My Irish Granny was a seanchaí, a storyteller in the esteemed tradition that is the Irish storyteller. A proud keeper of oral tradition, she was. In olden days, there were professional storytellers, divided into well-defined ranks - ollaimh (professors), filí (poets), baird (bards), and seanchaithe (historians, storytellers). While the professors, poets, and bards were held in high regard among those of high standing, it was the seanchaí that were revered by the common people. Many were itinerant, and traveled over wood, moss, and dusty road to take food and temporary shelter in the homes of those to whom they provided their valuable entertainment, gathering around peat fires and regaling the inhabitants, and their neighbors, with stories of old. Others, like my Granny, were settled, and became known as the "village storyteller". The people came to sit beside her hearth, as Granny stooped to turn potato cakes cooking on stones over a turf fire, while turning tales that had never lived on a page.
She would recount the important events from the past in historical legends. Tell local legends, closely connected with a particular place and how it got its name or what happened there. There were personal legends that dealt with real people, and religious legends, dealing with the life of Christ or the saints. In the dark hours of night, with only the light from the peat fire glowing, she would whisper the tales of supernatural legends, her shadow dancing across the stone and mud walls of her home, while she told of eerie experiences or supernatural beings such as spirits, fairies, and ghosts; stories of dreams coming true, of death omens and warnings.
But her favorites were stories of the most legendary characters in Irish mythology. Like Cú Chulainn, called the Hound of Ulster after killing Culann's fierce guard-dog in self-defense, and offering to take its place until a replacement could be reared. And, who at the age of seventeen, defended Ulster single-handedly against the armies of Queen Medb of Connacht in the famous "Cattle Raid of Cooley". Or Manannán mac Lir ("son of the sea"), a sea deity said to own a boat named Scuabtuinne ("Wave Sweeper"), a sea-borne chariot drawn by the horse Enbarr, a powerful sword named Fragarach ("The Answerer"), and a cloak of invisibility. And the Tuatha Dé Danann, the Tribe of the Gods. She would give an animated account of how they invaded Ireland, arriving in dark clouds; how the chanting of a magic spell over the silver arm crafted to replace the one lost in battle by their king, Nuada, grew back the flesh and restored his appendage. How, in a second battle, Nuada was killed by the poisonous eye of the Fomorian, Balor. And, how during a third battle, fought against a subsequent wave of invaders, the Milesians, three sister goddesses of the Tuatha Dé Danann, Ériu, Banba and Fodla, asked the Milesians that the island be named after them. Ultimately it was Ériu who gave her name to Ireland. Ériu, which became Éire...and eventually Erin. Ériu who also gave her name to me, a story, that had she known, I am certain my Granny would have loved to tell.
Life was hard for Granny, as surely it was for all the women of her time. She worked hard, back bent and hands stained with the soil of the potato field, stopping only to nurse a wee babe, some of whom would not live long enough to wean, and long after the last of the keeners had stopped their mournful wails, she would tell those sad tales, too. Tales of hunger, of sickness. She would gather with other women under the grey of an Irish sky, heat water over a fire on the rocky ground to add to wooden half barrels and woolen blankets, and with bare feet, stomp the dirt and wash the sickness out of them as she told her stories of sorrow and lost babies.
She would, eventually, tell the tale of how the potato crops failed and the Great Hunger descended upon Ireland. How family and neighbors died of starvation and disease. How she, her husband, and sons, left their beloved Ireland, and all they knew, to travel aboard a coffin ship to Canada, and down the St. Lawrence River to New York. How her family eventually made their way to Wisconsin, and then Iowa and Minnesota, though she, herself would not live that long. Or, perhaps, those stories would not be told.
You see, I never met my Irish Granny. She was born about 1800, the grandmother of my grandmother's grandmother. She died more than 100 years before I was even born. No one I have ever known had ever met her, no one I have ever known even knew her name, and the story of the storyteller, the story of Julia Leonard Maher, Síle O'Leannain O'Meachair, has been lost to the blowing winds of time. Was she actually a seanchaí? I will never know. There are very, very few records of her existence, and certainly none that would describe who she was. All that I will ever know about her is the bone-knowing that comes when the story line is in the bloodline. But, it all makes for a good story. So, perhaps she was, after all, and she passed that down to me.