Text by Mary Ellen Dowd
Illustration by Magdalena Xochitl Burtnik Urueta | Photo by Agata Reid
When referencing Greco-Roman storytelling, most minds immediately produce the names of famous oral storytellers, like Homer or Aesop. Less often would one mention Sappho, a female poet who lived in Greece during 600 B.C.E. Although Sappho was arguably the most famous female poet of her time, likened by Plato as “the tenth muse”, she is still not likely to be at the forefront of our minds when addressing the ancient Greeks. Sappho serves as just one example of female erasure throughout history, and there is no way of knowing how many female voices were omitted from our history books. This series will begin to identify why that is.
Author Clodagh Brennan Harvey dedicated a portion of her career to investigating the role, or absence thereof, of women as storytellers of traditional Irish folklore. In an article featured in Western Folklore, Brennan Harvey speaks with several experts on Irish folklore. Her investigation finds that the glaring absence of female storytellers can be traced back to folklore tradition, which did not typically leave room for women.
Brennan Harvey writes that the branch of traditional storytelling known as seanchas referred to shorter and more realistic stories and was often designated to the small number of female storytellers that existed. Longer, more complicated “hero” stories called, scéalaíocht, were reserved for male storytellers. This distinction was the result of a general belief that men were superior storytellers.
Through a series of interviews and extensive research, Brennan Harvey was able to identify a possible root of this belief: the nightly visits among neighbours, which was customary in traditional Irish storytelling. These visits were often segregated by sex, and some groups met more or less frequently than others. Due to the domestic work of women, which was not limited to daylight hours, the female groups typically met less often. This, combined with the general distaste of men for women as storytellers, was likely to have stunted women’s ability to learn and practice storytelling through the years.
Still, Brennan Harvey found that Irish women continued to tell stories in the comforts of their own homes or in settings where they were away from the constraints of society. She writes that many times stories were told at bedtime by a mother to her children and suggests a hypothetical in which women engaged in storytelling during the seasonal retreat of transhumance.
These traditions can be observed in the telling of many different genres of folklore and, when combined with a general distrust of women’s intelligence, have worked to create the idea of the “old wives’ tale”, nonsense, a collection of mistakes, lazy old ladies’ chatter. But these stories played a major role in society.
In an essay entitled “Gender Patterns of Story-Telling and Forced Removals: A Transvaal Perspective”, Isobel Hofmeyr examines the practices of storytelling in southern Africa, which predominantly centre around women. The role of women in this tradition, much like the Irish tradition, was focused within the household with stories being told to village children and family members, while male storytellers occupied more public roles.
This method of storytelling by women, although private, was far from unimportant. In fact, the general acceptance of women as storytellers in southern Africa empowered the female role in society. She writes, “compared to the intellectual resources at men’s disposal, these areas like religion and storytelling were small. Yet, these patches of control, like the limited control over production, could attract certain forms of recognition and status and so, not surprisingly, women often defended these minor cultural prerogatives as well as the wider social order on which these cultural resources commented”.
Maria Westerholm in her “The power of women? The images of the female protagonist and other women in fairytales” examines the role of women in Russian folklore. “We would like to point out that the tale, as we understand it, was told orally and told to children by women: maids, nurses and nannies, and later, when the tale started to be recorded, it was written down by men.” The importance of these stories is undeniable, as they reflected real societal issues, offered solutions to these and passed different teachings of life down to future generations. According to Westerholm, they also entertain us, make us dream, help us express our fears and illustrate our relationships.
History reports that the role of women as storytellers is a natural one, despite apparent erasure of these narratives over centuries. Women have continually and consistently refused to be silent, even when their stories were limited to their own homes. And remember the witty tale of Scheherazade in “One Thousand and One Nights” who tells a story so well that even the vengeful king postpones his revenge onto all women just to hear another good story.
The effects of female erasure from storytelling has far reaching consequences beyond a lack of credit. The scars of this historic erasure can be observed in contemporary forms of storytelling, such as film. For example, the film industry lacks female representation globally. In fact, films directed by women make up 3% of all global screenings; Ireland is no exception to this, despite attempts to create a more inclusive film industry. Through this process, we have been repeatedly robbed of the stories of women.
After much research, Brennan Harvey was able to locate four female Irish storytellers and interview them for her article. Of them were Maíre Ní Chinnéide, who served a pivotal role in some works by Seán Ó hEochaidh, a famous folklorist; Elizabeth Bourke, a performer of seanchas whose stories have been recorded by professionals; Cait O’Sullivan whose storytelling has evolved to include appearances on radio and television; and Katie Riordan, who has established herself as a traditional singer in both English and Irish.
When Brennan Harvey questioned Cait O’Sullivan about perhaps the most famous female Irish storyteller Peig Sayers, O’Sullivan she simply stated, “there were a lot of women as good as her… around”.
These women unequivocally and without intention prove wrong the historically held belief that women are not worth remembering as storytellers. Their recounting of Irish folklore next to the male storytellers that doubted them uplifts a new generation of women, just as any woman who struggles for an equal position in society. They uplift women today, those who wish to use old and new storytelling art forms, such as film and photography, to tell their own unique stories, the history of which will examine in the next article.