In the 18th and 19th centuries, seanchaís were traveling storytellers who were welcomed into Irish villages to entertain and bring local news in return for food and a place to sleep.
Now seanchaí Helena Byrne said her role as a storyteller is to keep Irish folklore alive.
Many of the stories she tells are about the fairy folk in Ireland.
“And when I say fairies, I don’t mean Tinker Bell; I don’t mean the pretty little winged fairies,” Byrne said. “These fairies were actually feared, and they were respected by Irish people. They were characters that you didn’t want to offend, you didn’t want to disrespect, because there would be terrible consequences if you did.”
Her grandfather once told the story of a fairy funeral he’d witnessed.
“My grandfather was out on the road one night coming back with his horse and cart, and the horse got completely spooked and wouldn’t move, wouldn’t budge an inch,” Byrne said. “And then my grandfather realized a fairy death coach was passing by. So he had to do the respectful thing, and he removed his cap, and pressed it to his chest, and sat perfectly still, until the horse began to move again and gave sign that the death coach had passed on.”
Byrne incorporated fairy folklore with stories of the Potato Famine in Ireland in her performance at Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum in Hamden. It houses one of the largest collections of art devoted to the famine in Ireland.
The failure of the potato crops in 1846 led to mass starvation, disease, and emigration. Byrne said that the story of the famine and the story of Irish beliefs are not completely separate things.
“Because people truly believed the fairies were real, then when the potato crop began to fail, some people were thinking, well, maybe it’s something that we’ve done to upset the fairies. Or maybe it’s something to do with God, with our Christian beliefs as well. So they put holy water over the crop in an effort to save it,” Byrne said.
Byrne is sharing stories at Ireland's Great Hunger Museum, 3011 Whitney Avenue in Hamden, at 6:00 pm on Thursday, March 23.