13-2 literary analysis

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

13.2 (Spring 2013)




courtesy of artrenewal.org


“If We Have the Book, We Haven’t the Reading”: A Literate Author’s Resurrection of the Oral Tale

 John R. Harris

I.  The Context

During a rare spell of leisure over the recent Christmas break, I was able to peruse some old issues of Oral Tradition whose contents, in many cases, I had not read thoroughly fifteen or twenty years ago.  In the interim, I have taught several works to undergraduates—ranging from the Homeric epics to the Iranian Shahnameh to Beowulf to the Cú Chulainn tales of the Ulster Cycle—whose style and content preserve the imprint of a substantial pre-literate (and hence largely pre-historic) chain of transmission.  Though the origins of such works are veiled in mystery, I sometimes grow vexed with scholarly equivocations like Paul Sorrell’s: “All of this is of course highly speculative and full of imponderables.”[i]  Not that I found Sorrell’s article to lack acuity: on the contrary, his piece embraces scholars like Alain Renoir and Ruth Finnegan whose labors I have long admired.  My distaste, rather, is with the perceived need to apologize for “speculation”.  If we have no “imponderables”, then we have nothing human.  People are not machines.  In their creative moments, especially, they cannot be taken apart like an old clock and examined for connections of cog to wheel.

Hence the notion scarcely shocks me that a huge cultural gray area, full of hybrid tendencies and odd marriages, exists between completely letter-free tribalism and print-supported mass-literacy.  Before the invention of the tape-recorder, no scholar ever came into possession of a single text—not one—that had no tincture whatever of literacy.  Human thought has been negotiating some degree of truce between the spoken and the written word for hundreds, and even thousands, of years.  In fact, I have never interpreted Walter Ong as Professor Sorrell does: i.e., as a determinist—a proponent of the view that human thought and feeling absolutely must assume this or that form, depending on the culture’s dominant means of communication.  I may be wrong… but I would have said that Marshall McLuhan, who taught the young Ong in graduate school, was the trenchant determinist of that pair.

To my mind, then, it is patent common sense that epic works like the ones I mentioned above had an oral/tribal provenance yet also profited from the technology of writing in ways that improved their depth and consistency.  Writing retards narration, and enforced delays create opportunities to develop characters, recall earlier scenes, tweak relevant details, and so forth.  Nevertheless, the proposition that performing bards with some degree of literacy or with some symbiotic connection to scribes must necessarily taint their panoply of mnemonic skills in a few short years was once the academic party line.[ii] Mercifully, that view soon wore thin.  Recent contributors to Oral Tradition seem to have devoted themselves, rather, to no end of puzzling over the contours and peripheries of the intermediate ground whose vast reality we now recognize.[iii]  Common sense doesn’t always carry the day in the Ivory Tower, but in this instance it has proved its worth.

Yet one aspect of “transitional composition” that particularly fascinates me remains probed by academic autopsists little, if at all: the situation of the fully, even highly literate author who decides to revisit the traditional past and create a tale in the oral style.  This sort of thing is not exactly rare in Irish Gaelic literature of the past century or so.  In fact, I published a translation not long ago in these pages of a “medieval romance” (the Eachtra Mhelóra agus Orlando) that could not have been penned much before 1690.[iv]  It would be “highly speculative” to declare either that this unknown author deliberately evoked the style of an earlier age for nostalgic reasons or, instead, that he was subconsciously nudged into that style by the mere fact of writing in Irish; but my speculative hunch is that the latter option is the more correct.  Irish and Scots Gaelic (and Welsh, for that matter) have possessed no literate vocabulary and style for story-telling until relatively recently.  In the case of Irish Gaelic, the short stories of Pádraig Ó Conaire (from the early twentieth century) were perhaps the first attempt at an objective, omniscient narrator describing events with material precision rather than copious hyperbole.  No alliterations, no congeries of synonyms, no proverbs… just the “facts”.

Such a style, I repeat, was a while in coming—and it was a style adopted from Western European literary convention, after all (like Nigerian novels and short stories, for instance), rather than a fully “natural” evolution.  As much as later twentieth-century critics and men of letters like Pádraig Ó Maoileoin may wish to deride the sing-song conversational narrative of Fiche Blian ag Fás and other Irish lunges at the novel from their century’s early years, the reality that such a style could no longer express was essentially an anglicized, urbanized, and “technologized” way of living.[v]  To say just who was the traitor and who or what the betrayed in this cloud of witness would, I suppose, involve us in many imponderables.

It seems to me, indeed, that a little scholarly reserve would be in order here—or a little more, at least, than I have seen in a few very recent commentaries.  Thirty years after Ó Maoileoin’s verdict, the well-received opus of Declan Kibard was reaching much the same conclusion.  This scholar has an evident esteem for authors of the Ó Conaire stamp: “All too often, however,” he warns (taking aim at the more rural vein of Gaelic writing), “those who relied on folk tales for inspiration did so because they had no art or theme of their own.”[vi]  There is much irony in this postmodern research that so chides imperialist powers for their colonialist oppression, yet also disparages native writers for not embracing the oppressor’s style and choice of subject.  To adhere to tradition is to lack creativity or inspiration.  The good author must thrust complex social and political issues under the microscope—yet social and political complexity were one of the major imports of the alien dominator!

All I intend to claim here, at any rate, is that a) Irish literati of the past century often did preserve a “Gaelic connection”, perhaps a substantial one; b) in acknowledging that connection through their work, they were required either to modernize (i.e., anglicize) the idiom or to avoid settings and issues of the modern (i.e., urban and high-tech) world; and c) if they chose the latter approach, they would often produce a style at least as oral, in many respects, as a performing scéalai’s.[vii]

I would issue to Messrs. Lord, Foley, and others represented in the distinguished pages of Oral Tradition, therefore, the following caveat.  Many of the oral performance’s unique markings must surely result from environmental conditions—especially from the need to tell a story largely from memory and without awkward pause: granted.  We may imagine that some of these qualities, since necessity rather than tasteful judgment brought them into existence, would have been modified, muted, or wholly expunged if the story-tellers had enjoyed greater autonomy: granted.  Yet since the oral style came to have a certain look, however unrelated to artistic effect was that look, the somewhat clumsy, somewhat comical result (as it may appear to us) acquired a kind of sanctity.  It was the style of yesteryear—or of the Heroic Age, I should say.  In that capacity, it might be copied (and copied, indeed, to the point of exaggeration) by polished literate raconteurs peering back at their forebears with love and reverence.  Narrative traits that were not artistically purposeful before became artistically powerful in retrospect.

For might there not be advantage—moral if not artistic—to replicating the Heroic Age’s trappings in a post-heroic era?  Especially if an author still believed, against all scientific evidence and probability, that life possesses mystery (or wanted so to believe), then he or she might just “backslide” into the earlier style, deliberately and “artfully”.

An example?  I have the perfect one, to whose translation I shall dedicate most of this piece.  A fascinating man of letters who flourished in the twentieth century’s early decades—Pádraig Ua Siochfhrada by name in Irish—has also drawn my attention recently in the pages of this journal.[viii]  An Seabhac, as he styled himself pseudonymously (translation: “The Hawk”), was a collector and connoisseur of the proverbs of Munster (in southwestern Ireland).  The publication of his antiquarian labor’s fruit was accomplished first in 1926, and was the subject of my article.  (I borrowed one of these proverbs, by the way, in fashioning the present article’s title.)  An Seabhac devoted himself to a life of civil service during the Irish republic’s infant years, most of his work naturally revolving around education and frequently elevating him to high administrative positions.  We have here, in short, a man whose literacy is not incidental, but rather a way of life and even a source of professional activity.  Yet the same man profoundly loved the country folk and their traditions.  A more literate intelligence has seldom made a keener and longer study of oral habits and narratives.

Perhaps An Seabhac’s most famous work of prose fiction is An Baile Seo Againne (This Town of Ours), which first appeared in 1913.  A collection of some fourteen short stories (or tales, as their style lures one to call them), the small book is almost a Gaelic morph of its American contemporary, Winesburg, Ohio—but with a less Andersonian weight of tragedy attending upon the same grotesquerie of character.  Drunkards tend to offer a prospect of comically self-debasing excess rather than of poignantly ruined lives; misers and braggarts tend to weave the web that traps them (proving yet again that character is destiny) without oppressing us with an Oedipal sense of catastrophe.  Not that all of the tales avoid life’s grim side: this is no romping caricature of Irish peasant life such as John Ford gave us, for instance, in the silver screen’s rendition of The Quiet Man.  In traditional communities, however, personal tragedy is absorbed into a cyclical, “nothing new under the sun” kind of resignation that conceals intimate anguish behind observable gesture and blunts the individual’s stinging isolation in an envelope of neighbors and kinfolk.  Without candy-coating life’s misery, An Seabhac persistently views it as a peasant would: something as natural and inevitable as the changing of the seasons.

The story I have chosen to translate—the final piece of the collection—is one of only two that An Seabhac designates parenthetically as based upon a traditional narrative.  (A third employs Saint Patrick and the heroes of Irish legend to launch a derisive barb at lawyers!)  I shall offer my rendition of the tale first, and then conclude with a few comments about the remarkably sensitive and minute fidelity to traditional style displayed by the author.

II.  The Tale

“From the House of Mor to Donnca Di”[ix]

(based on a traditional tale)

In the old days, whenever the Gaels wanted to say that two places or two things were a faraway distance from one another, they would say by wont, “They’re as far one from the other as the House of Mor from Donnca Di”—and no little space to them was the length of that way between the two things.  It’s likely to me, besides, that that would be no short journey still between any two places, though we now have paved roads and railroads and the iron horse and even the aeroplane itself.

The House of Mor sits upon the seacoast in Duncan of western Corca Yweenye facing the ocean at the edge of Country Kerry.  Donnca Di, that’s in County Dun off in the northeast, and it’s that town is nearest to Scotland of all the towns of Ireland.

How did those two names come to rest upon those two towns, and how did the old saying about them come about?  This is how it came to pass…

In the old days there was a man in Ireland, somewhere or other, whose name was Donnca Di.  It’s not known if he was big or little, handsome or ugly.  He had a wife.  Mor was the woman’s name.  It’s said that she was the daughter of a chieftain, and that she eloped with Donnca, on the strength of their love for one another, when her father would not give her leave to wed him.

The two went off together, and they figured for a while, as is small wonder, that the love between them was all they needed to get by.  But alas!  Like so many others, the love they had one for the other began to cool.  It’s a funny sort of a sickness is love.  It comes on something fierce, but it finally goes away like every other sickness.  In any case, after a while the story with Donnca and Mor wasn’t tame and it wasn’t tender.  There was a power of pride in herself, and since it fell out so, and since the love had gone, and since the want of her father and her family—and the wanting not of her husband—would overtake her mind, sad was the lot she would visit upon poor Donnca.

A good, gentle man was Donnca.  Speaking’s not better than listening, as the old saw goes—and so it went with him.  ’Twas ever his wish to take the smoother and the quieter role in the story.  When his man would not come to him, he would come to his man for the sake of keeping the peace.  That was the way it stood in the matter between himself and Mor.  When she would lay into him, he would make her neither excuse nor explanation, but streaking for the door only and leaving herself within.

Within she was one day—a wet, wintry day, at that.

“Get you from here, you lazy slug!  ’Twere better for you to be bringing a bundle of faggots from the wood, and the two of us shivering here without a bit of heat in the fireplace.”

Donnca arose and said not a thing, and he struck out toward the woods.  He made a withy and bent himself to collecting a bundle, and ’twas a short time till the memory of Mor went from his head and the courage came to him again.


In the midst of his labor it appeared to him that he heard a man a-calling upon him.  “Ho, Donnca!” said the man.  Donnca gave a start.  He stood still.  A kind of a shadow fell over him, and he made no answer.  Again the voice called out to him, but when Donnca made an effort to speak, a snag caught him just so in his throat.  The fear was upon the poor man.  Whatever man was there observed the fear in Donnca, and he spoke to him soft and civil.  “Donnca, my man,” said he, “let there be no fear nor affright with you.  Brennan Mac Finnlow am I, and God of the Glories has sent me from heaven to you for to tell you that any two prayers as suit you well, you shall have.  And ’tis on account of your being so patient with your wife, and with the misery of the world, that God has granted you these two prayers.”

Saint Brennan departed.  For a while it wasn’t at all clear in Donnca’s mind just how the matter stood.  There was wonder upon him that while.  When his wits and comprehension came to him again, he was a man confused.  He sat him upon the bundle of faggots.

“Aye, me!  Upon my word,” said he, “but I’m in for it now!  ’Tis a shame, sure, that he shouldn’t have waited a bit.  The worst thing in the world for a man—his wife to torment him… who knows but it may be for his own good?  Not likely, it is, that he was making sport of me… surely he was not!  None ever came from the Kingdom of God to play a trick upon a poor wretch like myself.  Two prayers, he said… and what will I ask?  Silver and gold?  A long life?  To set Mor straight?  Och, if she could hear me!  Eternal life, maybe—that would be a grand thing, now… but there’s no haste upon me to go to the other life just yet.  Oh, the pinch, to have only the two wishes!  The end of two wishes is soon reached… oh, to see this clear!  What shall I do?  Perhaps it isn’t my betterment that I’ll bring….  For fear of the fears, I’ll not budge with the wishes.  I’ll put the matter before Mor.  A wise woman is she—when a great anger isn’t upon her….  Sure, it’s that that I’ll do!”

And he stretched the withy about the bundle and lifted it up upon himself, and he started putting the road behind him on his way home.  A great heavy load, it was, and but a short while along the heaviness weighed upon Donnca.  He was done in before he was half the way, and the need was with him to lay his load upon the earth.  He sat upon it.  “Aye, my shoulder!” said he.  “‘Twere better than good with me that myself and this load were home.”

The words were not out of his mouth when there was a lifting of himself and of his load above the earth, and off he went swiftly through the air on a line to his own house.  Donnca let out a cry—it’s no wonder if he did—and the lament that he made was heard round about the countryside.  A strong grip he had upon the bundle, and his two legs dangling from him in mid-air.

Mor heard the shout.  The heart in her leapt to her throat.  Off and out the door with her.  She saw her man a-coming.  The bundle swooped low.  Donnca swooped low.  His heart and his liver were a-running one into the other with the force of the terror that was upon him.

It was needful to give poor Donnca a drink of water before his speech would come to him, and herself waiting upon him, and from her every little “love of my life” and “darling dear” and “sweet my soul” to him.  Then he related to her how he made his blunder.

That was the coming of more trouble!  She gave him a scalding.  She gave it to him from head to foot.  She charged him with her betrayed heart and she taxed him with her betrayed kin.  She was in the right, or so it seemed to her, and such fury was upon her that no power had she over her tongue, and she let herself fully off the leash.

For Donnca, bitterness rose in his heart.  No little thing to himself was the blunder he’d made—mortified and maddened was he on that account—without herself to be a-laying into him and maddening him seven times the more.  His anger rose.  There came hatred and loathing and detestation upon him for herself and for his own self and for everything around them.  Ill will and marvelous misreasonable rage were his.

“Ah!’ said he.  “Misery mine, that ever you were married to me, for better it were to me that all Ireland were between us, thou streetcrier with lungs of—”

It didn’t befall him to speak any further.  Off with him high into the air.  Off with Mor and with her children high into the air.  East by north with him.  West by south with them.

Mor and her children never made a stop of it till she came to Duncan in western Corca Yweenye.  Donnca alighted on the shore of the River Moy in the northeast of Ulster.

The house of Mor is in Corca Yweenye still, and Donnca Di is at the place where Donnca remained, and where he met his end.  It’s on that account we have the old saying, “From the house of Mor to Donnca Di,” ever from that time.


“The destiny of Clan Mor was to sail

Away, away with the cat under a spell.”

Traditional Song

Mor and her children—three sons and a daughter—remained in Duncan.  The children grew until the sons arrived at a man’s estate and the daughter at a woman’s.  A great change came over the mind and mood of Mor in that passage of time.  The edge went from her, and courtesy and kindness came in its place.

One day the two eldest of the sons went out upon the sea.  A little open-faced boat it was they sailed in.  Foul weather came.  A harsh and hazardous gale began to howl.  The swell rose upon the sea until there was the height of a mountain in every green-walled wave of her.  The dark night came on, and then the mournful morn; but there was no news of the two, dead or alive, to be had.  It was a grieving mother was Mor, and a grieving folk was the folk of Mor.  It’s little if she smiled ever after that, nor would rage ever come over her at any man, but she ever so meek and ever so quiet.

The story was that way for seven years to the night, when the young son was a-sleeping and dreamed himself to be with his brethren.  But when he awoke it was but little short he was of weeping when not a one of them was there, nor any word of them.  He said that there was no two ways in it but he would go and seek their news.  He asked his mother to make for him provisions for one year and a day.  He carried them with him down to the beach.  A curragh was there for him and he went into her.  He put her fore to the sea and her aft to the land, and he raised high her white, antler-wide sails.  When he would go out of the wind, he would draw to himself his two flat-paddled oars, and not a stroke of rowing would he give but would put seven yards of sea behind her.

He traveled in his lonesome out upon the sea without company or conversation but for seals and great creatures of the sea, and the gulls ever overhead.  He would be a-talking and a-tattling with the ocean-going mermaids that would come to him upon the crests of waves for to hearten him and to give him reports in the back of the evening, when the sun would be passing behind the shadow of the great wide main—and that ever and anon from the time he’d left his own shore far away until he struck his curragh’s prow upon the beach of White Island.

The king of White Island saw the curragh.  He sent word to a wise man that was in his service.

“Is it friend or not friend to me that is the warrior of the curragh?”  spake the king.

The old magus said that if friendship were made with the warrior of the curragh, the better a king were he; but if inhospitality were done to the warrior of the curragh, the worse a king were he.

“How is that possible,” said the king, “and the two best warriors in the world in my service now?”

“’Tis a better man is that man than your two warriors, O King,” said the old druid.

The king set his two warriors upon the beach for to give welcome to the man of the curragh.

The son of Mor came ashore.  The two warriors came before him and spake welcomings to him, and they sought of him to go with them to the court of the king.

Off he went with them.

“Let us play a game of hurley,” said one man of the two.

“I have not brought my hurley stick with me,” said Mor’s son; but the one ’twas elder of them gave a stick to him, and himself and the second man went to their side.  The son of Mor won the match over the second man.

“I will go a-wrestling with thee,” said the man was elder of them to him; and they went at it, and in the wrestling the warrior tumbled down upon Mor’s son.  But no sooner were they on the ground than ’twas he rose over the warrior.

“Never before rose a man over me after I’d laid him out,” said the warrior, “but for the young brother I left behind me in Ireland.”

“And never has anyone laid me out but the brother was older than I that I had long ago,” said MacMora.

They studied the face and making and traits and nature of the other.  The blood that was in their hearts gave recognition to either of the other, and they cast a hug one on the other, and either kissed the other most tender, and they spilled showers of tears with sudden joy.

After that they went to the court of the king, and merry, joyous cheery was the company that night.  A third of it they spent a-dining and a-drinking, a third a-telling stories and a-listening to songs, and a third a-sleeping and a-snoozing peacefully.

On the morrow the young son sought of his pair of brothers a returning home with him to see their mother and their kin.  They said that they would go if the king would give them leave.  It was a distress for him to part with them, but as a favor to them, he told them to go home.  Yet he lay upon them as bond of doom that they must not be away from him for more than a year and a day.[x]

The three of them went their way across the lonely, wide-open sea, and neither a bit nor a bunch of matter is told of them until they reached the land of the sweet evening sun.  Mor was on the beach before them, and ’twas scarcely she did not fly to the moon, and she a-kissing them and a-kissing them again.

Charmed was the life that they led then, and great was the grief was lifted from their mother.  Slight to her was every service she could give to them, and slight to them each one they did for the good of her.

Yet there was one thing only that was making worry for her.  A hatred of the sea past all consideration came over her.  She sought a vow from them not to go upon the sea again forever.  They swore to her.  The memory of White Island went away, and the memory of the doomsbond laid upon them, and the year and a day came and they did not leave their home nor fulfill their doomsbond.  Better was it to them to be with their mother.  They would not part from her again of their will without their hearts would split; and it was a parting of body and soul with her were they to go from her after all.  Yet ill was the end that was destined for them.  Woe to them that fulfill not their bond of doom!


Launching the Curragh, by Ivan Sutton


One autumn evening after that, the children of Mor were on the strand before the sea.  There was not a breath of a breeze from the sky, but the damp calms and doldrums only.  Not a wave was a-wallowing nor the sea a-sighing, but the whole lonesome ocean somnolent, slack, and sultry.  There was a murky, meandering fog in the sky and upon the sea, and gloom and shadowy doom upon each single thing.  Not an occasion, that, to put levity nor serenity in anyone as had been there.  Nothing in it was there but the stillness and the brooding and the vaguely looming.  Ill the omen of that time for the clan of Mor.  Had come the day.  Their hour was upon them.

’Twas then they saw a ship slender and lofty-trim bearing northerly down the Channel toward them.  She seemed to them to go a wandering way, for there was no helmsman to steer her, but she a-sailing by her own head with the flow.  A ship without a crew was she, it seemed to Clan Mor.

Mor saw the ship.  Her heart rose in her, and it filled with fear and hatred of that ship.  Not a worry without cause was that to her.  Ill the omen to her was the coming of that ship.  She spoke to her children.  She sang words sweet and seductive to them.  She begged of them to go not to the ship.  She went soft and hard at them for to swear them not to go.  She threw hugs upon them and she kissed them and she showered tears and she greatly grieved—all to bind upon them to go not to that ship.  But the three would not swear to her.  Ill the counsel that they made!

Off with the three warriors—the three stalwarts, the three who would not be put to flight—down along the beach.  They went into the curragh and they shoved off from the shore.  Mor went upon the headland above them and she was ever putting her blessings upon them.  They went out to the ship.  There was nor man nor human creature in her.  They saw aboard no live thing but for a black and magical cat.  The cat made signs to them to go with him down beneath the deck.  They went.  That was the going without coming back!  Woe to them that a doomsbond sits upon!

The hatch was closed upon Clan Mor.  It came windy about the sails.  The helm did take itself, and off the ship went out upon the ocean until the mist bewitched and dismal put her under cover and concealment.  The Clan of Mor was snatched up by the sea, forever and for always.

And Mor came to the cliff’s edge, and she keened and clapped her hands.  Sad was the fate that had befallen her.  A Sorrow of Saint Mary, she weeping and wailing.  Black the sadness of her woe.  “Oh, aye, oh!”  said she. “My three stalwarts!  My three braves!  My three without flaw!  Misery mine, this night without you!  Alas, the mother that raised ye for to see your capture before her very eyes!  Hard the tale that’s mine, and sad, me not to be borne away by death!  Great my grief this night, and a grief the like of mine upon no other in the world.  Oh, thou sea, it’s thee hast destroyed them… it’s thee hast taken them from me!  Lonely your mother upon the cliff, ye three!  Oh, aye, aye!”

And the lateness and darkness of night came upon the world, and the bands of birds went to their sleep, and the furtive fox came from his hole, and the badger from his lair, and the tribes of faeries and banshees and goblins slithered all about the land.  But Mor never moved from the headland nor left she from her keening, but she a-making her dismal dark moans in the still of the night just there above the waves of the great sea, herself now a craggy rock.

III.  The Oral Tricks of a Literate’s Trade

Sophisticated authors have long been charmed by what Kipling once labeled “just-so stories”: traditional explanations, that is, of phenomena bound to excite wonder in societies without written records or scientific understanding.  In this case, An Seabhac has produced something between an onomastic (how a place or object got its name) and an aetiology (how an object or custom came into existence).  I should say, more precisely, that the story’s first half offers a humorous and resonantly folkloric narrative to explain a well-known proverb, and then pursues the characters thus introduced through a legend verging upon myth that becomes the origin-tale of a great stone promontory.  The distinct shift in mood between the two—from burlesque to tragedy, from a marital squabble to a natural landmark, from folktale to myth—so patently opposes the literate story-teller’s rules of good conduct that I wish to withhold commentary on it until I conclude.  I shall say for the moment simply that this experienced writer’s violent disruption of “atmospheric coherence” could have been no clumsy accident: An Seabhac could have strayed so far from “proper” literate narrative technique only by design.

First, let us remark the obvious.  Efforts to replicate an oral style cover the tale’s surface from start to finish.  The writer even positions himself as a raconteur spinning a yarn before curious listeners in the opening paragraphs.  Throughout the narrative, diction is supremely simple (more so, probably, than my translation indicates, for it was not always possible to recycle the same word in changed circumstances and emerge with a comprehensible English expression).  Sentence structure is also tailored to be remarkably brief and direct in many (though not all) scenes.  If anything, this quasi-oral evasion of a recherché vocabulary and an involved syntax was slightly overplayed by An Seabhac.  For instance, the brevity of the following sentences concluding the lively scene that portrays Donnca’s flight accurately reproduces of the effect in Irish:

Mor heard the shout.  The heart in her leapt to her throat.  Off and out the door with her.  She saw her man a-coming.  The bundle swooped low.  Donnca swooped low.  His heart and his liver were a-running one into the other with the force of the terror that was upon him.

Only the last sentence replicates something of the rambling, fluid effect that we would expect of a practiced scéalai’s prose.  Stiofán Uí Ealaoire (Stephen O’Leary) was such a one when his repertoire was tape-recorded in the 1930’s.  Contrast the ensuing passage with the previous one:

He awoke on the morning of the morrow, left his blessing upon his father and his mother, and took himself off.  He was a-going his way throughout the day till the last of the evening came upon him, and when the last of the evening was a-coming upon him the will was with him to put up at a welcome-lodge in some place or other.[xi]

The classical term for such a style is parataxis.  It relies heavily upon simple conjunctions (most often “and”) to create meandering sentences in which one can almost hear the lilting of the speaker’s voice.  An Seabhac’s relatively staccato prose is by no means a stranger to ordinary conversation; but when a common conversant graduates to becoming a skilled raconteur, frequent pauses tend to be supplanted by the full flight of a spellbinding voice.

I would suggest only with great trepidation that An Seabhac missed the mark in his attempt to reproduce oral style—in this regard or any other.  His experience of the tale-teller’s craft certainly surpassed whatever most of us might claim today.  What I suggest here is indeed slightly different.  I suspect that he wanted so keenly to project a spoken tale into writing that he exaggerated a kind of simplicity which we literates associate with speaking.  The term “stylistic hypertrophy” might serve us well in this context and others where the writer’s recreation of a speaker becomes an unwitting caricature.

One may counter that I have compared apples with oranges—that the relation of young MacMorna’s voyage in the curragh, for instance, does indeed manifest a leisurely paratactic structure.  The point would be invalid inasmuch as the “voyage” scene is almost sui generis in this tale.  The narrative’s next events—involving the king’s discussion with his druid, the contest between the brothers, and the final recognition of their kinship—all employ clipped, terse phrasing.  Yet the voyage remains the exception that proves the rule: that is, its rambling style is probably An Seabhac’s concession to the presence of a “type scene” and its typical delivery.  One can dig back as far as the medieval manuscript of The Battle of Ventry and find descriptions of sea voyages that resonate not only in several details, but even in choice of specific words.  Since I have brought up Stiofán Uí Ealaoire, we might note the correspondences between one of his voyage scenes and An Seabhac’s.[xii]

English description An Seabhac Stiofán Uí Ealaoire
putting the boat’s “fore to the sea and aft to the land” a tosach do mhuir agus a deireadh do thír a thúis do mhur is a dheire do thoínn
“He raised the white sails…” D’ardaigh in airde a seolta beannarda bána Thóg sé a seólta bogóideacha bán-dearga
“seals and sea beasts… and mermaids” róinte agus míolta móra… murúchain róinte,  míolta móra… beithíg óga

Though the term “formula” was originally used by Parry and Lord to refer only to phrases that completed metrical blocks of a traditional poem, the flaws of this definition have been demonstrated dozens of times.[xiii]  Much of the formulaic clearly plays about the scéalai’s rendition of a sea voyage.  An Seabhac knew this, and he duly followed the pattern.

Also conspicuous in “House of Mor” are the kinds of synonymous cluster—twos, threes, and sometimes fours—that illogically but effectively intensify the oral performer’s meaning.  A literate would say that the rain fell very hard, or perhaps that such a rain had not been measured for fifty years: we might be given the actual measurement in inches or centimeters.  A skilled raconteur, on the other hand, would say something of this order: “It rained and poured and pelted and coursed in spills and splatters and splashing roars.”  The idea hasn’t changed, but the style could scarcely be less similar.  As my whimsical example implies, alliteration or assonance frequently enliven these “congeries of synonyms” in certain traditions, and particularly in Germanic and Celtic ones.  An Seabhac, once again, has his ear keenly tuned to the effect.  My translations could seldom reproduce the precise nature of the phonetic resonance—I often used assonance as a substitute for alliteration.  Here are just a few such strings:[xiv]

ní go síoch ná go grách (169)—wasn’t tame and… wasn’t tender

aon treasnaíl ná aon áiteamh (169)—excuse nor explanation

go cneasta cairdiúil (170)—soft and civil

scáth ná eagla (170)—fear nor affright

gráin agus fíoch agus gomh (172)—hatred and loathing and detestation

dealbh agus déanamh agus snó agus pearsa (176)—the face and making and traits and nature

Shéid na gaotha garbha gáifeacha… (173-174)—A harsh and hazardous gale began to howl…

Proverbs, naturally, play an integral part in composing the oral worldview.  Ordinary men and women recur to the proverbial for justification the way literates resort to objective evidence.[xv]  I detected at least one proverb in the short story that An Seabhac would later include in his 1926 monograph on the subject: “Speaking’s not better than listening.”[xvi]  In my translation, I drew attention to this sentiment’s being traditional lest the reader miss the effect.  The author actually understates the connection in this instance, obviously assuming that it cannot pass unnoticed even among literate Irishmen who know Gaelic.

I promised more “stylistic hypertrophy”, however—and I think one traditional shade in whose sketching An Seabhac’s hand has clearly pressed too heavily is the forecast of doom that broods over the final section.  Oral tales, to be sure, do not cultivate surprise as a virtue.  There would be no point: within the culture, everyone of any age knows the conclusion of every narrative (or knows, I should say, when one hero’s death blossoms into more tales).  Much of the power of a drama like Sophocles’ Oedipus seems indeed to have resided in the audience’s certainly of the terrible outcome, as if participants in a ghastly ritual were to watch a duped victim march unwittingly to the block.  Homer (if we may treat him as a fully oral performer, which requires a degree of negligence) declares editorially that Patroclus is rushing to his death in Iliad 16.46-47 before the warrior even touches Achilles’ arms; and Achilles himself is advised of his impending doom by his semi-divine horse Xanthus in Iliad 19.408-417.

Yet the former Homeric warning is a mere line and a half, and the latter actually occupies a scene within the narrative.  An Seabhac’s premonitions, in contrast, come often and at length, and never flow from any character’s mouth (Mor’s apprehension being motherly angst rather than prophecy).  The final words of the mid-section, and then frequent passages in the final section, lament those who violate their geas (or “doomsbond”, as I have riskily translated it) with unremitting persistence.  “Ill the omen of that time for the clan of Mor.  Had come the day.  Their hour was upon them….”  This all seems a bit much, and I am unaware of any genuine oral narrative that hits the “woe” pedal quite so heavily.  Again, the only possible conclusion appears to be that the literate author has overdrawn an oral trait in his zeal to produce an oral-style portrait.

Finally we have matters of content—of the beast beneath the narrative epidermis.  An Seabhac might have modernized his style without sacrificing the primitive quality of his tale, but he preferred to have the deepest level correspond to the most superficial.  Though I am not personally aware of other versions of the “Mor and Donnca” story,[xvii] this account seems entirely plausible as a folktale: i.e., as an oral recitation of ancient material in an age when proximate and rival literate influences are beginning to render that material’s roots inaccessible.  This is my own definition of folklore and would be certain to excite controversy in many academic circles.[xviii]  All we need note in the present setting, however, is that Mor and Donnca are largely comic figures who might as well be Everyman and Everywoman.  An Seabhac does not even offer us Mor’s distinguished aristocratic pedigree.  Pagan gods and beliefs have also been supplanted by the Christian Johnny-Come-Lately, Saint Brennan, who offers Donnca a prize for embracing the new virtues of humility and peace-making.  The vignette does not thrust us into cosmogony or epic warfare.  It amuses us with a marital spat, rather, that boils over into a near-burlesque of the grand old style.

Mor’s character isn’t the only thing that changes utterly once Donnca departs.  The story itself is now that older kind of story—a legend with plenty of mythic qualities.  The Journey to the Blessed Isle is perhaps most famously represented in extant Irish literature by The Voyage of Bran and The Wasting-Sickness of Cú Chulainn, both of which mythic yarns were in large part versified and intended by their monastic scribes, very likely, to have Christian resonance.  The template, naturally, is even older than these texts: it may well be thousands of years older.  It certainly did not vanish, furthermore, as Ireland became a colony of over- and under-classes rather than a jigsaw puzzle of rival clans.  Whatever other elements of the mythic past dissolved, this one survived in forms no less poignantly mystical, even if its protagonists were now fishermen rather than demigods.  The first tale in Seanchas ón Oileán Tiar (related by Tomás Ó Criomhthain with the assistance of Robin Flower) offers what we might call the modern version: “Bád na nGort Dubh” (“The Boat of the Dark Fields”—as opposed, one must assume, to the Elysium of White Island).[xix]  All accounts built upon this model involve a deserted ship under full sail—the motif we know best as the Flying Dutchman—which the curious, the gullible, and the greedy board only to be lost forever to the world of the living.  In many versions (though not in Tomás’s), an episode ensues upon this one wherein a parent or parents forbid a child from approaching the sea lest the mystery ship (implicated somehow in the child’s birth) return for the young one as prophesied.[xx]  Of course, An Seabhac has stitched all of these ancient sequences into his tale.

Students of Celtic literature will by now probably feel their heads buzzing with various narratives that appropriate some few or many of the complications I have described in their constructing of an Other World Journey.  Oisín breaks his vow (though in most versions accidentally) not to touch Irish soil during his return visit from the Tír na nÓg (The Land of the Young), an infraction that casts him back into the cycle of mortality.  Cú Chulainn appears to forget about his living wife Emer in some measure after his voyage to the mystic land and its exquisite queen—an error that also overtakes Marie de France’s hero Eliduc.  Closer to An Seabhac’s adopted version, the Welsh knight Owein entirely forgets his Other World Queen when he returns to the living world of Arthur’s Round Table.  All of these narratives involve a limited recovery from a delightful (if deathly) enchantment, followed by a degree of tragedy because the hero’s memory or awareness has been damaged in his repeated crossings of the interface between the two worlds.  He loses his bearings, forgets his bond, and stands condemned of a grim forfeiture.

One could easily lose one’s way, like the hero-traveler, simply by trying to follow the permutations of this myth, or of this range of related myths.  I have written enough, I trust, to demonstrate that An Seabhac was positioning “House of Mor” within a mythic/legendary context when he wrote its final two sections.  That much hardly requires much proof: his caption beneath the story’s title, after all, announces that his sources are traditional.  The final question I raise, then, is this:  why does his story juxtapose different kinds of tradition?  Why a funny, folksy tale of a squabbling married couple followed by a journey to the Other World, a tragically temporary return, and at last an agonizing metamorphosis that explains the name of a mighty crag?

Answer A: The dissonant concatenation was intended precisely to create dissonance, this because such is often the way of traditional tales.  Kriemhild is highly sympathetic in the first half of the Nibelungenlied and Hagan a despicable traitor: in the second half their roles reverse.  Likewise, in the medieval Welsh Math Son of Mathonwy, Gilvaethwy moves from collaborating in a foul rape that threatens his lord’s sovereignty to defending and promoting an innocent cast-off orphan.  Traditional narratives often have little coherence in this regard.  By making the mood of his own story incoherent, An Seabhac was reproducing traditional plumage just as he did by inserting synonymous doublets whenever possible.

Answer B: The story of Mor doesn’t stop with her separation from Donnca.  An Seabhac had further details, and his self-imposed task as a chronicler of vanishing traditions required that he record all that he knew about her fictional history, even if his story’s artistry suffered as a result.

Answer C: The dissonance between the tale’s two related traditions was intended to signal an extra-textual dissonance.  If this alternative is true, then it must involve us in further conjecture.  Why was An Seabhac deliberately “shaking us up”?  Perhaps he was seeking to cast doubt upon the literate aesthetic of coherence.  Perhaps he was implying that life itself is incoherent, with comedy constantly being shadowed by tragedy and wicked deeds being contradicted by good ones—and that the tidiness of literate “unity of impression” betrays reality in its quest of order.

Answer D: The previous option may be pointed in the right direction, but too polemically so.  Perhaps we should not imagine the author as aiming barbs at “the oppressor culture”, current though that trend may be; perhaps he merely implies, like a true man of the soil, that the interweaving of comedy and tragedy produces no contradiction at all.  An Irish proverb which An Seabhac did not record in his little book of 1926 advises us, “Nuair is mó an ghreann is giorra an cumha”—“When joy is greatest, grief is nearest.”  This is simply the way traditional people think.  A story that projects such bitter paradox (and its pessimism is ubiquitous in ancient Greek literature) is a story that tells the plain truth.

I dismiss Answer B out of hand.  An Seabhac might have joined the substantial ranks of those who had prepared compilations of local legends had he so desired.  He would soon publish a monograph on local proverbs: nothing was keeping him from creating a similar work about local tales.  An Baile Seo Againne was not that work: it was a collection of short stories.

Answer A is more intriguing, and probably not devoid of truth—but I believe it requires fusion with another answer to get at the full truth.  Medieval narratives that present flip-flopping characterizations are more likely the result of clumsy scribal concoction rather than of oral performance faithfully set down.  It is the rule, indeed, to find traditional characters quite flat and two-dimensional—almost cartoon-like—instead of hopelessly complex.[xxi]  An Seabhac has given us every reason to suppose him fully committed to replicating the effect of a traditional tale; but if he considered artistic self-sabotage to be a quality inherent in traditional narrative, then one would have to view his labor as more parodic than resuscitative—more Ovid than Virgil, more Ariosto than Tasso.  I don’t see any ground for that conclusion.

Answer C, on the other hand, seems to me to err on the side of finesse.  It would demand a postmodern, deconstructive sort of consciousness of the author.  A seemingly simple yarn whose true intent was to indict the possibility of story-telling… that option cannot quite be ruled out in the land of Flann O’Brian.  But An Seabhac betrayed no hint of being Flann O’Brian (whose own Gaelic penname—Myles na gCopaleen—offered satire where “The Hawk” played it straight) in any of his works.

My best guess is that Answer D holds the highest probability of being correct.  To An Seabhac—or at least to the elegantly literate Pádraig Ua Siochfhrada in his most oral-traditional mood—tragedy did not contradict comedy, but rounded it out into reality.  This, after all, is the implicit lesson of many another short story in An Baile Seo.  A miser dies in abject misery after being cozened into marriage by a manipulative serving girl (“Flúirsín”); an alcoholic fisherman returns home after a week in and out of jail on “market day” to find that his wife has left for America (“Callshaoth”).  These stories are amusing, and sometimes even uproarious, until the final page.  Then all the humor suddenly freezes hard, and one is left with the troubling thought that life offers no other laugh, perhaps, than the kind where ruin waits just beyond the threshold.  I might add that Flann O’Brian himself, if he is like An Seabahc in no other way, concurs with him perfectly here.

My last word, then, is this.  If the “oral mind” cannot exhibit literate thought very often or to any great extent, then a literate mind can clearly revert in certain moments to a very traditional worldview.  I know that this is not an original insight,[xxii] but I believe the depth of its truth has been grossly discounted.  There is something not just to caress with condescending affection, but to love and embrace, in the “crudity” and “naiveté” of the pre-literate consciousness for those who, thanks to literate introspection and analysis, have measured the limits of their own triumph.  If what I say here is true, then we should consider extending the “transitional stage” of thought—a stage whose very existence Albert Lord once stoutly denied—as possibly overlapping the stage of full, “high” literacy.  Like that most glorious of proto-literates, Socrates, the thoughtful individual of modernity is capable of “knowing that he knows nothing” and of turning back to the past for suggestions, if not answers.



[i] From p. 40 of Paul Sorrel, “Oral Poetry and the World of Beowulf,” Oral Tradition 7/1 (1992): 28-65.

[ii] “The written technique…” asserted Albert Bates Lord in The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard UP, 1960), 129, “is not compatible with the oral technique, and the two could possibly combine, to form another, a third, a ‘transitional’ technique.”  With impeccable scholarly integrity, Lord would recant within a few years. Contrast Ruth Finnegan’s more recent and more measured verdict: “A degree of literacy has been a feature of human culture in most parts of the world for millennia” (Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance and Social Context [Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1977/reprinted 1992], 23).

[iii] Viz. Joseph Falaky Nagy, “Oral Life and Literary Death in Medieval Irish Tradition,” Oral Tradition 3/3 (1988): 368-380: “One could now even propose a radical re-evaluation of medieval Irish literature in the wake of our being made aware of this clash of communicative legitimacies, going so far as to say (at least to an audience of kindly and indulgent non-Celticists) that most of what ‘happens’ in these literary texts, on the levels of both form and content, is directly and even self-consciously expressive of this clash” (368).  In other words, medieval Irish literature is “transitional”.

[iv] See “The Adventure of Melóra and Orlando,” Praesidium 9.4 (Fall 2009).

[v] Cf. Pádraig Ua Maoileoin, Ár Leithéidí Arís (Baile Átha Cliatha [Dublin]: Clódhanna Teoranta, 1978): “And it’s here that a good many of the writers of Corca Dhuibhne fail—they gave no prod to any character, and if they did they didn’t listen to him squeal; they were talking to themselves most of the time.  Black and white were the colors of the writer, or sometimes perhaps red and purple.  But the typical man is gray or brown, and gray or brown is what he speaks.  He’s usually not the stuff of this writer’s tapestry” (p. 53: my translation).  This remark is aimed rather directly at Muiris Ó Súilleabháin but includes others from the Kerry area.  At issue, clearly, is the traditional story-teller’s refusal to offer detail and to analyze character—or to assume, one should say, that each individual is not a microcosm of his tribe but indeed possesses a unique character.  Ironically, in calling the ordinary man gray or grown, Ua Maoileoin himself implies that this man has little of the unique.  The tradition seems to make people not too stereotypical for his taste, but too clear in their uniform beliefs.  Such a preference for gritty realism, wherein human beings become pitifully pre-determined creatures with low horizons, appears to be the literate elite’s common manner of rejecting tradition in colonized cultures.  The characters of Ua Maoileoin’s own creative works certainly do not spring off the page with individuality.

[vi] Declan Kibard, The Irish Writer and the World (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2005), 48.

[vii] I am not alluding to John Millington Synge, by the way, whose familiarity with Gaelic was acquired in adulthood and by force of will.  (Some of Synge’s observations and adventures as he tried to imbibe the language from the locals are chronicled immortally in The Aran Islands.)  Nevertheless, the Irish dialect of Synge’s English plays enforces the same cultural sequestration as traditional Gaelic would have in another genre.  Contrast the themes and values reflected in his dramatic works with those of O’Casey and Shaw.

[viii] “’Its Beginning Is Better Than Its End’: Proverbs, Pessimism, and the Oral Mind,” Praesidium 11.3 (Summer 2011).  The title of An Seabhac’s little treasury of proverbs is Seanfhocail na Muimhneach (Proverbs of Munster).

[ix] I decided to transliterate all Irish names into English approximations.  Some have no real English equivalent, “Donncha” being one of these; yet my reasoning was that an approximation would involve less mauling than a “faithful” spelling whose navigation would likely be an utter mystery to the casual reader.  My rendering of Corcha Dhuibhne as “Corca Yweenye” required some very difficult choices.

My text is drawn from An Baile Seo Againne (Baile Átha Cliath: Connradh na Gaedhilge, 1913), 168-180.

[x] I had considered translating geas as “tabu”, which is exactly what it means: in other words, no word in modern English usage (e.g., “prohibition”) captures its supernatural sense.  The effect, however, struck me at last as culturally dissonant beyond the point of tolerance, and so I have chosen “bond of doom” or, hereafter, “doomsbond”.

[xi] Leabhar Stiofán Uí Ealaoire, ed. Séamus Ó Duilearga (Baile Átha Cliath: Comhairle Béaloideas Éirinn, 1981), 68.

[xii] See An Baile Seo (op. cit.), 174-175, and Leabhar Stiofán (op. cit.), 31, for the table’s items in full context.

[xiii] Sioned Davies, “Story-Telling in Medieval Wales,” Oral Tradition 7/2 (1992): 231-257, carries an excellent overview of scholarly reservations about Parry’s use of the term and of “formulas” in medieval Welsh prose (by an expanded definition) on pp. 242-252

[xiv] All page numbers in the list refer to An Baile Seo Againne (op. cit.).

[xv] See Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Rutledge, 1989), 35, for an excellent brief description of the proverb’s role in traditional settings.

[xvi] Ní fearr caint ná éisteacht, Seanfhocail na Muimhneach (op. cit.), 46.

[xvii] In the opening pages of Seanachas Amhlaoibh Í Luínse, collected by Seán Ó Cróinín and ed. Donncha Ó Cróinín (Baile Átha Cliath: Comhairle Béaloideas Éirinn, 1980), a local source explained to the collector almost fifty names in the Cúil Ao region (5-7)—beginning with the legendary Aodh himself whose name may or may not have been commemorated in the district’s.  “Explanations” are often on the order of “Cúm na Cloiche [Coomb of the Stone]—Ó cloich éigint do glaog é [It’s named after some stone or other]” (7).  In a land whose culture is as ancient as Ireland’s yet whose recent generations have been as forcibly severed from that antiquity as has happened in Ireland, fanciful onomastica are bound to proliferate.

[xviii] The classicist G.S. Kirk, for instance, refused to distinguish between myth and folklore throughout his distinguished career.  Yet I believe that a movement from myth to folklore is indeed clearly discernible when narratives discard demigods for happy-go-lucky orphans—when the tragic superhero Siegfried becomes the invincible churl Clever Hans.  Both types of narrative are oral-traditional, yet in the latter the stable epic cosmos has shrunk to a faithful but struggling community of peasants whose inherited ways are assaulted constantly by inscrutable city-slickers.  One can readily see how this dividing line, in the case of Ireland, might neatly separate the Middle Ages and times before from the Plantation and times after.

[xix] Seanchas ón Oileán Tiar (Baile Átha Cliath: An Cumann le Béaloideas Éireann, 1956), 1-6.

[xx] I can readily cite two traditional texts where this more complex juncture of sequences occurs.  One is Mícheál Mac Ruairí, Mac Mic Iascaire Buí Luimnigh (Indreabhán, Ireland: Cló Iar-Connachta, 1992 [first printing 1909]).  The second is Scéalta Mháirtín Neile, ed. Holger Pedersen (Baile Átha Cliath: Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, 1994), ch, 6, “An Mhaighdean Mhara”, pp. 102-115.

[xxi] See Ong (op. cit.), 151-152.

[xxii] Ong, for example, has often made or implied this observation from various directions; cf. his assessment of Plato in Orality and Literacy (op. cit.), 167.

Dr. John Harris, founder and current president of The Center for Literate Values, is also Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.