Dáithí Ó hÓgáin on Storytelling

I think that for a long time there has been a need for back-up publications and for an infrastructure to cultivate the art of storytelling. Storytelling is, I suppose, the primary aspect to folklore and the aspect which is nearest to various artistic pursuits and is, indeed, an artistic pursuit in itself. The better our definitions of what art is, the more we are progressing. For too long art has been regarded as a “high falootin” sort of thing which differentiates between people and which puts a few people on a pedestal. The rest of us come along to an artistic performance - a poetry reading, a drama or whatever - and we pretend to enjoy it very much. And indeed it could be very good; but even if it’s not very good we have to pretend to enjoy it. Otherwise the person beside us will say we are not cultured persons - unless we have an insight into what may be “un-insightable” in many cases.

"Storytelling illustrates all of mankind’s cultural pursuits..."

But that is never true of storytelling. Indeed, I think that if we define culture liberally and generously we have to say that culture is the reaction to the environment of each individual person who is alive in the world. And the communal culture is the aggregate of all the reactions, not so much the summation as the aggregate. Communal culture takes on a life of its own. All these things can be illustrated from Storytelling. Indeed, I would say that Storytelling illustrates all of mankind’s cultural pursuits. There is no reason at all for hiding storytelling under a bushel. We should proclaim it to the whole world; shout about it from the rooftops. Because in my view there is no other aspect of cultural endeavour which so totally embraces the human experience and also which is so democratic and which looks at us all as worthy people. Because any one of us tells stories of one type or another, and storytelling sessions are so inclusive. I think inclusive is one of those words. In defining things, or in developing a public understanding of things, it’s amazing how certain keywords become important, and I want the word inclusion to be important in any study of culture. I have had rows with various artistic people or people in the arts-planning world for several years past now, and one of the major difficulties I have had with them is that they are not capable of being inclusive. And number two: they are not capable of defining what culture is. That’s a major cnámh spairne, a bone of contention, which I have with people who talk about culture and can’t even give a working definition of it.

It’s because of these narrow-minded and, let’s face it, snobbishly ignorant views that Storytelling has been ignored for so long. There is hardly anything worse than to give power to an ignorant person who is also snobbish. I think, in fact, that such a person is worse than a tyrant, because when a tyrant is doing something to you, you at least know why he is doing it to you or he knows why he is doing it to you. But the other person, the snob, doesn’t care to even consider why he or she is doing you harm, because they think that they are doing it to advance themselves, whereas nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, nothing is as silly as to create division among people.

"Nobody can be racist if they know about folklore..."

Folklore fulfills the requirement of culture as something which enrichens human life. It also fulfills the various qualities which all true culture must have: that is, what is the most local is also the most universal and what's the most universal is also the most local. Now, of course, the universality of folklore is well known. In fact (are racist or)* nobody can be exclusive and nobody can be racist if they know about folklore, because to know about the folklore of your own people means that you will understand the folklore of other people and you will respect it. The people who are exclusive and who snobbish and all these sad qualities, they don’t know much about themselves, because if they did they wouldn’t be like that. The more we learn about our own people the more we respect other peoples. Therefore in folklore we know that many folktales, for example, are of far-flung occurrence throughout the world. But also in a very local sense… I come from County Limerick and there's a town there, Ballyneety (Baile an Fhaoitigh). Whitestown, it means actually, and there was a beggerman passing through there one day (and you couldn’t get it more local than this, I suppose) and a dog ran out, a savage dog and he bent down to pick up a stone to keep the dog away from him, naturally. But the stone was stuck to the ground and so the dog went and tore the arse out of the poor man. And all he could say was - he made a little verse: “Is olc an baile, Baile an Fhaoitigh, go bhfuil clocha ceangailte ann agus madraí scaoilte!” (“Ballyneety is a bad place because the stones are tied there and the dogs are loose!”). And that's very local, I would say, but in a human sense, of course, it’s very inclusive. To feel a bite in one’s posterior includes all different backgrounds, and it doesn't distinguish between traditions or communities! And the story resonates for a community of people who are living in the same place, who are gathered together or whatever, and equally for a wanderer who must always be on the look out!

And that reminds me of a family at home in Munster, not far from my place, who were very traditional and had some great characters among them. Later on we found out, or somebody said, that if you traced their lineage back along, they were Palatines originally. The Palatines were settlers who became refugees from the wars of Louis XIV and they came and settled in many parts, especially of South Leinster and Munster. And somebody in their own place went to ask a senior member of this family: “Is there any tradition in the family that they came from the Palatinate, the Rhineland or that place in south Germany, originally?”
“No” he says, “That's not right at all, we're all Irish and Gaelic”, he said, “Gaelic back to Brian Boru, all the way back!” he said. “And you’d know that”, he said, “by the names. For example, there's Donncha, the monk; and another cousin of mine is Pádraig; and our grandfather was Seán; and his grandfather again was Conchubhar; and then his father again was Rudolfo....” That was the Palatine of course. Did you ever hear of a Munster farmer called Rudolfo in your life?

"Folklore, then, teaches us internationalism as distinct from multinationalism..."

So folklore, then, teaches us internationalism as distinct from multinationalism. Well, you need only look around at the world to see what multinationalism does to people, to try to impose by power of finance or by power of arms one particular aspect of what one considers is one’s country's heritage - and those who consider it so do not usually know much about their own country’s heritage either. But internationalism, of course, the respect for different nationalities – as it is in our interest to help each other - is basic to an understanding of folklore. That’s why folklore studies always take place on an internationalist plain, that we should always study folklore by the comparative method, comparing different versions of traditions and so on and so forth.

"Ultimately folklore is a humanistic thing..."

One other aspect of folklore is very important - and this is not the least among the many virtues of this handbook - is that it gives contacts around the country for different groups and different organisations who are involved in performance folklore. And indeed in all kinds of approaches to folklore it is important that people are kept in contact with each other. This is important for the education of young people. We often think, because a commercialised sort of culture is dominant, that culture as a human pursuit is safe. But of course it is not safe. I’m not going to condemn outright all commercialisation. What I am saying is that it’s of very little interest to those of us who want to preserve folklore, because ultimately folklore is a humanistic thing. We want to place the human at the centre of planning - as distinct from profits or publicity or PR or anything like that, we want to put the human at the centre. Accordingly, we can apply the lessons of folklore to so many other aspects of life.

We’re here and that’s good enough, we don’t have to justify ourselves. We exist, and because we exist we express ourselves. There is no need to justify ourselves. There's no need for Irish people to win Olympic gold medals or any such things, really. It’s nice if people do it, but you hear people saying “Oh, he won such a wonderful thing and he put Ireland on the map!” I mean, we don't really want Ireland to be on the map if self-deprecation is what it amounts to, because we’re ok as we are. Leave us alone! Respect us and we'll respect ourselves. It’s important to get this message across to young people. I remember a professor in an Irish University saying to me years ago that when he started to do interviews with students that he always asked them: “Tell me something about your place” He said he’d hear something very interesting from each student but, as time went by, over fifty years, he said that he noticed that the students would towards the end of that time say: “Sure my place is of no importance!”

Now that’s a very, very dangerous thing to have happening in society, that young people think that their own place, their own community, the local people they come from, are of no importance. The importance of folklore to give confidence to youngsters should be recognised - a confident youngster never becomes a vandal, a confident youngster never becomes a snob, which is another type of vandal, actually! A confident youngster is always helpful and creative with his or her friends and associates; and that is achieved by giving people confidence in their own culture, in their own accents. I have tried hard to keep a Limerick accent even though I am in Dublin for thirty years. You can judge how well I have succeeded or failed, in listening to me as I talk to you now! But I think it’s important that we keep our own accents, that we keep our own identity. There’s a tremendous mix then, as we have here; or when we go further afield throughout the world to other countries, we find the mix of accents even greater still, and that is very beautiful. But without each having their own identity, you don’t really have any mix, because there is nothing to mix. Therefore it’s important that young people are taught to be proud of the skills and arts and crafts that they learn from their own people, and the stories and local history that they learn from them and so on.

Enough study hasn’t been done on the aesthetic qualities of storytelling. We define folklore by saying, “Folklore is that part of human culture which is oral, which is traditional, which is variable, which is formulaic and which is anonymous”. These five points explain all folklore really. Oral, traditional, formulaic, variable and anonymous! But we don’t often study the aesthetic qualities of folklore, that is, what folklore does to inspire us, to give us a better vision of a better world. And in a sense that is what our art should do. There is a tendency (I think I should mention this) that if a person wants to become a famous Irish writer, you have to write everything horrible and nasty about your own people, and you have to say that the Irish people are narrow-minded, that they are vicious towards each other, that they are hypocritical about religion, that they are all sorts of nasty things. Of course this is the relic of colonialism, this is the colonial mind looking at people. In fact, Irish people, like all other people, are very good to help you when you are in need. They’re not so good to praise you if you succeed, I suppose, but you don’t need people when you are succeeding. It’s when you are failing that you need people. In reality, there are good people everywhere when you need them. The people have a genuine spiritual inheritance and a genuine spiritual environment; and anyway the portrayal of people as being nasty has shot its bolt, I think, by now.

"In a sense, it’s the communal voice speaking through the personal creativity..."

The wonderful conviviality that one gets from folklore is in fact the opposite of all that, the antithesis of that. This conviviality you'll notice, for example, if you collect stories on tape and if you transcribe them - the tremendous affection you get for the person when you listen to the person's voice. I can’t explain that, but there is something of the aesthetic in it. The same thing when you listen to a storyteller telling stories, that storyteller is, surely subconsciously, radiating a process which mankind has known for time immemorial. In a sense, it’s the communal voice speaking through the personal creativity. And, of course that’s why I support performance storytelling, because creativity is a very important aspect of folklore at all stages. It is not correct to divide things into heritage on the one side and creativity on the other hand. Now I know the artistic planners (at least in the 26 counties) appointed to these positions do this all the time. They have a lot of old foibles that they don’t really understand themselves, but they think it’s fashionable to say these things, and they say "Folklore is heritage, this is not creative". But in fact creativity and heritage are two sides of the same coin, and nobody knows that better than a storyteller, because each time a story is told it is actually a new creative performance. It is worth comparing the different versions of stories told by different people to see the way their personality works into the stories, and to see the way their production of the stories is affected by the audience, because the audience takes part as well.

The whole question arises, then, of planning folklore as public performance. I myself personally think that it is absolutely wrong to put a storyteller on to a stage. I think that storytellers should sit among the people, among the audience, and preferably a few people should sit among the audience with an opening for a member of the audience to take part. I suppose if somebody tries to hog the show that they’ll get kicked out ultimately, one way or another. In itself, anyway, it is a good thing to have the storyteller among the listeners. The folklorist Carl Von Sydow was one of the great theorists of folklore, and he spoke of active preservers and passive preservers of tradition. And he understood, of course, active preservers as the minority who actually tell the complicated stories and passive preservers as the majority who know the stories but don’t specialise in telling them. But, of course, we all become active and passive at different times. There was a man who had a stallion above on the border of County Louth and Armagh some years ago standing at about 20 hands. He was a massive horse, a half Shire and a half Clydesdale, and I was saying to the man, “Would you be afraid of him?” And he said, “Well, not really, but I am wary of him because a stallion is a stallion for part of the day.” In a way, we are all poets and artists and storytellers for part of the time, so that we are all active part of the time and passive at other times. And it’s this wonderful intermix and interplay that makes the spoken word so dramatic.

I am delighted that Liz said there that this handbook is open-ended and that it is a continual process. Looking through it I know several of the people who are in it well. I don’t know all of you - I should of course, mea culpa, but I am sure that all of these people here are inclusive open people and that they try to make time to talk to everybody, and that they would encourage other people to engage in storytelling as well; and that accords very much with Liz's objective here in having this as an open-ended handbook.

"Nobody has an interest in folklore in isolation..."

I remember working in 1987 on the draft which is now the UNESCO policy on the preservation oral folklore. At that time there were many proposals that there be networking between people so that they could swap storytellers and that they could visit each other, and that they could know that nobody works in isolation or nobody has an interest in folklore in isolation. Well, of course, in a sense we all have our own local communities but we do need to, and it is exciting and interesting to, meet people from other places as well. I wish that governments would take the UNESCO policy to heart. When the Irish Minister for Education proposed the acceptance of the policy I wrote her speech. That’s fifteen years ago and the government has never implemented the policy at all, which is quite scandalous, I think, but then there are vested interests in the artistic world who don't want to see storytelling blossoming.

You know, there’s this idea that anthropologists are interested in – the Theory of the Limited Good. In our own place at home in County Limerick on May Eve people used to go out on May Eve and they’d get a canister or a bucket and they’d pick up the dew from one field and throw it over the ditch into their own field. The idea being, of course, that if you’re to gain someone else has to lose. This is the economists’ theory of ‘the national cake.’ But, of course, what's always forgotten by the economists, and often by the traditional folk as well, is the idea of human potential. Human potential is the artistic element in life, and human potential means that national cakes make no sense. You don’t have to take from one to give to another, what you should do is to improve the potential of everybody, and that is really what folklore should be about. It would be great if national ‘cultural planners’ – incidentally, I don’t know why people decide that they can decide cultural planning, it sounds to me a little bit self-centred as an opinion - could appreciate that. Anyway, to the extent that we can all put our widow’s mite into the box and we can all make suggestions, I make a suggestion that full financial support be given to endeavours like this and that endeavours like this feel comfortable and confident that they can continue to develop this very important part of Irish life, of reconciliation among all our people, of reconciliation on local levels. That involves the whole 32 counties actually, because there are so many types of divisions amongst people - we only think of a few specific ones but there are so many other types - and these divisions, if taken to mean variety, in fact enrichen life for us all.

"There is nothing more poetic than folklore. Storytelling conducts its thinking through metaphors..."

To have something with which we can engage like the verbal culture, which is the most human and the most humanistic pursuit we can have, to have that respected and to have that given public support! Think of the wonderful effect it will have on our young people and how our young people will understand art, will become poetic, because there is nothing more poetic than folklore. Storytelling conducts its thinking through metaphors, it offers in its own way a fanciful and alternative life which makes us all happy, because reality sometimes can make us sad. If, for example, you have a great misfortune, even a terminal illness, this can make you very sad unless you can think of life in a different sense. Folklore is one of the things that teaches us to do that, that the mind can be free.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh. Táim an-bhaoch díbh as bheith anseo. Táim an-bhaoch díbh as an gcuireadh a fháil anseo agus go maire sibh i bhfad leis an iarracht seo agus leis an leabhairín breá seo. This little book is a gem and I'd say if there are any reporters here you could say, "Verbal Arts Centre Launches a Gem".

Thank you very much!