When someone says to me that the Irish are natural storytellers, I’m usually really pleased. I’m an Irish writer, and isn’t it the ultimate aim of all writers to tell a cracking story? The writing life is full of rejection and self-doubt. You draw hope and confidence from whatever source you can. So I’m usually delighted to think that, by some accident of birth, I might have a tiny advantage when it comes to storytelling. 

But then, watching the CUNY TV series Irish Writers in America, I heard something that called into question this whole theory that the Irish have an innate ability to tell a good tale.

It was in episode  five, which features Jennifer Egan and Colm Tóibín. 

When asked what being an Irish writer meant to her, Egan replied that she believed Ireland was a country of storytelling and growing up in an Irish American community had influenced her in her writing life. 

Nothing particularly surprising in that. 

Tóibín, however, had an altogether different opinion. He said: 

I hate being called a storyteller – it’s the sort of thing that English people in particular use about Irish people – oh you are all such marvellous storytellers, all you Irish people, as if you come from an oral culture, a sort of primitive culture and that you are not really part of the great tradition that is the novel.” 

I’d never thought of it that way. 

Thinking more about it though, I can see his point. Dismissing an Irish writer as simply yet another naturally gifted storyteller, of which there are many, is to undermine the effort it takes to write a novel.  

It takes months, if not years, to write a book. You need to show up day after day, learn the craft and be disciplined. And I am sure to write something as brilliant as Tóibín’s The South or Brooklyn, you need to work very hard indeed. So I can imagine how annoying it must be to have all that effort dismissed, and for people to assume it must have been easier for you, or that your work has less value, just because your country has a reputation for producing storytellers. 

Go to any Irish pub and you will usually find someone with the gift of the gab telling entertaining anecdotes. The oral tradition is alive and well. But Tóibín is right; we should also celebrate Ireland’s contribution to literature, and recognize that it takes more to write a novel than simply the ability to tell a good yarn. And the works of the Irish writer Amanda McKittrick Ros proves the point. 

According to the Oxford Companion to English Literature, McKittrick Ros is “the greatest ban writer who ever lived.” In the 1890’s, she self-published her own series of novels and instantly won a devoted following, but the critics savaged her. McKittrick Ros, however, never lost faith, calling her critics: “bastard donkey-headed mites and clay-crabs of corruption,” amongst other things. She certainly had a way with words. 

With the publication in 2013 of my first novel, "Dancing with Statues," I became an Irish novelist. But I don’t yet feel worthy of that title. Perhaps, if I put in enough hours at my writing desk and write with grit and determination, one day I will feel worthy. In the meantime, I’ll happily welcome anyone who says the Irish are natural storytellers. As a new writer you have to face criticism and rejection from all sides, especially from within, so I’ll take any compliments I can get. 

Image: www.discoverireland.ie

Views: 2267

Tags: Literature, Stories

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 17, 2015 at 6:29am

One of the 'Professional' body of writers who reviewed my book ' That's Just How It Was -- said taht I wasa a story teller - not a polished writer .

Do not know whether  to take that as a compliment or not ?? view my video !

Youtube: http://youtu.be/oT0oOa0jx28

Comment by Richard R. Mc Gibbon Jr. on January 17, 2015 at 4:19pm

A good writer is a word smith with a story to tell. A good story teller is a memory bank with a story to tell. I fall on the story tellers side as I teach stories about our history in school and it is a major advantage to have a good memory to help keep the story straight. Sometimes I will even bring my guitar to class to sing our history to my students, t'is another good way for my students to remember the stories.  Slainte!

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 17, 2015 at 4:31pm

 So  with your analysis above -I will take it as a compliment  Sláinte 

Comment by Richard R. Mc Gibbon Jr. on January 17, 2015 at 5:22pm

Aye, it was meant as such,... and now I am going to tell a story to me son Sean with the assistance of me guitar. Slainte !

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 18, 2015 at 6:09am

How lovely that you can play the guitar as well . Music and story telling the stuff of legends ; what can be more Irish than that .Sláinte 

Comment by Neil F. Cosgrove on January 18, 2015 at 8:39am

I hate to disappoint Mr. Toibin, but we do come from an oral culture.  Oral cultures are not necessarily primitive (Homer was the product of an Oral culture, was it primitive?), in fact they usally reflect quit complex social structures.  Oral cultures are built on a level of intimacy that is sadly lacking in our Modern world, it means that generations actually have to take the time to sit down and talk to one another rather than the passing "tweet".  We must all realize that for many years that the ONLY way for Irish history and music to be preserved in the face of a concerted effort at cultural imperialism by te English was the Oral/Aural tradition.

I fully understand Mr Toibin's point; writing is hard work and for someone to trivialize by implying you have some sort of ethnic/DNA advantage is disheartening and not a little bit bigoted (imagine the reaction of someone was to say to an African American "you people are such natural dancers").  However, let us not throw the baby out with the bath water.  We do come from an Oral tradition and it is what makes us who we are and something to be proud of.

Comment by Richard R. Mc Gibbon Jr. on January 18, 2015 at 9:26am

Civilizations throughout history have made the mistake of seeing people with less technology as inferior to them. So it would go without much argument that a civilization with a written cultural transfer, would see itself as superior to an oral cultural transfer society. History has shown us that to make that assumption is a major mistake. In the history classes I teach I use the lecture to share facts and music to give historical facts some emotional content. And Mary, my son Sean (11 years old), said that if we didn't have our hour of music and story telling that he would be very sad,.... that is what this Irish Da always wanted to hear.  Slainte ! 

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 18, 2015 at 12:59pm

 I know from listening to my grandmother - that she told her grandchildren stories that had been handed down orally to her . However - much as I knew these stories by heart; it was awe inspiring for me when  I was researching the history books  to discover that she had in fact been passing down  history - in a manner that she too had learned 

Music and story telling is by nature a gift that the Irish have ; and to trivialize that [Neil F.Cosgrove] is almost an insult  and shows a deep lack of understanding for 'Writers'  who happen to be Irish .

I spent a very long time researching the historical .documents in Dublin ; going from one department to another to help me understand  and contextualize the stories that  I  had so often heard her speak about.   It took be longer  to put in on paper before I got it to  a stage that it could be published  ,

Being a Social Worker by background - I had some knowledge of the process of writing Court Reports etc- this however did not prepare me for the writing of a book .

I was only to0 happy then - when  Richard R. Mc Gibbon Jr. provided the analysis above of story telling ; As I have said previously ; I did not know whether the Professional Critique of my book ; whereby  ; the Reviewer said that  I was 'more of a story teller rather than a polished writer'. was a compliment or not. Thankfully for me I other experts to tell me that ' being  story teller is alright  . Sláinte 

Comment by Richard R. Mc Gibbon Jr. on January 18, 2015 at 5:32pm

Mary, just one more item to ponder. I would say that Storytelling is a full Art form; the story, diction, pitch, tempo, vocal emotion built by the story teller as a result of his or her audience and the immediacy of their reaction to the ongoing story.  Writing a story has other components which are important to this medium but never the intimacy of the story teller. The story teller is a living link that connects the past with the future; the writer creates a written link much like the story teller,.... but without the intimacy.  Just me opinion colleen ;-)  Slainte !

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 19, 2015 at 6:05am

Thank you so much for that  Richard - when I read both yours and Neil's analysis of a story teller - it really gladdened my heart . It was my first book ; [on my 2nd now] so it was important for me to have some positivity  However ; one of my sons advised that  'one should never read all the critiques of ones' work' ; because they will be sorely disappointing if they expect rave reviews from every critic . Good advise ;  

Below is the video that I had done to promote my book;;

Youtube: http://youtu.be/oT0oOa0jx28




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