Seanachai

Seanachai (Irish) The word seanachai, pronounced shan-u-kee or shen-u-kee, is Gaelic for “storyteller.”

Originally a wandering storyteller who was akin to bards and medieval troubadours, the seanachai was an important part of ancient Irish and Scottish preliterate society. These storytellers were largely the ones who ended up being responsible for the survival of oral traditions and folktales.

In small Irish and Scottish villages, stories always were told at night, after the day’s work was done. People from the village would congregate at the house where the seanachai was staying to hear everything from the stories of ancient Celtic mythology to the latest gossip from the next village.

The seanachai was often the center of a ceilidh, pronounced kay-lee, an informal gathering of villagers around someone’s hearth for an evening of entertainment. Ceilidhs still exist in Ireland and Scotland and in Celtic areas of North America, though they are now usually formal music and storytelling events.

The seanachai also served a more subversive purpose during the time of English dominance of Ireland. From about the sixteenth century to the twentieth century, the English tried to suppress the native Gaelic language and Irish culture. So while the seanachai appeared to be doing nothing more than innocently traveling around and telling stories, they were actually teaching the children their native language and culture, and also keeping the culture alive in the minds and hearts of adults.

Modern seanachai no longer need to worry about being the only means of keeping oral traditions alive, and they do not have to tell their stories in secret. Instead, modern seanachai are openly honored as storytellers.

Sources

  • Foster, Robert F. Modern Ireland: 1600–1972. New York: Penguin, 1990.
  • Ó Súilleabháin, Seán. Storytelling in Irish Tradition. Cork, Ireland: Mercier, 1973.
  • Zimmermann, Georges Denis. The Irish Storyteller. Dublin, Ireland: Four Courts, 2001.

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