Orality and its enemies


Picture source here


All that I am conveying on this blog, is through words. Written words. Every letter you read (hopefully) makes sense in your literate brain, in your linear cognitive system. This week’s in “Irish Folklore” we covered oral tradition and culture.

Ireland has a long and solid oral tradition. Not only stories, proverbs, games, and mythology were passed down through oral storytelling, but also general knowledge and family history.

My generation probably has trouble relating to those times, us being literate and digitally biased.

Does your family ever sit around the fireside, listening to your parents’ stories about adventures that even your grandparents learned from someone older? I never did, and this used to be such common customs.

So what happened?

Many things, but there is no room for an essay. The Industrial revolution and the Great Famine both caused a lot of all Irish speaking, often illiterate and uneducated, peasants to die or leave the countryside. The vacated area was quickly filled with middle-class English-speaking literates.

It fascinates me how being literate can inhibit us from experiencing the genuine, authentic oral culture that used to be everything decades ago. It will never come back because we now get are knowledge through words and labels.


Picture source here


There has been numerous efforts to preserve the stories, with many emphasizing the need to hurry because the only tellers left are old, many dying. The Irish Folklore Commission has now saved thousands of stories, for example.

I find it very hard to imagine the future of the preserved stories. When recorded, they are told in unnatural settings. When transcribed, and even translated, one person’s version is prioritized over another. And in this digital era, we do get further and further away from the fireplaces, funerals, and the intellectual enjoyment of orality.


Great read: “Locating Irish Folklore” by D.Ó Giolláin.


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