This chapter is excerpts only, since the source data is comprised of scanned image files.
The Limits of Storytelling
“I am the Name Storyteller.
Words can no more contain the Dance of the Flame than electric ecstasy, or the feeling of hate, the song of a whale, or the smell of sex. The Dancers moved in a certain fashion that could be described, and spoke words that could be marked down, and told certain stories that might be repeated; but these things are not the Dance; and if I told you half of what they did and said, would take us into Story after Story after Story; and they are not the Story I have chosen to tell.”
D.K. Moran, The Last Dancer, p. 275
It is recognised that no matter how many stories are recorded, there will always be more to tell. There are always more memories. There is also a limit to how much may be transmitted through words: experiences such as birth and death within the family - experiences which are common to all peoples, and all tribes - are experienced in ways beyond the capability of words to adequately describe.
The following stories and motifs might best
be viewed as surfaces of emergence of the unspoken. They are verbal representations
of a way of seeing and experiencing the world. The examples given as not intended
to be - and cannot be - a complete 'canon' covering all aspects of such a gestalt.
Such a canon would need to be infinite, and words could not adequately describe
the gastronomic or the kinaesthetics of dance. What these motifs do describe
are the core family attributes - both
positive and negative - which have endured poverty and diaspora and war. They also delineate the disjunction between the Irish imagination and the positivist-realist paradigm.
"Storms beget storms. Rage begets rage. Revenge begets
revenge. Wars beget wars"
B. Herbert, Prelude to Dune 1 - House Atreides, p. 494
"It's important to remember," Denice said softly
"But it's more important to forgive"
D.K. Moran, The Last Dancer, p. 219
“Legends are rarely gentle. Gentleness is not remembered
so long nor so well as valor or love or greed or death. Great deeds alone do
not ensure legend, and their lack will not prevent it. The winds of myth can
rise from the lowest deserts.”
D. K. Moran, Emerald Eyes, p. 240
Much has been lost over the years: more is
in danger of being lost every time a generation overlooks the need to actively
preserve and record it's heritage, or forgets to record it's own stories.
It is uncertain precisely how long the line in question has had literacy in English. To the best of my knowledge, however, it appears that for this particular line writing as a source of both artistic expression and catharsis did not emerge until the late 1950's or early 1960's: at least, as far as my research can tell no personal writings survive which predate this time.
A number of factors may account for this: poverty, travel, a preference for storytelling as opposed to story writing, and two world wars. The letters written to me in the 1980's by my grandfather (who died when I was 15, in 1989) were thus a significant exception to the rule. The questions I asked in my letters to him (and I asked a lot of questions) were simply questions of identity and history: at the most basic level - where did my family come from?, what did they do?, what where they like?
For the purposes of this thesis, because there is such a small pool of written material available, it was possible to parse ALL of the surviving written material to specifically search for personal and collective memories. One of the repeating formula's used is "such and such used to say that..."
There is a second pool of source material preserved
purely through oral transmission. The method for collecting this material was
straightforward: to travel to where most of the family had gathered for Christmas
last year with a tape recorder and listen to the stories first hand. Everyone
asked knew what I was gathering the stories for and approved, so there was no
By far I spent the most time with my oldest living relative, a great Aunt, since she could provide the most first hand accounts. The non-scanned source material contained later on in this chapter is almost entirely a record of her accounts. However, I did not neglect to ask most other relatives for anything passed on - even those far younger than myself. After all, they were the one's whom as children many of the stories had been told to. Many memories were found to have faded, and the one which had not were counted personal or sacred, and thus are not included in this work.
In terms of listening to my great Aunt, source material was gained which was both directed and undirected. She was telling her own story as much as the story of my line: in that sense she had the right to tell her story the way she wished. At times, though, I asked questions aimed at examining the key attributes and attitudes of the line. It has been observed that for the transmission of stories it takes a minimum of three people, preferably four - one primary speaker, one or two secondary contributors, and a listener. Asking any primary or secondary speaker on their own will generally draw a blank. It would appear that such transmission requires a social matrix rather than being an individualistic exercise.
It is theorised that transmission has this communal element because memories of this kind are embedded deeply within a social context (to such a depth that I had not anticipated) and thus require a social element for recall and retelling. It is also possible that because storytelling is such a strong tradition in the line that it has certain ways of being done. If it has only ever been done in one way - to a group, then it is possible that consciously or unconsciously a group is required for the stories to flow. Such a ritual requirement makes for a strong oral tradition, but makes a written tradition extremely difficult. This again is a factor which contributes to list of conditions required for this thesis to be written - having lived away from the family, for most of my life as an only child, my bias is towards the written as opposed to the oral, and towards individual communication rather than group communication.
Problematics of Interpretation
"The Jaff taught me something' she said 'when we
were together under the Grove. I was looking at the cross he had, trying to
work out what the symbols meant - these symbols’ - she waved the cards. "And
he told me: To understand something is to have it. When you know what a symbol
means, it's no longer a symbol. You have the thing itself inside your head,
and that's the only place anything needs to be."
C. Barker, Everville, p. 598
One of the primary reasons the initial oral
source material was gathered undirected was to see what traits were emphasised
without biasing the material with questions, to see if correlated with the written
source material, which it did. One of most important questions to ask
when interpreting this kind of data is "To what extent am I observing what is
there and to what extent am I
A simple example of the problem can be given with a hypothetical situation. Say, for instance, that in 300 years time another humanities student of the line is studying this time because it was a time of crucial technological, political and technological change - not to mention the junction of two millennia. From their perspective, they would observe that my research was begun at Murdoch University years before the establishment of the Irish Centre, that the thesis was submitted on October 31st (Samhain) of the year 2000 itself, and that the first tutorial given to my colleagues on my research was held on St Patrick's Day, 2000 AD. Our hypothetical future researcher could thus
draw all sorts of conclusions about the significance of the specific dates, but the fact of the matter is that the exact timing was due to pure chance on my part. (Other elements, such as the rise of Celtic music and the clan associations in the 1990's, could quite correctly be attributed to the nature of the historical moment).
But it would be so easy for a future researcher to "identify" a pattern of this nature, and even justify it. It is just this sort of mistake which I am trying to avoid.
With the source data I have tried to include all relevant motifs, no matter how obscure. The classification scheme by stream is of course subjective, and alternative schemata are no doubt possible. Nevertheless, I have consciously tried to avoid imposing patterns.
The Context of Connaught
It should be noted that according to the old
division of Ireland into five provinces, each region had a different symbolic
The Hy-Fiachrach territories were based in Connaught. According to Dames, “the themes of love and war, life and death, are merged, in a manner which made the province the proverbial seat of wisdom.” (Dames, 1996). Further, the “province of Connacht is partly defined by comparison with Leinster. The stereotypes proclaim that Leinster is fertile and Connacht barren. Leinster’s sunshine is contrasted with Connacht’s cloud and heavy rain, her riches with Connacht’s poverty, her urban success with the small and often failing townships of the West. Leinster stands for the triumph of newcomes, whereas Connacht is traditionally the last refuge of the defeated. The wisdom of Connacht, like that of King Lear, comes partly with the loss of power. This most westerly province of all Europe gains and offers insight in extremis.” (Dames, 1996)
It is interesting, given the obsession of the English speaking world with binary oppositions, that the wisdom of Connaught was seen to derive from the unity of opposites, which seems as if it belongs far more in an eastern philosophy.
It is also argued that insight is often associated with harsh environments, such as mountains and deserts – or in this case, the far western moors. For a society which promotes ideals of prosperity and comfort, the traditional notion of Connaught must seem to be an awful place. Yet there are positive traits to be found in such a place of extremes, for wisdom is seldom associated with places of soft and easy living. A last refuge is still a refuge. Just as it will be argued that the raven was once claimed as a symbol for understandable reasons and may still be reclaimed as such, it is also argued that such a forbidding heritage may be embraced rather than run from. Perhaps others might run from such a set of connotations because they have no affinity with them: but just as the raven need not be a hostile figure towards those of the raven tribe, so the traditional meanings of Connaught might serve as source of strength within one’s cultural heritage, rather than a source of foreboding. To Europe Connaught was a far margin: to the Ui Fiachrach, it was their centre.
Rees paints the west in a far more light in consideration of provinces. In Rees’ work, the following meanings are given for Connaught:
“LEARNING (Fis), foundations, teaching, alliance, judgement, chronicles, counsels, stories, histories, science, comeliness, eloquence, beauty, modesty (lit. blushing), bounty, abundance, wealth” (Rees, 1961, p. 123)
For the purposes of this thesis, perhaps the most pertinent point is that for the line in question there has always been an association with story telling and chronicles, an association which remains right to the present.
Examination of the Motifs and Classification by Thematic Stream
While any classification scheme is subjective, relying on the perception of common traits by the observer, I have found it useful to classify the source material into the following themes:
Core Family Traits - Loyalty, Bravery and Generosity
War, the Futility of War and Mourning
Famine, Persecution and Suffering
Outstanding Characters and Character Traits
Ritual, Tradition, Time and History
Mysticism and the Irish Imagination
Symbols and Double Meanings
It is impossible, of course, to consider one theme
without reference to the others. Core family traits must be considered within
their context (war, famine, persecution, suffering, history) and only find concretisation
within the stories concerning specific characters. All these elements are interdependent.
Without the core traits there is no unifying theme, without the history of suffering
there is no context, and without the characters there are no stories.
The point is not to produce a clear cut grid of mutual exclusives, but to make a series of connections between a seemingly diverse set of motifs to allow the richest readings possible.
How then do the motifs relate to one another as a coherent pattern of meaning within these themes?
Commentary on the Memories
“A myth is a socio-historic “document”. If myth is sacred history then it is no overstatement to say that myth is our best possible source of knowledge of a culture’s most intense core of belief, feeling and understanding” (Griffiths, 1999, p. 108).
I believe that the motifs speak plainly for themselves.
It is hard to imagine, from the comfort of western society in the year 2000,
the incredible hardship and suffering that our ancestors endured.
The motifs also mark out a number of paradoxes: a disgust for war and a proficiency for fighting, a life of hard realism and poverty and a gift for imagination, a capacity for infighting linked to a fierce sense of family loyalty.
It is my argument that many of these motifs and stories serve to reinforce the core family traits of loyalty, bravery and generosity. They have been remembered not because they are some of the most intense experiences, but because they are linked to a sense of cultural and family identity.
The next chapter will explore the notions of tribal
identity inherent in the symbol of the raven.