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Orality in Medieval Irish Narrative: An Overview

Joseph Falaky Nagy

Oral Tradition Volume 1, Number 2

Celtic scholars do not doubt that there was an active oral narrative
tradition functioning in pre-Christian and medieval Christian Irish society.
Until recently, tradition-bearers with amazingly large story-repertoires could
be found among Gaelic-speaking peasants and fi shermen in Ireland and
Scotland. These creative oral artists, often neglected and no longer listened
to in their own time, bore vivid testimony to a long-lived and rich Gaelic
tradition of stories and narrative techniques—a tradition that is often referred
to in the extant corpus of medieval Irish literature, from its earliest stages
(the sixth to ninth centuries A.D.) to the beginnings of the modern literary
era (the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). Although the documented
contemporary sgéalí, “storyteller” (scélaige in earlier Irish spelling), is an
amateur—that is, he is not paid for his performance, nor does he live by his
storytelling craft—the medieval narrator usually was a professional, and in
fact was often a member of the exalted sodality of professional poets known
as the fi lid (singular fi li, from a root meaning “to see”), who together with
musicians and other possessors of special technical knowledge constituted
the wider class of the áes dána, “people of art[s],” or (áes cerda, “people
of craft[s].” While the fi li’s main activity was the composition of verse
celebrating his patrons and detailing the genealogy and lore of families and
tribes, we are told in a medieval Irish tract on the training of fi lid that the
oral transmission and performance of traditional prose tales—scéla, sing.
scél, from a root meaning “to say” (Greene 1954:26)—was an essential
aspect of fi lidecht, “the poetic profession”.

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