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Seanchaí Storytellers of West Ireland

During my time at the Circle Way community, deep in the heart of County Clare, I had ample opportunity to delve into some storytelling with Anja who is in the process of organising her home. In the past, we have shared many stories about the great craftsman and builder, Gobán Saor and a local healer of Clare, known as Biddy Early, over her warm fire with a cup of tea.

Storytelling has been actively encouraged at this community - with regular talking circles, deep listening, a library full of folktales and storytelling workshops, I have often found someone willing to share a story with or listen to. In Ireland, storytelling seems to be deeply valued. A storyteller is known as a seanchaí and traditionally they were able to pass on large compilations of tales to one another without writing them down. Often the Seanchaithe did not belong to a clan but would travel between communities, sharing their tales in exchange for food and shelter.

Now it was the beginning of July and a very warm summer where nationwide hose-pipe bans were being announced over the radio. On this late Sunday evening, where the sky still shone with light, I sat down on a carved wooden stool as Anja leaned back on her sheepskin rug next to her dog in her kitchen-living room. She lives on a beautiful patch of land in County Clare where I have often seen wild horses and deer grazing. I had been feeling inspired by some nearby oak and was keen to learn more of its symbology.

A circle of wild horses at Circle Way in County Clare

Anja smiled and shared the story of the dualistic nature of the horned God Cernunnos of Celtic mythology, who is often associated with Pan, the Greek god of nature. In the summer, she explained, the Celtic Horned God, Cernunnos appears as the Oak King who is portrayed as a fertility God and also appears as the Green Man - the Green Man is a figure often depicted in sculptures with a face made of leaves and is a motif found in many cultures in the world, including sculptures on churches across Europe. He is often understood to be a symbol of rebirth and Spring. The Oak King rules from midwinter to midsummer when he battles his twin, the Holly King, for the favour of the goddess, explained Anja. I was curious to read more.

A Cernunnos figure from the Gundestrup Cauldron in Denmark

At midsummer, the light Oak King is considered to be at his height of power and at midwinter, the dark Holly King is strongest. The Holly King is often depicted with eight stags, warm furs, deep reds, sheaths of holly and in Celtic mythology is associated with the wren whereas the Oak King is associated with the robin. More information about the battle of the twin kings, can be found in Robert Grave's The White Goddess. A book by botanist John Williamson, The Oak King, The Holly King and the Unicorn also examines this mythology by delving into the plant and animal symbolism of the Unicorn Tapestries - a set of seven tapestries made between 1495 and 1505, depicting the hunt of a unicorn.

The Unicorn is Found (from the Unicorn Tapestries), 1495–1505.

For the Celts, the trees were considered sacred, and the letters of their alphabet, the Ogham, for their ancient language, were based on different species of tree.

With a friend, we shared our admiration of the solid oak trunks in Anja's cottage and talked about our recent meetings with an ancient oak forest in Flagmount and the sessile oak woodland of Glengarriff where we had recently camped out, near a rushing river.

The magical antler oak trees of Glengarriff, West Cork.

Looking for a good glen to camp in the oak forests.

Leaving Glengarriff for County Clare, via Kenmare and Kilkenny.

Next our talk turned to the tales of Biddy Early and the legend of her blue bottle. A great healer, she had been born in 1798 in Faha, County Clare and her stories of healing using her herbal remedies and a keen relationship with the elemental beings, are respected in the area.

Early last year, Anja and I visited the old cottage of Biddy Early whose stories have been well documented in local storyteller Ruth Marshall’s book, Clare Folk Tales. The ivy-covered remains of the house in Kilbarron near Feakle was one-storey high with two rooms and had been maintained and decorated with candles and small altars in honour of this famous healer, who was not entirely popular with the local Catholic priests.

“Biddy was not a mythical character, but a real flesh and blood woman who lived in East Clare and died at a good age in around 1874. The stories spoke of her as a healer, a wise woman who knew about herbs. They said she had a blue bottle through which she could tell the future. Biddy, they said, was a red-headed independent woman who had had at least four husbands, the last of these being a man of thirty when she herself was in her seventies. With her cottage door always open, Biddy was loved by the common people for her cures, and yet feared and resented by others, including certain priests, who labelled her a witch.” Clare Folk Tales, Ruth Marshall.

After a short stay in Clare, it was time to head up to Galway - a city rich with artists due to its supportive regulations for busking. I had a chance to check out Rab Fulton's Celtic Tales - an evening of storytelling at the Crane Bar which included stories about mermaids and a magical blue bottle. His event takes place every Thursday night at 8pm and is followed by traditional Irish music. The Moth and Butterfly is another storytelling event worth checking out in Galway, held every third Wednesday of the month and anyone can come and share their tale based on the evening's theme.

“Storytelling is about sharing – not just the sharing of words and plot, but the sharing of emotions and experiences. It involves a direct coming together of the teller and the listener, with no barrier of text. There is a subtle interaction between the teller and the listener which is unique to oral communication.

We are all storytellers! We tell each other stories quite naturally as part of our everyday life. We need look no further for proof of this than the snatches of conversation overheard in the workplace, the playground, or on the bus...

Telling stories to children enables them to learn the art of listening, in an age when many are lacking this skill. Encourage them to tell stories and they will gain confidence, improve their vocabulary and their literary skills.” Society for Storytelling

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