Storytelling is at the heart of Irish literature from the early medieval period right up to today. A story well told has the efficacy of a prayer, and we know that a prayer or a psalm can release the unfortunate damned soul from the pains of Hell, even if it is merely rhymed off without any great concentration! The colophon following the Táin Bó Cúailnge in the twelfth-century Book of Leinster in TCD gives a blessing on all who would memorise the version of the tale presented in that manuscript, and not tolerate any modification to it (Bendacht ar cech óen mebraigfes go hindraic Táin amlaidseo 7 na tuillfe cruth aile furri). More interestingly, we are told regarding the story Altram Tige dá Medar—featuring the stunningly-beautiful Eithne of the Túatha Dé Danann and her Christian credentials—that Saint Patrick ordered that no one was to sleep or speak while it was being recited, but that its recitation would guarantee the story-teller a happy and fruitful marriage, the pub-goer a peaceful evening in his local, the traveller a safe journey, a taoiseach his re-election, a prisoner his release from bondage and so on. For reciting a story in the late sixteenth century as guest at the home of Maol Mórdha Mac Sweeney, Tadhg Dall tells us he received as payment four treasures (an each ballach ‘dappled steed’, aonrogha chon Cláir Dá Thí ‘the choicest wolf-hound of Dá Thí’s plain i.e. Ireland, mionn leabhair ‘a precious book’ (containing stories of the type tána ‘cattle-raids’, tochmhairc ‘wooings’ and toghla ‘destructions’) and cruit ollamhan fhola Búrcach ‘the harp of the poet of the Burkes’); not bad work if you can get it! More recently, stories could be traded for food, in Inishmaan in 1934!
The celebrated sagas in Irish literature are well known. In this conference we will be shining a light on some less-well-known material, ranging from the ‘story’ or ‘story within a story’ to the ‘anecdote’, to the ‘marginal’ comment or verse. Scholars of Old, Middle and Modern Irish from Trinity College, Dublin, and further afield, will share some of the choice stories and anecdotes they have discovered in the course of their research with a view to highlighting the richness, variety, importance and artistry of Irish literature over more than a millennium and a half and the wealth of work that remains to be done on this literature. Whether any of this will save the souls of attendees and participants is not certain, but it will entertain, and be good for the soul!