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: 1443

Tags: Literature, Stories

Comment by Richard R. Mc Gibbon Jr. on January 19, 2015 at 7:13am

Mary, nice promo.  Next time we go to the "big city" I will have to go to the book store and find your book. Another analogy that I thought of for story teller to writer; it is much like the stage or pub performer playing the music live, as opposed to making a recording of one's music in a studio for later distribution. Have a grand day colleen with your back to the wind and your eye's on the horizon.  Slainte ! 


Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 19, 2015 at 7:48am

Hi Richard ; You will not find my book in any stores ; for reasons only know to Publishers and their elk; I have been told by many ;many stores to get myself an Agent !! I  do not know any Agents . 

That's why it is on Amazon ; barnesandnoble ; inghams ; berthams etc.  

Comment by Caroline Doherty de Novoa on January 19, 2015 at 8:54am

Richard and Neil, I agree with your analysis. I understand Tóibín's point of view. But I do think he is throwing the baby out with the bathwater and, in doing so, belittling a fine Irish tradition of which he should be proud. 

Comment by Caroline Doherty de Novoa on January 19, 2015 at 8:57am

Mary, congratulations on the book. I wish you every success with it and the next one too. Caroline 


Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 19, 2015 at 2:27pm

Thank you Caroline 

Comment by Ron Redmond on January 19, 2015 at 3:09pm
Great article and fantastic comments. Thanks for sharing, being a social worker as storyteller (use to be a teacher and now do training as much as I can) I agree that storyteller and writer do not have to be exclusive terms. Though considering Irish history I would be unsurprised that someone might be wanting to describe Irish writers in a belittling (diminutive) manner.
--Ron--
Comment by John W. Hurley on January 19, 2015 at 9:16pm

I think people forget that Irish civilization and culture was created in an entirely different language, Irish. Once the daily and professional use of this language was broken, it was attempted to continue the intellectual traditions associated with it in English. Outsiders have no knowledge of this and so attribute certain Irish characteristics to genetics. Though I don't think it is written in our physical DNA I do think certain things are written in the DNA of our inherited culture. If in fact we have been exposed to that culture somehow it has a consequence. Is it in the DNA of the French to be chef's? I doubt it but it is obviously a big part of their culture and so....they do have a lot of chefs. Ultimately, in my opinion anyway, all forms of communication are a form of storytelling so it's just that the Irish have a long, specific tradition of taking special care in what they communicate and how they do it, in other words, yes they work at it. It's just that to others the Irish can make it look easy so they are dismissed as just "natural" storytellers. It's definitely a racist viewpoint as Tóibín pointed out, which is why I personally agree with what he says on one level but as I've said before I just don't think most people of Irish ancestry understand the enormity of what happened with the loss of the language. It affects all of us everyday of our lives and this is an example of that.

Comment by The Wild Geese on January 20, 2015 at 4:57am

Well, said, John!  I enjoyed this article and the conversation that has followed very much.  Here's to the novelists, AND the storytellers AND those who are both! -Kelly


Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on January 20, 2015 at 5:50am

John B Hurley has made a great point ; What most people do not know or remember is that the Irish language ; religion and culture was probated for over 700 years [read my book- That's Just It Was ]. Not least in this sceniro  is the fact that Catholics were not educated . So the only way stories could be passed on was by word of mouth..

 I am really glad to know that 'storytelling' is considered a art by so many of you who have participated in this discussion .

As I have said throughout this discussion ; one critique of my book was that 'I was a storyteller- not a polished writer' - so all of these discussions have been been very positive for me . 

This is my video  --

Youtube: http://youtu.be/oT0oOa0jx28

Comment by Caroline Doherty de Novoa on January 21, 2015 at 7:50am

John, I think you make a great point about the breakup of the language and the reconstruction of the culture in English. In the same CUNY TV series, various writers talk about Hiberno-English. From memory, Roddy Doyle says he writes mainly in Hiberno-English whereas other writers (I can't recall who, possibly Tóibín) almost deny that there is such a thing.

I plan to write another blog on that soon as I'm fascinated by it. Especially because my Colombian husband, who studied the English language as a second language and therefore knows the Grammar rules, is always correcting my English. Recently, I've been studying Hiberno-English as part of research for a novel, to look for words and phrases that my Irish characters would say in English that distinguishes them from the American characters. Through that process, I realised that a lot of what my husband corrects me on is me using Hiberno-English sentence structures and not necessarily speaking the "Queens." 

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