Story Archaeology

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Sat-Navs and Seanchaís – Finding your way through stories and landscapes

This article was published in the journal Keltria in issue 42, “Storytelling”. You can order this issue of Keltria here for digital download or print edition. Notes appear at the end of the article.

Ireland has an international reputation as a nation of writers and storytellers, and it forms a large part of our national identity.  Is this an empty statement of patriotic pride, an outmoded stereotype or a deeply engrained thread of Irish culture and consciousness?  We, the Story Archaeologists, would argue for the last of these options.

From contemporary literature to ancient tradition, the Irish stories are embedded in the Irish landscape.  They are, in a very real way, written into the land itself, and generations of storytellers have read and retold those stories with minute local detail.  When we refer back to descriptions of the types of learning expected of the professional poets, the fili, [i] we encounter the term Dindshenchas.  The literal meaning of this term is “history” (senchas) of “prominent places” (dind), and it is hard to find a pre-existing English term to convey the concept.  There is a considerable body of explicitly dindshenchas texts, such as “The Metrical Dindshenchas” edited and translated by E. Gwynn, [ii] and the Bodleian Dindshenchas and the Prose Tales of the Rennes Dindshenchas. [iii]

However, many tales and poems, from both literary (written) and oral sources, have strong dindshenchas elements to them.  To identify a dindshenchas episode, one need only see whether it answers the questions which St. Patrick repeatedly asks of Oisín and Cailte in the Acallamh na Senórach, “The Colloquy of the Ancients”: [iv] what is this place called, and how did it get that name?

It seems clear that these stories have their origin in a pre-literate oral tradition, although that is, by necessity, unprovable.  We can only build a case for their oral origins through analogy with other cultures.  They have particular resonance with the indigenous Australian stories of the Dream Time, which tell of the shaping of the land and the landscape’s meaning to those who inhabit it.  Some of these stories are demonstrabley ancient, with one story from the Queensland area describing a lake which, it has recently been discovered, dried up about 35,000 years ago. [v]  Unfortunately, we have not yet found such an unequivocally  ancient story from Ireland, but we can postulate and listen to the stories themselves.

What we do have is a written tradition dating back to the 7th century, with later manuscripts containing sagas, poems and legal texts whose language places their literary origin as early as the 8th century. [vi]  Many sagas placed in the Mythological Cycle, such as Cath Maige Tuired, “The Battle of Moytura”, [vii] and the Ulster Cycle, such as Táin Bó Cuailgne, “The Cattle Raid of Cooley”, [viii] have many passages in Old Irish (7th – 9th centuries CE).  This includes one of the rémscéla, “pre-stories”, to the Táin, Echtrae Nerai, “The Adventures of Nera”, [ix] which we discuss below.

The Middle Irish period (10th – 12th centuries CE) saw the creation of many of the overt dindshenchas texts, including the “Metrical Dindshenchas”, from which we have taken the poems on Ailech. [x]  Other bodies of material, including the Fianaíocht (stories of Find Mac Umall / Finn McCoole and the Fiana), do not enter the written tradition until the late Middle or Early Modern Irish periods (12th – 16th centuries CE).  This includes the Acallamh na Senórach mentioned above.  Indeed, this text may represent the introduction of the Fianaíocht stories from the oral into the written tradition, and is deeply concerned with the reading of stories from the landscape.  It may well be that the comparative lateness of these stories entering the literature is due to social hierarchy: stories told by peasant classes may not have been considered appropriate literary material until cultural change rendered them more valuable and worth recording in written form.

People have always asked questions of their environment: Where did we come from? How did we get here? How did this place come to be as it is? Why do we call this place by its name?  The storyteller retains and relates the answers to these questions, and this is how the distinct discipline of dindshenchas developed.  The means of telling these stories changes according to culture and context.  We shall look at three tellings of a similar story in three different forms, recorded in different periods of history.  The first, Echtrae Nerai, [xi] is a literary composition from the 8th – 10th century CE, and is woven into the longer saga, Táin Bó Cuailgne. [xii]  This gives it the context of a learned class, writing for other learned people and an aristocracy.  The second story comes from the “Metrical Dindshenchas”, [xiii] and is told in verse form.  Three different poems tell the dindshenchas of Ailech (in Co. Donegal), but largely agree on the details of the story itself.  In each poem, two stories are given, the first of which contains motifs relevant to our discussion.  The third story, “Tadhg Ó Céin and the Fairies”, [xiv] was recorded by Douglas Hyde in the 19th century CE, from a native Irish speaker in Fenagh, Co. Leitrim.  This is effectively a modern orally-transmitted folk-tale.  We will now give a synopsis of these three stories, and then discuss their interrelationships and significance.

Echtrae Nerai, “The Adventures of Nera”

On Samhain eve at Crúachán, Aililll offers a gold-handled sword to any man who puts  a withy round the ankle of a hanged man. Nera accepts the challenge. After failing three times, the corpse tells him how to succeed, but then requests a drink of water as he was thirsty when he was hanged.

Nera carries the corpse on his back. The first house they pass is ringed by fire. They cannot gain admittance because the house-fire has been correctly smoored.  The second house is protected by a lake indicating that the slop-pail has been correctly emptied.

However, the third house is not protected through its failure to carry out the necessary house-keeping.  Nera carries the corpse inside. There are three jars of water in the house. The corpse drinks from two of the vessels, and spits the water from the third vessel in the faces of the sleeping household . They immediately die.

As Nera carries the captive back to his torment, he is horrified to see Crúachán on fire.

Silently, Nera follows the síd attackers into the mound through the “Otherworld” entrance of Owenygat, the cave of Crúachán, overhearing and copying their given password.  In the mound, he is caught, but treated well. He is sent to serve a síd woman, carrying her firewood.   She soon becomes his wife.

His síd wife explains that the burning of Crúachán was an illusion, but that it will come true the following Samhain unless he warns his people. She gives him sprigs of primrose, wild garlic and fern to prove his words. She also tells him she is carrying his child, so he must be prepared to take them from the mound when the time comes. Finally, she prophesies that Medb and Ailill will take the crown of Brion, a treasure Nera has already seen in the mound.

Medb and Ailill are surprised to see Nera as no time has passed for them, but the fresh flowers persuade them. One year later, the warriors of Crúachán attack the mound. Nera rescues his family, and the warriors of Crúachán win the síd treasure, including the crown, as prophesied.

However, Nera returns to síd with his family and is seen, in the mortal world, no more.

Ailech, from the “Metrical Dindshenchas”

Áed, a noble and beautiful youth and a son of the Dagda, sleeps with Tethra, the wife of a young warrior, Corrgenn, without, as one poem tells us, “her husband’s permission”.

Corrgenn kills Áed for besmirching his honour, but the people call for his execution as punishment. The Dagda intervenes and makes a judgement that this would not be just. Instead, Corrgenn must carry the corpse of Áed on his back until he can find the stone under which Áed will be buried. “For”, as the Dagda says, “it is better for us to take a spell of his service than to kill him”.

The Dagda has selected a huge stone near Loch Foyle, in Donegal / Derry.  Corrgenn’s burden is great. There is an implication that the corpse comes to weigh the same as the stone. It is a verbal pun on the terrible burden that gives rise to the name of the place. “Ach!, Ach! The stone (ail)! By it, my heart is bursting”.

Corrgenn dies after burying Áed, and the great fort, Ailech, is built around their graves.

Tadhg Ó Céin and the Fairies

This brief synopsis does not convey the charm and humour of this orally recounted story.  For a fuller telling, listen to Corpse Carrying for Beginners.

Tadhg Ó Céin is a young Leitrim boy who enjoys a party or two and is  rarely found at home. His father indulges him until he discovers that he has got a local girl pregnant, so he insists that Tadhg marries the young woman. Tadhg has always planned to marry ‘his Mary’, but not on his father’s orders. So he walks out in a huff.

As he walks the dark and muddy ‘boreens’, he meets with a group of little grey-haired men. They put him under their power, trip him up and fix a corpse to his back. His task is to locate a place of burial for his bony passenger. He is given a list of churchyards and burying grounds to visit, and is told that one of these will accept the corpse.

The little men accompany him to an old church, Teampoll Demus, but when he lifts the flagstones, other corpses see him off. The corpse, himself, who says he may speak, “now and again”, directs him towards Carrick-Fad-Vic-Orus, but a ring of ghosts will not allow him in. At Teampoll Ronan he is bodily flung back, and at Imlogue-Fada, a brilliant coloured ring of fire prevents his approach. At Kil Breedya, as the sun is rising, he finds a forgotten place with an open and empty grave. Here the corpse falls into the grave, and Tadhg buries him.

Tadhg discovers he has walked more than twenty miles during the night. He is a changed man and marries his Mary.

The main reason for which we have chosen these three stories is the remarkable motif of carrying a corpse.  The stories of Nera and Tadhg also share the denial of access to a series of sites, and even the image of the burning fort (Crúachán and Imlogue-Fada).  All three have dindshenchas motifs as well, and the “prominent places” are within the North-West region of Ireland; Leitrim, Roscommon and Donegal.  The plot of each story represents a journey around the area, and can be seen as a “travelogue”, bringing the audience’s imagination from one familiar site to another.  Nera and Tadhg are embroiled in a conflict between the people of the síd and the mortal world, with the talking corpses, neither living nor dead, acting as a guide between the worlds.

If we consider these three stories as versions of one another, the life of the story extends for over 1,000 years; from Echtrae Nerai in the 8th century CE to “Tadhg Ó Céin and the Fairies”  in the 19th.  This leads us to ask why the story has survived so long? What is the function of these stories?  And in asking these questions, we find ourselves in the popular Irish technique, both literary and oral, of posing a set of questions whose answers will tell a story – you could call it a Socratic structure!

The job of a storyteller in a community is to root that community in their own land.  This provides a sense of pride, a unity and continuity for a people with a common past and present.  The stories both create and transmit a shared meaning which binds a community together.  The storytellers and poets also act as keepers and maintainers of law and lore.  It is they who can give praise and satire which can support or destroy one’s place in society.  These are the deepest and greatest purpose of story.  At its roots, the prime task of the storyteller is to read the landscape itself.  This is why dindshenchas stories survive and thrive, and why it is found in both oral and literary forms.

What do we mean when we say that the stories are written in the land itself, and that the storyteller reads them from the landscape?  To understand this concept, we must consider the text Acallamh na Senórach. [xv]

The Acallamh is a self-conscious recording by St. Patrick, representing the newer Culture of the Book, of the dindshenchas lore of Cailte and Oisín of the Fíana, representing the indigenous oral culture.  The linguistic dating of this text places it in the 12th century CE, right at the end of the Middle Irish period.  This was a time of tremendous cultural and linguistic change in Ireland.  Religious orders were coming under the influence of their European counterparts, who had less investment in the preservation of native Irish tradition.  Added to this was the fossilisation of placenames in a less familiar form of language, thereby losing their force of meaning.  Only through the parallel process of Cailte / Oisín expanding placenames into story and St. Patrick recording these stories in a written form could the tradition be preserved.  Nonetheless, it also represents a break in that tradition; only the land itself can function as a “book of live tradition”. [xvi]  By shifting from an oral to a written form, the process of transmitting the stories becomes more mechanical and less immediate.

The Acallamh also introduces stories of the Fíana into the written culture, legitimising it through the authority of St. Patrick.  Many of the Fíanaíocht stories carry through the sense of loss and nostalgia expressed in the Acallamh, along with the need to include Christian authority in otherwise non-Christian stories.

When Christianity first came to Ireland, its Culture of the Book was embraced by the learned classes.  The monastic structure merged well with pre-existing schools of learning, and the fili welcomed the breadth of ideas and international scope which came with it.  However, Irish society was highly stratified at the time, and so the written word was the sole preserve of the nemed, “privileged”, classes.  Those occupying the lower strata held on to their oral culture, with the local and domestic themes visible in the opening episodes of Echtrae Nerai and in Tadhg Ó Céin.

In discussing the relationship between written and oral traditions, the usual assumption is that oral information is more subject to change than its written counterpart.  If we compare Echtrae Nerai and Tadhg Ó Céin, this does not seem to be the case.  Those domestic elements of good housekeeping, which appear in other modern folk-tales, [xvii] and the themes of interaction between the Otherworld and the mortal world are remarkably consistent.  While we tend to imagine that the writing of a text seals its form for all time, we often forget to take account of the circumstances of that writing.  Literary compositions are motivated by specific contexts of time and space, and the choice of narratives, genealogies, histories and poetry reflects the personal, social and political interests of their compilers.  An oral tale, on the other hand, tends to be something that an audience wants to hear again and again without change.  It is a specific narrative that contains a truth for its audience that must not change, thereby giving certainty and continuity.

So can storytelling still serve its original purposes?  The dindshenchas stories still act as a kind of sat-nav, in that they map a journey, take you on some unexpected routes, and don’t always end up where you expected them to!  In so doing, they bring you into deeply personal contact with the landscape, which is the repository and treasure-trove of our shared history.  The stories can still give audiences continuity, connection, awareness of place and  pride in community.  They tell us who we are and why we do what we do.  Stories are about locating you in terms of your ancestry and in terms of your geography.  It is the  interaction of these which creates your personal story.

Literary forms, ancient and modern, allow the imagination to pick up and play with themes.  The themes themselves tend to recur; love, conflict, the search for meaning.  But we still want to hear about who we are and where we come from.  We don’t want our oral stories to be playful because they contain a foundation which is necessary for establishing meaning.  It is our shared reality that needs to be reaffirmed in telling an “old” story.   Particularly in the Irish tradition, words and that which is spoken makes what is true.  The most condensed and primary form of storytelling is the act of naming.  A dindshenchas is simply the narrative expansion of that fundamental act.  Through the act of naming and the remembering and transmission of those named, the storyteller gives her subject true immortality.


[i] e.g. “Mittleirische Verslehren II”, §91; ed. Rudolf Thurneysen, in Irische Texte : mit ersetzungen und Wterbuch, eds. W. Stokes and E. Windisch, (Leipzig, 1900)

[ii] The Metrical Dindshenchas, Vols I – V; ed. and transl. Edward Gwynn, Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, (1991; first published 1906; reprinted 1941)

[iii] Whitley Stokes (ed. & tr.), “The prose tales in the Rennes dindshenchas”, Revue Celtique 15 (1894) pp 272–336, 418–84; 16 (1895) pp 31–83, 135–67, 269–312:

[iv] Whitley Stokes, “Acallamh na Senórach” in Irische Texte, Ed. Whitley Stokes and Ernst Windisch; Series 4 Vol 1 (Leipzig, 1900): pp xiv+1-438

[v] This story was related to Chris Thompson on one of her many trips to Brisbane, Queensland, in conversation with an indigenous storyteller.

[vi] The earliest Irish written in the Latin alphabet appears as glosses and explanatory notes in Christian MSS such as the Milan glosses on a Latin commentary on the psalms, and the Sancti Gallo glosses on Priscian’s grammar of Latin. These and other datable MSS provide the paradigm for the Old Irish language, although complete texts in Irish do not appear until after this period.  Hence the need to use linguistic dating for texts which appear in later MSS.

[vii] Cath Maige Tuired, ed. and transl. Elizabeth A. Gray; Irish Texts Society Vol.    52 (1982)

[viii] “Táin Bó Cúailnge Recension I”. Cecile O’Rahilly (ed), Text pp 1-125, Translation pp 125-239; Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (Dublin, 1976)

[ix] K. Meyer (ed. and transl.), “The adventures of Nera”, Revue Celtiqne 10 (1889) pp 212-28, 11 (1890) 210; S. Ó Duilearga, “Nera and the dead man”, in E. Ua Riain (ed.), Féil-sgríbhinn Eóin Mhic Néill (Dublin 1940) pp 522-34.

[x] The Metrical Dindshenchas (op. cit.) Vol IV, pp 92-119; poems # 22 – 24

[xi] op. cit. note ix

[xii] op. cit. note viii

[xiii] op. cit. note x

[xiv] Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, ed. W. B. Yeats, (London, 1888)

[xv] op. cit. note iv. I am particularly greateful to Kimberly Ball, and her paper entitled “Oral Tradition, Writing, and the Otherworld in the Acallam na Senórach”, delivered at the University of California’s Celtic Studies Conference in 2004 for my understanding of the importance of this text.

[xvi] The phrase is Kimberly Ball’s, op. cit. note xv

[xvii] Many of these are discussed in relation to Echtrae Nerai in “Echtrae Nerai and its Analogues” by Seán Ó Coileáin; Celtica, Vol 21 (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1990)

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