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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Storytelling Artistry: Irish Songs and the Seanchaí

The seanchaí hold their audience spellbound with their spoken word renditions of Irish folklore.
The seanchaí hold their audience spellbound with their spoken word renditions of Irish folklore.

With absolutely no bias whatsoever (okay, maybe some), I contend that the world’s best storytellers are the Irish. (Apologies to my Scottish cousins). There is nothing quite as engaging, exciting, or captivating as listening to an Irish person telling the story of…whatever, whether it’s a hair-raising account of granddad’s encounter with a banshee or how Colin made that game-changing goal during last Saturday’s football match. Maybe it’s the passion and animation with which the story’s told that draws the listener in or maybe it’s vivid details. Maybe it’s both.

To the ears of a non-native Irish, there’s the added magic of the musical accent and the unique and intriguing syntax of a Hiberno-English sentence structure. Don’t know what I mean by the syntax of a Hiberno-English sentence? Ah, but sure you do. If you’ve ever heard a real Irish person speak, that is. I’m not talking about the “faith and begorrah” of Hollywood movie Irish characters or animated leprechauns hawking cereal. I’m talking about a sentence structure that reveals the influence of the Irish language (Gaeilge), and certain words and phrases, such as “I was after [doing something]” that you’ll hear almost exclusively from an Irish mouth. For example: I was after leaving the pub. It was bucketing somethin’ fierce and me without a coat. I was soaked to the bone, so I was.

Transporting the Listener Through Description

Stand by Ukraine
Stand by Ukraine

The sound of an Irish-told tale—and I am speaking here about a story that’s spoken, not written—is enchanting but the way the story is told is of equal or greater importance. The Irish are masters of description. The amount of detail can be staggering but it transports the listener into the event, its sights, its sounds, its actions. Of course, the facts are sometimes stretched a bit for effect. Anyone who’s ever heard the song, “Irish Rover,” knows the reputation the Irish have for hyperbole is well-earned. The Irish Rover is a ship. The narrator tells of a voyage to bring bricks to the U.S. for “the grand city hall in New York.” During the chorus, he lists the contents of the ship’s hold:

“We had five million hogs / And six million dogs / Seven million barrels of porter / We had eight million bails / of old nanny-goats’ tails / In the hold of the Irish Rover.”

And that’s in addition to the millions of stones, bones, Sligo rags, and “sides of old blind horses’ hides.” So, the narrator exaggerates a mite. It just makes the story more fun.

In “Johnny McEldoo,” a group of lads go on an outing that some of us might label a pub crawl. After the third pub, they decide they probably should go “into Swan’s [their] stomachs for to pack.” One of the members of the group, namely Johnny McEldoo himself, launches into an eating spree that both astonishes and worries his friends.

A primary concern is the cost of the feast. And there is reason to be concerned for when McEldoo sees the check, he throws himself into a fight with “the shopkeeper” with the same passion with which he’d gorged himself. The description of both the food consumption and the resultant row are vibrantly recounted. This is only a portion of what Johnny ate and his friends’ rising anxiety:

Johnny McEldo goes into a feeding frenzy.
Johnny McEldo goes into a feeding frenzy.

He ordered eggs and ham, bread and jam…everything we brought, cold or hot, mattered not / It went down him like a shot, but he still stood the test / He swallowed tripe and lard by the yard, we got scared / We thought it would go hard when the waiter brought the bill / We told him to give o’er but he swore he could lo’er / Twice as much again and more before he had his fill / ‘He nearly sucked a tough full of broth,’ says McGrath / ‘He’ll devour the tablecloth if you don’t haul him in.’

When the waiter finally brings the bill, McEldoo becomes enraged and furiously “[calls] the shopman a liar.” The shopman gives as good as he gets and soon there is an all-out brawl, gloriously detailed by the narrator:

McEldoo he kicked about like an old football / He tattered all his clothes, broke his nose, I suppose / He’d have killed him in a few blows in no time at all / McEldoo began to howl and to growl, b my soul / He threw an empty bowl at the shopkeeper’s head / It struck poor Mickey Finn, peeled the skin off his chin / and a ruction did begin and we all fought and bled.

I’m normally an anti-violence sort of person, even when it comes to entertainment. But you’ve got to admit the song makes the whole affair sound exciting.

A similar row breaks out during “Lannigan’s Ball” when “young Terence McCarthy / He put his right leg through Miss Finerty’s hoops.” She cries out in distress to her brothers who call for satisfaction while the traumatized young woman faints. The narrator describes the “ructions” that follow. The chaos crescendos with an attack on the poor piper:

Old Casey the piper was near being strangled / they squeezed up his pipes, bellow, chanter and all / The girls in their ribbons they all got entangled / And that put an end to Lannigan’s Ball.

"The girls in their ribbons they all got entangled / And that put an end to Lannigan’s Ball."
"The girls in their ribbons they all got entangled / And that put an end to Lannigan’s Ball."

Traditional Irish songs are the most widely experienced example of exquisite Irish storytelling. But they’re not the only form of the art that still exists. In fact, it most authentically continues today through the art and skill of the seanchaí.

The Seanchaí

Little known outside of Ireland, the seanchaí are guardians of Irish folklore, history, and culture, and they are masters of the art of oral storytelling. They are the descendants of the bards. In ancient Ireland and until the mid-seventeenth century, bards held an esteemed position in Celtic society, second in position only to kings. But, in a way, they were more powerful than monarchs as they could make or break anyone with the power of their words. Irish society in particular highly valued the spoken word. They believed it had powerful magic. It is said that a bard could calm the sea by singing an incantation and that with his spoken word alone he could cut a man’s life short. At minimum, he could ruin the person’s reputation.

Irish bards went through an intensive twelve-year education. They learned origin stories, memorized over three hundred poems, studied prophetic invocation, law, and folklore, and began skilled at praise and satire. Once they completed that training, they worked for chieftains and kings, and became experts in the clan’s or royal family’s genealogy and history. But they were more than academics to be consulted on a point of fact. They entertained, spinning tales, singing songs, praising the king (or chieftain) and satirizing his enemies. But they were more than simple storytellers. Bards could prophesize, warn, and admonish as quickly as they could praise. They were respected and feared.

English invasions and conquest of Ireland pushed the bards from the courts and into the byways. But these guardians of Irish history and culture didn’t vanish into the mist. They became the seanchaí who went from town to town, continuing to tell the stories and pass on the histories and lore among the regular people. When the Celtic Revival came and the Irish decided to reclaim their Celtic cultural heritage, folklore collectors like W. B. Yeats turned to the seanchaí to rediscover the ancient lore.

It is said that the magic of the spoken (or sung) word could calm an angry sea.
It is said that the magic of the spoken (or sung) word could calm an angry sea.

The seanchaí continue in Ireland to this day, especially in the Gaeltacht, sharing the stories and traditions in schools, at fairs, community centers, and festivals. They play a vital role in ensuring the culture and the lore are preserved and passed on to the next generation—as they have been for more than a thousand years.

But why are they needed? All the information could just be written down in books, couldn’t it?

No. The written word is not the same as the spoken word. The spoken word has a sound and a life of its own. When it lies down on a page., its power diminishes.

And the seanchaí doesn’t just say the words. A sound recording would still be insufficient to capture the magic of this oral storytelling. Its power is in the live performance with gestures and expressions accompanying the words. Even more, its magic is in the shared experience of the spoken word being heard and received by an audience, a small, intimate group of listeners who are caught up and transported by the seanchaí’s storytelling.

May they never be allowed to die out. To lose the seanchaí would be to lose a part of the collective Irish soul.

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Slán go fóill

All artwork for this post (except for the Ukrainian flag and the GIF) by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.

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