The number of persons who can tell the seanscéal (mӓrchen) is gradually being reduced; and soon but few remain to recount in traditional style this once popular type of folktale.
Séamus Ó Duilearga, The Gaelic Storyteller
With this thought in mind, much energy was spent in the early days of the Irish Folklore Commission on collecting the impressive folktales held by traditional storytellers. The seanscéal, or the folktale, was often told around the fire, from the end of the harvest to the middle of March, as a form of entertainment on long winter nights. Good storytellers, who could recite a wealth of folktales from memory, were welcome figures in the tithe airneáin, the houses where neighbours gathered in the evening.
Seán Ó Súilleabháin, archivist of the Irish Folklore Commission, describes the folktale as
…a fictional narrative which is traditional in the sense that it is usually handed down orally from one person to another … Each tale is composed of a varying number of motifs which may change somewhat as they pass from one storyteller or area to another, while the tale itself remains essentially the same. Folktales are as nearly universal as any form of human literary expression can be. National hero tales (such as those about the Fianna, the Ulster heroes and others) are mainly found, however, only within the area of their origin.
Indeed, Ireland is not alone in its long-held storytelling tradition, and as scholars became interested in the academic study of folktales, it became necessary to develop systems that could be used for scholarly work. In 1910, the Finnish scholar Antti Aarne published a list of international tales, proposing a number and title as a label for each tale-type. The American scholar Stith Thompson worked with Aarne to publish a revised edition of this work in 1929, and later edited a more extensive edition called The Types of the Folktale. This work is generally referred to as the Aarne-Thompson index. In 2004, the index was revised by Hans-Jörg Uther as The Types of International Folktales.
In the index created by Aarne and Thompson, the tale-types summarise the different motifs that can occur in any one tale, and provide a basic outline of the images that might be used in particular folktales. The motifs used in a certain tale-type can differ from country to country, or even from one teller to another. Following the example of the Aarne-Thompson index, a catalogue of Irish tale-types was published bySeán Ó Súilleabháin and Reidar Christiansen in 1963 as The Types of the Irish Folktale. Though it is modelled on The Types of the Folktale, it also notes where Irish versions of certain tales differ significantly to international versions, and includes other uniquely Irish tales.
As of October 2020, a searchable catalogue hosted on dúchas.ie can be used to identify different tale-types in the 1937-1939 Schools’ Collection, a collection undertaken by children as part of their school curriculum. Rather than drawing on the most recent edition of The Types of International Folktales, the online catalogue draws on the earlier works of Aarne-Thompson and Ó Súilleabháin-Christiansen, as these indices were available to Commission staff undertaking cataloguing work in the 1950s and 1960s.
The Aarne-Thompson index separates folktales into five different categories; Animal Tales, Ordinary Folktales, Jokes and Anecdotes, Formula Tales and Unclassified Tales. The first category, Animal Tales, features both wild and domestic animals as main characters. The animal tale is one of the oldest tale-types in oral tradition. Some animal tales can be aetiological, explaining the origin of certain animal characteristics. Others serve to illustrate morals; these are often called fables. In Ireland, the clever fox is the star of many of our animal tales, outwitting his opponents, but sometimes also being outwitted in turn, as in AT 001 – The Theft of Fish.
Ordinary Folktales are further split into separate categories. The first category, Tales of Magic, encompasses stories of magic and marvels, such as AT 510 – Cinderella and AT 333 – Red Riding Hood. The list of magical tales starts with AT 300 – The Dragon Slayer, the folk equivalent of the classical tale of Perseus. Another popular story in Ireland is AT 330 – The Smith and the Devil, which resembles the story of Faust, and the Irish novel Séadna.
Religious Tales also feature in Ireland, as do Romantic Tales, or Novelle. In this category, magic is largely absent and the action takes place in the real world. Folk versions of The Taming of the Shrew (AT 901) can be found in the Novelle category and versions of this story are found in Ireland. Finally, Tales of the Stupid Ogre usually feature an ogre (or often a giant in Irish versions) who is outwitted by his human opponent. The classical story of Polyphemus, in which a one-eyed giant is blinded (AT 1137 – The Ogre Blinded), is also found in Ireland.
Jokes and Anecdotes are humorous stories that have been recorded in their hundreds in Ireland. They feature many stories of foolish acts, where the clever individual outsmarts the stupid. Formula Tales were told to children and by children. They are cumulative and repetitive, and feature childhood favourites, such as AT 2025 – The Fleeing Pancake. Unclassified Tales are stories that cannot necessarily be defined as international. Irish unclassified tales include AT 2400 – The Ground is Measured with Horse’s Skin or Ox-Hide, which is often told in Ireland about St. Brigid and the manner in which she won land for her church in Co. Kildare.
Irish versions of international tales may at first seem unrecognisable from the tale-type description. AT 1149 – Children Desire Ogre Flesh is described in The Types of the Folktale as ‘the man makes the ogre believe that his children eat ogre’s flesh. The ogre is frightened away.’ In Ireland, this story is sometimes told in relation to the renowned hero Fionn Mac Cumhaill, in which Fionn lies in a cradle to trick a giant. The giant is frightened off when Fionn bites his finger, thinking that it wasn’t worth meeting the foe if his small child is so ferocious.
The Aarne-Thompson Index contains many folk counterparts for recognisable stories such as those in Aesop’s Fables, Grimms’ Tales and works by William Shakespeare and Geoffrey Chaucer. Versions of these famous stories can also be found in Ireland. The story of Rumpelstilskin, for example, published in the Grimms’ Kinder und Hausmärchen is categorised as AT 500 – The Name of the Helper. In Ireland, the ‘Rumpelstilskin’ character has other imaginative names, such as Tellí Ture in Co. Mayo and Breasal Bán in Co. Galway. Many other tale-types might feature widely in Ireland, but remain unheard of by many readers. The folktale index featured on dúchas.ie offers readers the opportunity to explore familiar and unfamiliar tales collected in Ireland. Considering we will be spending quite a bit more time at home this winter, it’s the perfect time to rediscover these wonderful tales by the fire.
As we approach the Christmas Season, we at UCD Cultural Heritage Collections have put together a Twitter advent calendar for all our followers to enjoy throughout the month of December. Each day an uplifting image will appear on one of our CHC units Twitter page; UCD Archives, UCD Special Collections or the National Folklore Collection. We will use the #UpliftingAdvent so feel free to spread the good will!
- This post was researched and written by Ailbe van der Heide.