Once upon a time…a story was told. But what made that story take root while others faded away into oblivion? Was it because it was easy to understand, remember and retell? To learn more, I ventured to a country with a grand tradition of storytelling: Ireland, where I learned that a memorable story must indeed be all three.
Myths, folktales and fairytales survive through generations because they are simple and concrete, yet include an unexpected twist. And because people believe in them, they can have a huge and long-lasting impact on real life.
Explaining the unexplainable
Over the evening of storytelling in Dublin, our host Johnny used his proverbial ‘gift of the gab’- the ability to speak eloquently and convincingly – to take us back to the 1800s and 1900s. His accounts of historical events and everyday life in rural Ireland in those days were lively and compelling. It was easy to imagine large farming families sitting around the fire enjoying stories of gods, giants and fairies.
Most people had little scientific knowledge, Johnny explained, so natural phenomena like the sun, rainbows, natural disasters or death baffled them. But we humans need to understand events around us. Since many people believed completely in the mysteries of the fairy world, they attributed unexplainable events to the doing of fairies, or possibly divine intervention.
Don’t mess with the fairies
Fairies came in many shapes and sizes, and were usually held responsible for deaths and abductions. Most fairy tales advised people how to avoid offending the fairies by steering clear of their territory. People followed this advice in their everyday lives; for example farmers would not plant potatoes around ‘fairy trees’. Even today, legend has it that if you hear music coming from the hills, a fairy kingdom is celebrating the full moon. Stay well away, or you will be swallowed up by the hill and kept by the fairies forever.Smart thinking and powerful storytelling.
Giants and Leprechauns
Not all stories were about nasty fairies playing tricks – and worse – on humans, though. Many tales recounted the doings of heroes and more helpful mystical beings, inspiring people to be virtuous and clever. One of my favourites from the storytelling evening was a tale of cowardly giant Finn MacCool and his clever wife Oonagh.
One day, Finn is being chased by a Scottish giant. Oonagh disguises Finn as his own baby, and the Scottish giant, seeing the big ‘baby Finn’ assumes that the father of this baby must be even bigger, so he calls off his pursuit. Finn is saved by his wife’s ability to outsmart the enemy without a fight.
On the other side of the size scale is the most popular fairy by far: the Leprechaun, in his emerald green suit. The stories say that if you catch a Leprechaun, he has to grant you three wishes or give you his cherished pot of gold. But since this devious creature does not like to part with either his gold or his wishes, he will always try his best to trick you. So be advised: select your wishes wisely.
Do you believe in fairytales?
No doubt you have stories that have remained with you from childhood. A Christmas Carol, Snow White, King Arthur – some wonderful tales that have stood the test of time and left their mark well beyond the nursery. These are the stories that engaged you, surprised you and made you believe. Because when you enter the world of stories, nothing is beyond belief.