BY MELISSA RENAY
Gaelic culture and traditions are imbued with marvelous tales and legends dating back thousands of years. These stories have been handed down from generation to generation through wondrous whispers, songs, dances, customs, and even crafts. One might even say that culture and folk tales are intertwined, each breathing life into the other, keeping a people’s history alive.
Gaelic oral literature was widely diffused, greatly abundant, and excellent in quality. Stories were told to children who then told them to their own children. Each generation carried them forward in their own way. Folklore, like mythology, comes from oral culture, that ever-flowing, weaving magic as time travels onward.
Empires rise and fall, but one thing that’s survived are our myths, legends, and folklore. In essence, the lore of a folk becomes their folklore.
There are many factors which contributed to the abundance and quality of Gaelic oral literature: the crofting system, the social customs, and the Ceilidh.
The crofting system was one where the people worked in unison in the field during the day, and at night they set aside special time for discussions, or storytelling. This evening meeting was called ceilidh, a lively and entertaining gathering where tales, poems, and ballads were rehearsed and recited. Songs were sung, proverbs were quoted, and all sorts of matters were talked about.
In these ancient crofting towns there would be several storytellers who would recite the folk tales of their ancestors. There would be some who would act as a historian reciting events with concise details. Then, there would be some storytellers who would tell legends in a more inventive fashion, building fiction upon fact, mingling the two in a charming and poetic manner. Next, you’d have a reciter of heroic poems and ballads. One provides songs of glorious poets while another, usually a woman, would bring to life the beauty in old songs.
Some of the tales were quite long, occupying several nights of recital. ‘Sgeul Coise Cein,’ the story of the foot of Clan, for example, was in twenty four parts, each party occupying a night of storytelling.
With the rise of the Reformation, much of the Gaelic oral folklore became meager in quantity. The Reformation movement condemned the practice and the people were often harassed; schoolchildren were punished for not only singing songs in Gaelic, but also for reciting their ancient folklore.
Fortunately, the tradition, in some form, has survived, although it has lost much of its former glory. In some rural areas of Ireland and Scotland, the Ceilidh is still an important and popular event, especially in the Gaelic speaking areas.
Most modern Ceilidh gatherings involve dancing, with some being formal with compulsory Highland dress and some being informal mixing modern pop dance music. However, poetry recitals and storytelling still remain an integral element.
Ceilidh music includes a variety of instruments such as the fiddle, flute, tin whistle, accordion, hammered dulcimer, and more.
If you would like to attend a Ceilidh, you can find them at village halls and other venues throughout Scotland and Ireland. The tradition has carried on internationally through the diaspora, so you can also find events elsewhere.
I have included a few videos below filmed during Ceilidh events, as well as traditional Ceilidh music. Enjoy!
Header Image: CEILIDH AT DUNBOYNE, c.1919 by Eva Henrietta Hamilton (1876-1960)