Gelli Fach

Gelli Fach

I'm a cell, I'm fragmented, I change my form;
I'm a repository of song, I'm a dynamic state.
I love a wooded slope and a snug shelter,
and a creative poet who doesn't buy his advancement.

Wyf kell, wyf dellt, wyf datweirllet;
wyf llogell kerd, wyf lle ynnyet.
Karaf-y gorwyd a goreil clyt,
a bard a bryt ny pryn y ret.

From: Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin, edited and translated by Marged Haycock

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Irish Oral Tradition

The Blasket Islands

Robin Flower wrote the following about an experience he had on one of the Blasket Islands, which were eventually evacuated in 1953:

“Some years ago I was wandering idly one day along a road upon an island which lies three miles out into the Atlantic beyond the most westerly point of Ireland. The island is entirely Irish in speech, and the older inhabitants still preserve a rich treasure of song and story. As I strolled along I heard a call from the next field, and clambering over a wall, I found myself in the presence of an old man of over eighty years who yet retained something of the strength and happy spirit of his youth. As I came up he spoke: ‘You have an unsociable way with you (Tá cuma fhiadhain ort). Don’t you give folk a greeting when you go by them on the road?’ ‘Yes’, I said, ‘I greet people. But I didn’t see you over the wall.’ ‘A man should have his eyes in every corner,’ he said. ‘But sit down now and we’ll have a crack together.’ He had been digging potatoes in a furrow of the field, and now laid the potato spade cross-wise over the furrow and, sitting down on one end, courteously signed to me to take my place on the other end. I did so and without further preamble or explanation, he fell to reciting Ossianic lays.

For half an hour I sat there while the firm voice went steadily on. After a while he changed from poetry to prose, and began to recite a long tale of Fionn and his companions and their adventures throughout the world, how they came to Greece and what strange things befell them there. At times the voice would alter and quicken, the eyes would brighten, as with a speed which you would have thought beyond the compass of human breath he delivered those highly artificial passages describing a fight or putting to sea, full of strange words and alliterating rhetorical phrases which, from the traditional hurried manner of narration, are known as ‘runs’. At the end of one of these he would check a moment with triumph in his eye, draw a deep breath, and embark once more on the level course of his recitation.

I listened spellbound and, as I listened, it came to me suddenly that there on the last inhabited piece of European land, looking out to the Atlantic horizon, I was hearing the oldest living tradition in the British Isles. So far as the record goes this matter in one form or another is older than the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, and yet lives still upon the lips of the peasantry, a real and vivid experience, while, except to a few painful scholars, Beowulf has long passed out of memory. To-morrow this too will be dead, and the world will be the poorer when this last shade of that which once was great has passed away. The voice ceased and I awoke out of my reverie as the old man said: ‘I have kept you from your dinner with my tales of the
fiana.’ ‘You have done well,’ I said, ‘for a tale is better than food’, and thanked him before we went our several ways.

In such memories, and in an odd quatrain still surviving from the byplay of the schools, the tradition of the poets is still alive in the spoken tongue. And in the great manuscripts written in the schools of poetry and history and law we can see them busy at their task of preserving the old tradition which their order had been instituted to guard. They stood firmly over the ancient ways and had but small capacity of adapting themselves to the change of times. Their existence was bound up with that of the aristocratic order which they served, and with it they fell. But their memory and their influence lived after them and, if the spoken Irish of today is perhaps the liveliest, the most concise, and the most literary of the vernaculars of Europe, this is due in no small part to the passionate preoccupation of the poets, turning and re-turning their phrases in the darkness of their cubicles and restlessly seeking the last perfection of phrase and idiom.”

From The Irish Tradition by Robin Flower, Oxford University Press, 1949


  1. It's such a pity that the oral tradition of story telling is dying. There was a programme on one of the Documentary Channels a few years ago about the Celts and it included modern day Bards telling the ancient Celtic stories, they were wonderful to listen to and I'm hoping that one day they'll appear again so that I can record them this time!

  2. I wish I'd seen that! Do let me know if it's on again. I'm going to an 80th birthday party next month and various guests are going to do 'turns', including story-telling so that should be a treat.