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The Seannachai

Mar 29, 2004
Michael Hogan

By Maeve Binchy


In Ireland, we used to have a class of people in the old days before books and printing called the seannachai, or storytellers. They would walk around the country going from house to house just telling stories. Sometimes they told historical stories, sometimes just gossip from the next parish. All they had to be able to do was to entertain with words, and people gave them room and board. People just loved them and vied with one another to be their host. Nobody ever said: “Oh heavens, here com those loudmouthed storytellers. Hide quickly and pretend that we are not at home, so that they’ll go and bother someone else.”

To write a thank-you letter was no big deal in our house. “Tell them all about our Christmas,” my mother would say, sure in the knowledge that we would tell it well and in detail and that everyone would be fascinated. Irish people are inclined to write long letters, as if it is a matter o huge importance that no detail be left unexplained.

When we were 6 or 7 at school nobody minded writing an essay. What was an essay? Only a story, and you’d be telling one of those anyway. Math and geography were hard things, all right, but telling a story, writing it down, no problems there.

So I grew up believing that telling stories was good and sitting there like a stone listening was dull and bad. And that naturally happened with my writing. When I was a young teacher, I taught French in a Jewish school in Dublin. My pupils had Lithuanian accents, and I had a broad Dublin accent that no Parisian would have understood, but somehow we all got on great, and they gave me a ticket to Israel, where I worked on a kibbutz for the summer. My parents were nervous about all this, their girl going off to the Middle East in the 1960’s. Was it dangerous of foolish or both?

So to reassure them, I wrote them long wordy letters detailed in everything except possibly how attractive I found the young soldiers on the kibbutz. Parents don’t need to know things like that. I told them instead how I picked oranges, plucked chickens, danced the hora and swam in the Red and the Dead and the Med Seas all in one summer. I wrote about everything I saw. They were so delighted with all this story of a far-off place that they got it typed and sent it to a newspaper, and the paper published it and asked for more. And that’s how I became a writer.

But it can’t be as easy as this, I said to myself. For me writing is talking. And surely you can’t get away with just talking and people thinking it is an article or a short story or a book. But apparently you can. And it’s easier if you’re Irish. That’s what they are doing all the time, thinking about something briefly, talking about it at slightly greater length and then writing it down. We always knew it was good to talk despite what we heard to the contrary from other nations. And it you wanted to remember the talk, you wrote it down. That’s all there was to it.

Those amazing etiquette books that advise four talkers and four listeners at a dinner party have no place in this land (Ireland). Where would you find the listeners? And why invite them anywhere? When our beloved boss, the news editor of The Irish Times, had a stroke many years ago, he was told that he would lose his speech but that he could communicate by pressing once for yes and twice for no. His last words were “What would be the point of talking if all you could say was yes and no?” He died almost at once. And we echoed his words. There would be no point at all.

AFTERTHOUGHT By Michael E. Hogan will soon install an audio module allowing our webmaster to provide a streaming audio service. Much like an old jukebox, you will be able to hear 1 or 2 minute riffs and rants about the Pascack Valley. All seannachies are welcome to send us their stories on any media you feel comfortable with. In addition, will soon be offering the history of ideas in a streaming audio format. It will be a seannachais view of things.

Lastly, let me invite you all to upcoming seannachai forums. Dates and time of these storytelling evenings will be posted on this website. Tutors will also be on hand to introduce folks to the computer, Windows and the INTERNET.
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