in this book is incredible with points of color so small a magnifying glass must be used to see them. Still no written language beyond the abbeys and definitely not for the common Irish.

This is not a discourse in the History of Ireland but it does seem abrupt to subjugate Ireland by the English in a few sentences. Never-the-less this fact was finally accomplished at the Battle of the Boyne. This wasn’t the first invasion with lasting consequences. The Viking and the Norman invasions had already been absorbed with the corresponding changes to the Irish culture and landscapes. Both of these invasions became permanent and are credited with creating the first towns such as Dublin, Wexford and many others.

It is amazing to me to see all the Norman castles as you drive around Ireland either restored as tourist attractions, private homes or left in ruins. These castles were a way of controlling the lands around them. The nomadic Irish were confronted with permanent settlements whose technology was superior to the native Irish. What we see is a gradual change in the Ireland’s social structure.

The invaders brought their own languages and traditions including the English language which became the dominant language particularly for business. The English also brought their ways and laws which included property ownership. The nomadic cattle robbing clans of Irish myths and legends eventually became part of the system of land ownership. The stability of this arrangement has its appeal when you consider the prior arrangement that required constant battles to maintain the grazing areas of your clan.

Ireland is littered with legendary battle sights and mythical heroes of the battles that took place. One of my favorites is “Conn of the Hundred Battles” about one of the High Kings of Ireland listed in the “Annals of the Four Masters” as living in the 1st century AD. In fact, if you read these legends it would seem as the “land of milk and honey” was in the constant state of battle. This partially explains the value of cattle in that the food supply was mobile and could be moved as required. Also power was defined by number of animals a clan possessed. Even today it is possible to catch a glimpse of the animal based culture in rural Ireland even though I am sure it has diminished considerably with the “Celtic Tiger” economy.

Fast forward to the period of the penal laws when priests were hunted with bounties. The Mass Rocks where the faithful met to hear mass from a priest still can be found in various parts of Ireland. Education was outlawed for the Irish and teachers would teach a small gathering of children at the “hedgerow”. All education was oral. It was this commitment to memory that sustained the Irish. The Culture of Ireland went under a massive change in the course of the 19th century. After the Famine, the Irish language went into steep decline. This process was started in the 1820s, when the first National Schools were set up in the country. These had the advantage of encouraging literacy, but classes were provided only in English and the speaking of Irish was firmly discouraged. However, before the 1840s, Irish was still the majority language in the country and numerically (given the rise in population) may have had more speakers than ever before. The Famine devastated the Irish speaking areas of the country, which tended also to be rural and poor. As well as causing the deaths of thousands of Irish speakers, the famine also led to sustained and widespread emigration from the Irish-speaking south and west of the country. By 1900, for the first time in perhaps two millennia, Irish was no longer the majority language in Ireland, and continued to decline in importance. By the time of Irish independence, the Gaeltacht had shrunk to small areas along the western seaboard. In reaction, to this, Irish nationalists began a "Gaelic revival" in the late 19th century, hoping to revive the Irish language and Irish literature and sports. While social organizations such as the Gaelic League and the Gaelic Athletic Association were very successful in attracting members, most of their activists were English speakers and the movement did not halt the decline of the Irish language. The form of English established in Ireland differed somewhat from British English and its variants. blurring linguistic structures from older forms of English (notably Elizabethan English) and the Irish language, it is known as Hiberno-English and was strongly associated with turn of the century Celtic Revival and Irish writers like J.M. Synge, George Bernard Shaw, Sean O'Casey, and had resonances in the English of Dublin-born Oscar Wilde. Some nationalists saw the celebration of Hiberno-Irish by predominantly Anglo-Irish writers as offensive "stage Irish" caricature. Synge's play The Playboy of the Western World was marked by rioting at performances.

Examine the struggle for independence from the English who subjected the Irish. At times the conditions were terrible. After World War I, when it became apparent that it was problematic having a land mass hostile to British interests West of England. As World War I came to an end the English unleashed one last terror in Ireland - the Black and Tan’s. These hooligans were licensed to kill and they did until England reined them in after Michael Collins and Churchill signed the agreement that split Ireland into two parts; the 6 counties of Northern Ireland under British control and the remaining 26 counties in the Republic of Ireland under a government to be established. This was strategic thinking as the Germans set up spies in Ireland during World War II and may have actually landed a few Germans on Irish shores from U-Boats in the Atlantic. The Republic of Ireland declared neutrality in World War II.

This split caused problems for Ireland and only recently have these problems subsided somewhat with the signing of the “Good Friday Agreements”. The coming into existence of the Irish Republic is a tremendous success story in its own right but one of the factors that led to Ireland’s independence was its efforts to restore Gaelic as the native language and the forming of the Gaelic Athletic Association which spurred on Nationalism. The recent economic upsurge in Ireland changed the backdrop of hate and bloodshed and created the opportunity for change. The violence has picked up again slightly as the world wide recession of 2008 has changed the economics in Ireland greatly reducing the opportunities. This period of wealth has changed Ireland for the better and perhaps for many decades to come. The story continues and one can only hope for the best. What about the oral tradition? I contend that it survived up until the television and ultimately the cellular phone. An early publication of an anthropological study, “The Irish Countryman” by Conrad M. Arensberg gives us an insight into the traditional life in Ireland. He tells of the Irish tradition of putting a chair just outside the door when you want company to come and chat. He goes on to say that some of these chats could last late into the early morning as the Irish loved to tell stories. They had a special name for a story teller: a shanachie - a skilled storyteller of family genealogy, history, and legend. This was their entertainment. And if neighbors were not forthcoming there was always the local pub or maybe four or five of them nearby.

All of this brings me to the modern Irish and their propensity to speak out on any subject. You find them well represented in the theater, politics and writing.

What about the oral tradition? I contend that it survived up until the television and ultimately the cellular phone. The advent of the TV changed the need for a neighbor to exchange stories or a visit to the pub to meet for a drink and a social exchange. Some pubs were set up to accommodate the whole family with music, food and of course drink. It was here that people would gather to hear the news and exchange stories. TV invaded the pubs as well, partly because people were staying home to watch TV. To get them back to the pub TVs began to appear in the pubs. This reduced the conversations and craic. The pub still continued as a meeting place. For one thing not many people had telephones due the expense. The rocky soil and the distances between houses made it impractical. I remember early trips to Ireland and seeing people queued up to use a phone in a phone booth. Several people waiting even in the rain. I didn’t realize until later how few people had phones. The cell phone changed all that. Now almost everyone in Ireland has a cell phone – even little children. The oral tradition continues, but now it is from anyone to anyone, anywhere. You don’t need to be home or in a pub – you can be anywhere and chat with anyone. I am not sure but I would think conference calls will be a big success. Bill Barich in his book “A Pint of Plain” chronicles the demise of the typical Irish pub in Ireland. A good read to get a glimpse of just one of the cultural icons that are changing in Ireland.

The basic appreciation of a well told story is still present in Ireland and nowhere have I had a more pleasant conversation. One specific example comes to mind. We were in a pub somewhere in Donegal and I struck up a conversation with a man about my age sitting close enough that we could exchange a few words comfortably without straining our voices. He made some comment that reminded me of one of experiences I’d had on the trip and I thought it would make a good story. I asked if he’d like to hear it and he was delightfully enthusiastic. So I began a medium length version of the story hoping not to bore him to death. In the United States people want the punch line. One liners are popular. As I could sense his enjoyment, chuckling at the right time, nodding his head and an ear to ear smile, I added back in some of the nuances I had planned to leave out thinking it was just too long. Finally it came to an end. He stared at me for a good thirty seconds before saying, “Geez, that was a brilliant story. I loved the part about the farmer. Could you tell it again, slower and with more detail this time? You are a real shanachie, you know that don’t you. I need to hear it again because I’ve to go home and tell it to my wife and she will be asking loads of questions.”

I feel I would have done well in Ireland and their oral traditions.

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