EXCERPT: Sat-Navs and Seanchchaís
Finding your way through stories and landscapes
— by Isolde Carmody and Chris Thompson
The Story Archaeologists
Ireland has an international reputation as a nation of writers and storytellers, and it forms a large part of our national identity. Is this an empty statement of patriotic pride, an outmoded stereotype or a deeply engrained thread of Irish culture and consciousness? We, the Story Archaeologists, would argue for the last of these options.
From contemporary literature to ancient tradition, the Irish stories are embedded in the Irish landscape. They are, in a very real way, written into the land itself, and generations of storytellers have read and retold those stories with minute local detail. When we refer back to descriptions of the types of learning expected of the professional poets, the fili,1 we encounter the term dindshenchas. The literal meaning of this term is “history” (senchas) of “prominent places” (dind), and it is hard to find a pre-existing English term to convey the concept. There is a considerable body of explicitly dindshenchas texts, such as The Metrical Dindshenchas edited and translated by E. Gwynn,2 the “Bodleian Dindshenchas” and the “Prose Tales of the Rennes Dindshenchas.”3
However, many tales and poems, from both literary (written) and oral sources, have strong dindshenchas elements to them. To identify a dindshenchas episode, one need only see whether it answers the questions which St. Patrick repeatedly asks of Oisín and Cailte in the Acallamh na Senórach, “The Colloquy of the Ancients”:4 What is this place called; how did it get that name?
It seems clear that these stories have their origin in a pre-literate oral tradition, although that is, by necessity, unprovable. We can only build a case for their oral origins through analogy with other cultures. They have particular resonance with the indigenous Australian stories of the Dream Time, which tell of the shaping of the land and the landscape’s meaning to those who inhabit it. Some of these stories are demonstrably ancient, with one story from the Queensland area describing a lake which, it has recently been discovered, dried up about 35,000 years ago.5 Unfortunately, we have not yet found such an unequivocally ancient story from Ireland, but we can postulate and listen to the stories themselves.
What we do have is a written tradition dating back to the 7th century, with later manuscripts containing sagas, poems and legal texts whose language places their literary origin as early as the 8th century.6 Many sagas placed in the mythological cycle, such as Cath Maige Tuired, “The Battle of Moytura”,7 and the Ulster Cycle, such as Táin Bó Cuailgne, “The Cattle Raid of Cooley”8, have many passages in Old Irish (7th - 9th centuries CE). This includes one of the rémscéla, “pre-stories,” to the Táin Echtrae Nerai, “The Adventures of Nera,”9 which we discuss below.
[This excerpt is from a five-page article was published in Keltria: Journal of Druidism and Celtic Magick, Issue #42. It is available in its entirety to members of the Henge of Keltria until the next issue of the Journal is published via the Members Home page. It is available to the public in both electronic and print form via Mag Cloud.]