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A story to tell: the culture of storytelling and folklore in Ireland.


Come with me, far across the blue depths of the sea to a magical land. Come with me and we will meet wondrous creatures great and small, from the past and present that inhabit the Emerald Isle.

Even before I could walk, I was told of leprechauns. I knew they were small, because we had a wee shillelagh (wooden walking stick) that belonged to a leprechaun in our living room. Ireland was an enchanted land filled with leprechauns, fairies, and, of course, princesses like the one I was named after--Deirdre! Stories were a part of my life and the Irish culture of my family. As I grew older, I would tell friends about the ghost of my grandfather. My father had seen his ghost when he was only 2 years old and could describe the suit he had worn when he has buried. My mother told the story that wailing in the night, coupled with a simultaneous knock on the door, meant someone had died. I worried about hearing the banshee call, for fear it meant that someone would die.

Come with me ... for there's a story to tell!

Traditionally, Irish folk are considered to have a bit of the blarney, or the gift for talk. In fact, the Seanachie (pronounced shawn-a-key), or storyteller, has been an honored profession throughout Ireland's history. The folk literature of Ireland includes stories of the Irish people that have been passed down through generations through such storytelling (Young, 2004). Ireland's history is one of tragic events and invasions; many of these events factor into its tradition of literature and storytelling. Jacobs (1968) notes that "the Celtic folk-tales have been collected while the practice of storytelling is still in full vigour" (p. ix), contributing to the richness of the tales.

"The Irish oral tradition is one of the richest in the world--stories have been told around our firesides for thousands of years and the tradition has never died" (Doyle & Sharkey, 2000, Introduction). Wit and humor are strong characteristics of Irish literature, as are religion and superstition (O'Suilleabhain, 1970). Magical creatures are an integral part of Irish folk literature, and many of the heroes have godlike characteristics (Hyde, 1980).


Medieval folk literature is very rich in Ireland. It was transmitted orally for generations until about the 7th century, when monks came to Ireland and began to record the oral traditions. This literature can be grouped into four categories, or "cycles."

The Mythological Cycle contains stories about the Tuatha De Danann, a magical, mythological race. The stories address a race of men, their relationship to the old pagan gods, and the struggle between good and evil in the earliest history of Ireland.

The Heroic Cycle of literature involves the history of the Milesians, considered relatives of the present-day Irish race. This cycle is also called the Red Branch Cycle and includes stories related to Ulster, or the northern province of Ireland. Stories from this cycle do have some historical basis, but still include some "work of imagination or poetic fiction" (Hyde, 1980, p. 293). Welch (1996) indicates that the events described in these stories can be placed between 100 BC and 400 AD.

The Fenian Cycle stories relate to Finn MacCumhail and the Fenian army. These popular stories were written for the "common people" (Fallis, 1978, p. 39). Finn is considered a folk hero in Ireland's history, and many stories about him were full of comedy and exaggeration. The time line for this cycle is around the 3rd century.

The Cycle of Kings, or historical cycle, involves a mixture of legend and history and preserves tales about Irish kings collected from court historians. The stories in this cycle date back to the 9th through 12th centuries. "A number of the tales originating in the 10th century deal with specific events of historical record" (Welch, 1996, p. 247).

In the 1800s, a group of writers began to translate and collect many stories from Irish communities and Irish storytellers. "They have caught the very voice of the people, the very pulse of life, giving what was most noticed in his day" (Yeats, 1986, p. xxii), indicating that the stories collected from the Irish peasantry provide insight into the Irish people. These stories are from people who believed in fairies who descended from the gods of the Tuatha De Danann--creatures who became tiny and began to live under the earth. At the same time, many of "the 'pagan heroes' grew bigger and bigger until they became the giants" depicted in many stories (Yeats, 1986, p. 260).


Folklore appeals to many audiences. Doyle and Sharkey (2000) note that the magical quality and simplicity of Irish folktales appeal to all ages and nationalities. Hadaway (2004) states that using folklore with children exposes them to universal human experiences and allows children to examine the artistic creative efforts of all human beings. Folklore can be interdisciplinary, covering various content areas. Finally, it helps children to develop the conventions of communication and writing. Yolen (2000) adds that folklore not only offers an inside view of different cultures, it also "provides a landscape of allusions" (p. 15), helping children develop environments of their mind based on the stories they hear.


Storytelling is an art. Yolen (2000) talks about the role of storytelling in ancient times, indicating that in the past, people "took in the world mainly by listening, and listening meant remembering" (p. 41). Through storytelling, one could influence individuals and thereby the world. Philip (1999) discusses how a storyteller remembers their story by visualizing it: "You've got to see it as a picture in front of you or you can't remember it properly" (p. 12). Isbell, Sobol, Lindauer, and Lowrance (2004) emphasize that "words are not memorized but recreated through spontaneous, energetic performance, assisted by audience participation and interaction" (p. 158). Their study of the effects of storytelling on comprehension and oral language complexity indicates that when children are involved in storytelling, they perform better on retelling tasks and their imaginative recollection of the story is enhanced. Kim (1999) recognizes that "storytelling and pretend play provide a motivating context for literate behavior" (p. 6).


Although Irish folk literature was categorized above to show time periods, it also can be categorized according to themes. The following selections focus around the theme Stories To Hear and Tell. All storytellers in Ireland have the right to enrich the tales as they please. If the audience grows fond of a certain part of the story, the storyteller might expand on that area or possibly trim another section (O'Suilleabhain, 1970). So tell a story and enjoy.

What's Your Story?

Long ago in the country of Ireland, one man's job was that of a seanachie--a storyteller. He worked for a king in Ireland; every night he went to the king to tell him stories that would soothe him and help him to forget the worries of the day. The king kept the seanachie in health and wealth as long as he amused him with a new story every night. The seanachie grew old in riches and comfort. The storyteller's habit was to awake early in the morning and explore his property, thinking and reflecting on life as inspiration for the story to be told that night. On one particular morning, he roamed the grounds of his estate, but no story came to him. His lack of an idea was worrisome, since if he failed to amuse the king with his stories, the king would have him killed. The StoryTeller at Fault (Jacobs, 1968) tells of the seanachie and his struggles to find a story.

Classroom Connections:

* Brainstorm stories to tell the king.

* Have children act out the stories or vote on the most popular topics for stories.

* Discuss the similarities to the story of Scheherazade, and the power of stories.

A Tale of Sorrow

Possibly one of the most famous stories in Ireland is the Fate of the Children of Lir. This story is one of the Three Sorrows of Storytelling and dates back to the Mythological Cycle. In this story, the king is very happy with his wife and four children. But his wife dies and he eventually marries again, giving the children a stepmother who is really a witch. For a time, she is kind until she sees how much the king loves his children. Growing jealous, the queen decides to take action. She tries to get the king's men to kill the children, but they refuse, so she turns them into swans. Krull includes a version to share with children in her book A Pot O'Gold. This story is available in CD format in Doyle's collection of Tales From Old Ireland.

Classroom Connections:

* Have students talk about the difference between The Children of Lit and other common fairy tales. One main difference is that many fairy tales have a "happily ever after" ending. Invite students to think of a happy ending to the story or a way to change the story so that it is no longer a tale of sorrow (see Figure 1).

* Locate the story The Children of Nuala by Malachy Doyle (1998) to read and compare.

Leprechauns, Fairies, and Pookas, Oh My!

One of the most common elements in Irish folk literature is the leprechaun. According to Yeats (1986), leprechauns are solitary fairies. In Irish, the word "leprechaun" is leith brog, which literally means "one-shoemaker" (p. 80). The author goes on to note that similar creatures are called Cluricaun or Far Darrig, but it is unclear whether they are the same creature. Leprechauns are known as being shoemakers, often withered and old. Many Irish people believed that leprechauns became rich from constantly working to make shoes for the fairies; people also believed that leprechauns bury the riches in treasure crocks. One of the most common folktales of Ireland is about a man who catches a leprechaun and entices him to take him to his pot of gold. Clever Tom and the Leprechaun is a picturebook version of this story by Linda Shute (1988). This story is also available in various Irish literature collections.

Fairies are collectively known as daoine sidhe (pronounced deen-ya shee). The trouping fairies often stick together and can be called the good people. "Because fairies are dangerous, they are often referred to by euphemistic phrases, such as the Good People, or the People of Peas, rather than directly named" (Philip, 2002, p. 113). It is believed that fairies keep misfortune away from those they are pleased with (Yeats, 1986). The popular story Lusmore or The Legend of Knockgrafton tells of interactions with the good people. Lusmore has a great hump on his back until he hears the fairy people singing. When he adds to their song, the fairy people are so pleased they take his hump away. On the other hand, Jack Madden displeased the fairy folk and ended up with two humps instead of one!


The pooka, an animal spirit, is another important creature in Irish folklore. The name comes from the word poc, which is a he-goat. In Irish stories, the pooka can take many shapes, but most commonly takes the shape of a goat. The pooka usually must earn a reward in order to move on from this world: "My punishment was to last till I was thought worthy of a reward for the way I done my duty" (Yeats, 1986, p. 167). Jamie O'Rourke and the Pooka (dePaola, 2000) is a story about a very lazy Irish man. The pooka helps him by cleaning his house while his wife is gone.

Classroom Connections:

* Create a graphic to show the characteristics of each creature from the stories. Discuss how they look, how they act, etc.

* Create your own magical creature, draw a picture, select a name, tell about their characteristics and where they are from, etc. (see Figures 2 and 3).

* Dramatize the creatures, including how they would look, how they would act, and what they might say.

* Have the students vote on their favorite magical creature.



Such Devoted Sisters ... and Stepmothers!

Cinderella is one of the most famous folk stories, with more than 3,000 known variations from countries around the world. The common elements of the Cinderella story include a main character, typically a girl, who is treated badly by her family. Cinderella is often a kind person, but her ungrateful family members have few redeeming qualities. Because Cinderella is a good person, she is rewarded through a magical intervention. Finally, she is typically recognized by something she has left behind (e.g., a glass slipper), which helps to elevate her to a favored position.

Fair, Brown and Trembling is an Irish version of Cinderella. One recommended version of this story can be found in Tales From Old Ireland (Doyle & Sharkey, 2000). In the story, Fair and Brown go to church every Sunday but leave Trembling to tend the fire, clean the house, and have supper ready. The henwife does not understand why Trembling does not go to Mass, so she makes her a beautiful dress and sends her off to the church on a white mare. For weeks, Trembling causes a great stir at Mass, until she finally loses a slipper, which ultimately is found by the king.

Other Irish versions of the Cinderella tale include a male Cinderella. In the two following versions, a bull is the "fairy godmother" who helps the Cinderella character overcome adversity. In the story The Irish Cinderlad (Climo, 1996), Becan's mother loves him (big feet and all). After she dies, Becan soon must live with a stepmother and three stepsisters. They send him off to herd the animals, where he meets a magic bull. The bull feeds Becan with a magic tablecloth that comes out of his ear. When his stepsisters and stepmother find out about the bull helping Becan, they vow to have it killed. Becan and the bull escape, but the bull knows he must fight another bull and will die, so he tells Becan to take his tail. Becan uses the tail to defeat a giant, who gives him his boots in victory. He then saves a princess from a dragon and charges off on his horse, with the princess grabbing one of his boots. In the end, the only man in the country to fit the giant boot is Becan, so he marries the princess and becomes Prince Becan.

Billy Beg and the Bull is another Irish variation on the Cinderella tale. This story is available in a collection of Irish fairy tales retold by Virginia Haviland called Favorite Fairy Tales Told in Ireland (1961/1994). Similar to the Irish Cinderlad, Billy Beg kills a dragon to save the princess. As he goes on his way, the princess pulls a shoe off his foot. The princess uses the shoe to find the real person who slayed the dragon.

Other Irish stories include stepmothers who are portrayed in a negative light. As O'Farrell (1997) says, "There's a stepmother's bite in that day" (p. 83). Many stories depict stepmothers as very cruel to their stepchildren. In the story The Prince of Ireland and the Three Magic Stallions (Milligan, 2003), the prince of Ireland has a stepmother who fears that her own two boys will not become kings. She puts a geis, or deadly compulsion spell, on her stepson so that he must fight a giant to get three magic stallions for her. In this story, the prince of Ireland tells the giant a story to save himself and his brothers and to fulfill the obligation of the geis.

Classroom Connections:

* Outline the similarities and differences in the Cinderella stories (see Figure 4).

* Discuss mothers and stepmothers, considering why stepmothers are often viewed negatively in fairytales.

Ghost Stories To Tell in the Dark

The Irish people often are portrayed as being superstitious. The presence of ghosts and other supernatural figures in stories is an extension of this superstition. O'Suilleabhain (1970) discusses the difficulty in classifying supernatural spirits, but places fairies, ghosts, and the returned dead in this category.

The story of Daniel Crowley and the Ghosts (Curtin, 2000) is a good story to share on this theme. Daniel is a coffin-maker. One day, he is told a coffin is needed, so he brings one along to the wake of the dead man. Daniel is asked to tell stories to "shorten the night," which he does, and he shares a song about the good people. A mother of three daughters thinks Daniel would make a fine husband for one of her girls, but Daniel refuses angrily. The mother curses him and mocks him for keeping company only with the dead. He tells the mother that he has nothing against the dead and they do help him make his living. He even goes so far as to invite all the people whom he had made coffins for to his house for a great feast. Upon returning home, Daniel soon finds out that the ghosts accepted his hospitality and experiences quite a night with them.

Classroom Connections:

* Invite students to share ghost stories they know.

* Ask students how they would plan a party for ghosts.

Larger Than Life

The literature of Ireland is filled with characters that are either identified as giants or who have abilities far beyond most humans. Yeats (1986, p. 260) believes that giants were originally the pagan heroes in many of the early folk stories; these characters grew bigger with the retellings until they became depicted as giants. Finn MacCool and the Scottish Giant (Philip, 1999) is one such story, which comes from the Fenian Cycle of literature. Finn MacCool hears that the strongest giant in Scotland is looking for him. He secretly fears for his safety but relies on his wife, Oonagh, to trick the other giant.


Classroom Connections:

* Perform the story of Finn MacCool. A reader's theater script is available from Aaron Shepherd (

* Outline some of the characteristics of giants from the story. Compare the characteristics to some of the other magical creatures.

No Story To Tell?

Ireland is rich in the tradition of stories and telling stories. Many resources provide interesting and unique stories, and different variations. To end this exploration of Irish folk literature, I will share one more story theme, that of having no story. Considering the richness of the storytelling tradition in Ireland, this is truly a horrible thing--to be a human being without a story to tell. Never in all of Ireland was a man so poor and wretched as one who had no story. For in Ireland, it is a tradition to ease the long night by sharing a song or story. In The Man With No Story (Krull, 2004), readers can explore the world of Rory O'Donaghue as he realizes the value of a story.

Classroom Connections:

* Revisit the creatures from some of the Irish folklore and the creatures that were created. As a class, select one or two creatures and create a class story based on the characteristics outlined.

* Each student can create their own story based upon the creature they created. Students can then act out the stories.


Remember that each storyteller has the ability to select their story. They can select the characters that are just right, the details to provide the backdrop, and the problem to overcome, such as fighting the giant or tricking the leprechaun (Yolen, 2000). Each person has a story to tell. Each person is a storyteller. Consider for a moment all the things you can imagine: giants, leprechauns, and ghosts. As you consider them and your own creatures, let your imagination be your guide to create your own story. What is your story to tell?

Children's Literature

Climo, S. (1996). The Irish cinderlad. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Curtain, J. (2000). Irish tales of the fairies and the ghost world. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

DePaola, T. (2000). Jamie O'Rourke and the Pooka. New York, NY: G.E Putnam's Sons.

Doyle, M. (1998). The children of Nuala. London, England: Faber and Faber Publishing.

Doyle, M., & Sharkey, N. (2000). Tales from old Ireland. Cambridge, MA: Barefoot Books.

Haviland, V. (1994). Favorite fairy tales told in Ireland. New York, NY: William Morrow & Co. (Original work published 1961)

Jacobs, J. (1968). Celtic fairy tales. New York, NY: Dover Publications.

Krull, K. (2004). A pot o'gold: A treasury of Irish stories, poetry, folklore and (of course) blarney. New York, NY: Hyperion Books.

Milligan, B. (2003). The prince of Ireland and the three magic stallions. New York, NY: Holiday House.

O'Farrell, P (1997). Irish fairy tales. Dublin, Ireland: Gill and MacMillan.

Philip, N. (1999). Celtic fairy tales. New York, NY: Viking.

Philip, N. (2002). The little people: Stories of fairies, pixies, and other small folk. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams.

Shute, L. (1988). Clever Tom and the leprechaun. New York, NY: Scholastic.

Yeats, W. B. (1986). A treasury of Irish myth, legend and folklore: Fairy and folk tales of the Irish peasantry. New York, NY: Avenel Books.


Fallis, R. (1978). The Irish renaissance: An introduction to Anglo-Irish literature. Dublin, Ireland: Gill and MacMillan.

Hadaway, N. L. (2004). Starting at the roots: Collecting folklore in the home, school and community. In T. A.

Young (Ed.), Happily ever after (pp. 248-262). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Hyde, D. (1980). A literary history of Ireland: From earliest times to the present day. London, England: Ernest Benn.

Isbell, R., Sobol, J. Lindauer, L., & Lowrance, A. (2004). The effects of storytelling and story reading on the oral language complexity and story comprehension of young children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 32(3), 157-163.

Jacobs, J. (1968). Celtic fairy tales. New York, NY: Dover.

Kim, S.Y. (1999). The effects of storytelling and pretend play on cognitive processes, short-term and long-term narrative recall. Child Study Journal, 29(3), 175-191.

O'Suilleahhain, S. (1970). A handbook of Irish folklore. Dublin, Ireland: Gale Group.

Welch, R. (1996). The Oxford companion to Irish literature. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Yolen, J. (2000). Touch magic: Fantasy, faerie & folklore in the literature of childhood. Little Rock, AR: August House Publishers.

Young, T.A. (2004). Happily ever after: Sharing folk literature with elementary and middle school students. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

by Deirdre Sheridan Englehart

Deirdre Sheridan Englehart is an Instructor; Early Childhood Development and Education Program, University of Central Florida, Orlando.
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Author:Englehart, Deirdre Sheridan
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Article Type:Essay
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Date:Aug 15, 2011
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