Magical power of storytelling that ripples down the ages

Michael Pattwell was involved in a recent World Storytelling Day event in Cork
Magical power of storytelling that ripples down the ages
From the Bible to modern gatherings, a good story is hard to beat

WORLD Storytelling Day (WSD) is a project to promote oral storytelling by inspiring people all over the world to organise events each year in the week around the March Equinox.

The goal is to have as many people tell and listen to stories at as many places and in as many languages as possible.

It is also an opportunity to build friendships and understanding across national, linguistic and cultural boundaries. You could imagine it as a gathering around a global campfire, with tellers and listeners coming and going while the sun travels around the earth seven times.

An event could be anything from a small, cosy gathering in your kitchen with friends and relatives to a big exciting storytelling festival. The focus in on ORAL storytelling but that can also be transmitted by phone, Skype, etc, and as storytellers know, art forms like music blends well with the adventurous spoken stories.

Each year there is a theme for the stories and this year the suggested theme is Myths, Legends and Epics, but there is no need to stick to that. Organisers suggest that there are so many ways one can build on the basic ideas and create ‘special interest’ networks, for instance storytelling in schools or museums, for environmental issues or anything that might benefit by taking part in WSD.

There is no central organisation apart from a website — www. — and Facebook group. It is run on a strictly voluntary and non-profit basis.

World Storytelling Day has its roots in a national day for storytelling in Sweden around 1991-2. In 1997, storytellers in Perth, Western Australia coordinated a five-week Celebration of Story, commemorating March 20 as the International Day of Oral Narrators. At the same time, in Mexico and other Latin American countries, March 20 was already celebrated as the National Day of Storytellers.

In 2002, the event spread from Sweden to Norway, Denmark, Finland and Estonia and in 2003, the idea spread to Canada and other countries. It has now become known internationally as World Storytelling Day.

Around 2004, France participated with the event Jour Mondial du Conte. World Storytelling Day 2005 had a grande finale on March 20 when there were events from 25 countries on five continents and 2006 saw the program grow further. In 2007, for the first time, a storytelling concert was held in Newfoundland, Canada. In 2008 The Netherlands took part in World Storytelling Day with an event called ‘Vertellers in de Aanval’ on March 20: 3,000 kids were surprised by the sudden appearance of storytellers in their classrooms.

By 2009, there were events in Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, South America and Australia.

I first heard of World Storytelling Day when Poetry Ireland put out that they were arranging an event for it, but when I tried to find it on the web again it had disappeared and wasn’t mentioned on their website.

I have seen ‘storytelling’ described as ‘the social and cultural activity of sharing stories, sometimes with improvisation, theatrics, or embellishment’. Every culture has its own stories or narratives, which are shared as a means of entertainment, education, cultural preservation or instilling moral values. The crucial elements of stories and storytelling include plot and characters, but probably most of all the ability of the storyteller to draw his/her audience into the story.

The term ‘storytelling’ can refer in a narrow sense specifically to oral storytelling and also in a looser sense to techniques used in other media to unfold or disclose the narrative of a story. Storytelling predates writing. The earliest forms were usually oral combined with gestures and expressions. In addition to being part of religious rituals, some archaeologists believe rock art may have served as a form of storytelling for many ancient cultures.

Modern storytelling has a broad purview. In addition to traditional forms — fairytales, folktales, mythology, legends and fables — it has extended itself to representing history, personal narrative, political commentary and evolving cultural norms. Contemporary storytelling is also widely used to address educational objectives. New forms of media are creating new ways for people to record, express and consume stories.

Oral traditions of storytelling are found in several civilisations; they predate the printed and online press. Storytelling was used to explain natural phenomena, bards told stories of creation and developed a pantheon of gods and myths. Oral stories passed from one generation to the next and storytellers were regarded as healers, leader, spiritual guides, teachers, cultural secrets keepers and entertainers. Oral storytelling came in various forms including songs, poetry, chants and dance

Though the Bible is widely published and read in written form today, it is believed the various books that make it up were written down mant years after the events described — and that includes both the Old Testament and the New Testament.

The First Five Books of the Old Testament — Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy — according to Jewish and Christian dogma, were all written by Moses in about 1,300BC. The events described, however, clearly originated many centuries before and therefore were passed down by oral tradition by the storytellers of their time.

It is the same with the New Testament. The earliest known complete list of the 27 books was compiled by a 4th-century eastern Catholic bishop though all the works that eventually became incorporated into the New Testament are believed to have been written no later than around 120 AD. It is most unlikely that any of Christ’s Disciples were around in 120 AD and therefore even the stories that eventually formed the New Testament were handed down by oral tradition by storytellers.

We in Ireland, of course, have always treasured storytellers and the seanchaí was always highly respected. In every parish or area there were houses where people gathered in the evening to chat and tell stories. These were known as ‘scoraíocht’ or ‘a rambling house’.

Looking through the calendar of events on the WSD website I found only two others listed for Ireland. One was in Cork on March 19 and the other in Kilcullen, Co. Kildare, the next day. A couple of friends of mine, and myself, in the area where I live, Butlerstown, on the Seven Heads, discussed it and were delighted to be able to put together a storytelling event in Butlerstown Community Centre on Thursday last.

It was a great success. About 60 people attended and all agreed it was an undertaking well worth the effort. We dedicated the event to the late Bob Jennings, a local man who was well-known for his interest in storytelling and who passed away in March, 2018. Bob presented the very popular Scoraíocht programme on local radio, travelling around the county gathering musicians, singers and storytellers in their area. Story- telling was his particular forte and he forged international links with folk-tale groups and his well known and popular, Cork Yarnspinners.

Good wishes were extended too to Bob’s friend, Joe McCarthy, who collaborated with him over the years.

Local man Michael O’Brien, himself no mean storyteller, a historian and poet/song-writer, contributed several items, including a poem he had written in memory of Bob.

A couple of the verses read:

Oh stick me in the old caboose this night of wind and rain

And let the doves of fancy loose, to bill and coo again.

How often have we gone there in the company of Bob

To spend another night with him around the ‘Boree Log’.

And we were warm and safe there from all the wind and rain,

We left the world outside go by with all its grief and pain.

With smiles upon our faces we enjoyed a verse or song

Of common joys in homely vein forgotten ah too long.

Michael’s wife, Marion, aided by their daughter, Anne-Marie, was to the fore in organising the event.

I read a couple of my own fictional pieces myself but the fact five people from the audience volunteered to share a tale or two meant that the event could be regarded as a success.

Contact Michael at

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