Seanchoíche – Reviving the Irish Storytelling Tradition

At EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum we like to remind everyone who’ll listen that the Irish are, and always have been, a lot more than worn out stereotypes of drinking, fighting, and green garb.

We are a nation and diaspora of inventors, creators, and indeed, storytellers. Eighteen months ago, Ciaran Gaffney (Gaff) set out to re-establish the ancient tradition of live storytelling in the imaginaries of a new generation of Irish people when he founded SEANCHOÍCHE [pronounced seanna-key-huh]. The storytelling event has taken Ireland – and the world – by storm.

The idea behind Seanchoíche is intimately connected to Gaff’s own story of emigration and to the enduring appeal of real Irish culture in global diaspora communities.

The idea was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where Gaff encountered a similar storytelling event. It made him reflect on the exceptional storytellers he knew in Ireland, as well as the wonderful tales of trials and tribulation he had heard from fellow expats during his time in Argentina, the Netherlands, and the USA. Gaff asked “why aren’t we doing an event like this back home?” and before waiting for answers he decided to do something about it.

Seanchoíche is a combination of the words seanchaí – the esteemed bard or storyteller in Gaelic culture, and the word oíche – the Irish language word for “night”. Gaff perceives the project as a revival of a tradition that has always been there, but struggles to find a home within the fast paced urban lifestyles that most young Irish people now lead both in Ireland and abroad. This contemporary awakening of an ancient tradition transcends all associations of elite skills or even gendered privileges. Instead the platform is open to everyone and 60% of the storytellers thus far have no prior experience in public speaking or performance. “Seanchoíche is not a TED Talk, if the story is yours and it comes from your heart it will be extraordinary. There is no such thing as an ordinary person.” With such an inviting ethos, it’s no wonder that the night has had successful runs in Belfast, Amsterdam, London, and Dublin to date.

Gaff describes the Irish diaspora as “unfortunately in abundance”.

Huge communities from recent waves of emigration continue to grow, and in Seanchoíche, they have found a sense of home. With successful events in Amsterdam, Dublin and Belfast, a sold out show on St. Patrick’s Day in London, and upcoming dates in Sydney and Melbourne there seems to be no stopping the power of a story. While the concept is received quite naturally by Irish crowds, Gaff has found it more difficult to explain to audiences in the Netherlands for example, where the idea of sitting down to a story is not so culturally embedded. “We don’t realise how endemic it is until we leave”. Gaff believes that the days of reducing Irishness to leprechaun-like stereotypes are becoming a thing of the past, and cultural events like Seanchoíche will go a long way towards shifting perceptions and allowing people to really “get” Ireland.

While almost every Seanchoíche event to date has sold out in less than 10 seconds, St. Patrick’s Day in London feels particularly significant. Gaff admits that people are looking for alternative ways to celebrate, and he expects many of the attendees to be people who are seeking memorable cultural encounters that don’t revolve around alcohol. Each event has a theme, and the St. Patrick’s Day event at Ridley Road Social Club will centre on the idea of Resilience. It seems a fitting theme for a day when Irish culture itself often feels overwhelmed by corporate slogans, single use green plastic, and denigrating stereotypes. While branching out into Australia is the next major step on the ladder for Gaff, he is already looking ahead: “My dream is to take Seanchoíche to New York, Boston, Chicago, and LA… but I need a visa or sponsorship to do it!”

The project began with an open call to Tell Your Story. Today, however, the Seanchoíche inbox is overflowing with hopeful speakers signing up in their droves to join what has quickly become an international cultural movement. Speaking is the only criteria, with poetry, spoken word, and traditional storytelling forms all welcome in the space. If you’d like to get a taste of the atmosphere when a speaker takes the floor, check out Mikey Cullen’s Seanchoíche moment which recently went viral on TikTok. Gaff is still encouraging anyone who is interested to apply – though he cautions us not to be disheartened if we don’t receive a prompt reply!

So, any advice for telling your story at Seanchoíche or beyond?

“Mine your personal experiences. Follow a structure. Remember you have a thousand stories to tell. If you doubt yourself it’s because you haven’t given it a shot.”

Amano Miura, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum

Whether you’re planning a visit to Ireland or a local looking for a great way to spend St. Patrick’s Day, EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum is a unique and innovative way to discover what Irishness is really all about. Dig a little bit deeper with our This Is Not Us campaign and discover what it truly means to be Irish from the outside in by exploring the stories of the millions of those who left.