The ancient art of storytelling is alive and well in Celtic culture. Recently we spoke with seanachie Cyril May about the tradition.
What are your roots?
The majority of my ancestors are from England, Ireland, and Scotland. My mother’s McMullen side of the family came to The Colonies from Scotland and was quite involved in early settlement and later industrialization in Canada.
Where do you currently reside, and how old are you?
I am 57 years old and live in New Haven, CT, with my wife and family
When and why did you start storytelling?
My earliest storytelling grew out of the wonderful campfire tradition at Camp Washington in Morris, CT. I experienced stories that were terrifying, hilarious, mysterious, and delivered by excellent amateurs. I began telling stories as a camper and then continued as a counselor there. But it was during a summer working at Dunvegan Castle on Skye that I first encountered a traveling troupe of seanachies. Both of these experiences were magical and life-changing.
Are they the same reasons you do it today?
Stories and storytelling may be the most unique thing about humans. We grow and feed on stories like we do food. So, despite my evolving target of telling stories for entertainment, tradition and now, environmental education, the goal is still to grow and feed off of stories.
How have you grown as a storyteller over that time?
I hope that I am much better. I recently heard a tape of one of my first storytelling performances and commented to myself “what an awful lot of shouting.” That style of boisterousness actually worked well for telling the Cattle Raid of Cooley to an adult audience in an Irish bar, but I hope I have sharpened and smoothed out what was a rather jagged edge.
What is the most challenging aspect of the vocation?
People have less patience for storytelling now in a culture where “click away” is the habit for anyone who finds themselves not fully captivated while watching a YouTube video. As a Celtic storyteller, however, I most wanted to maintain a tradition that is very pre-YouTube.
What are the rewards?
I feel like I am contributing to the world, and to the preservation of Celtic culture, when I capture an audience with a story from more than 1,000 years ago. That feeling is delightful.
What is the response like from live audiences?
I have had audience reactions that span the gamut from disengaged to standing ovation. Part of this is audience, part how well I am telling the tale and another part is matching the right telling to that particular audience. My favorite reaction is actually getting grown-ups riled up with interactive components, calling upon them to shout an ancient Irish battle cry “ABU!” This is giving adult audiences that fevered spark of full involvement which is too often only thought to be for children.
What makes a good story?
Neil Gaiman has commented that a good story makes the audience ask, “and then what happened?” Keeping the audience’s attention through wordplay, description, characters, voice, body are all vital – but so is the “what next” seed you plant.
Is your creative process more ‘inspirational’ or ‘perspirational’?
Like any good recipe, storytelling is a mixture of creative spark and hard work. It also means trying out turns of phrase, rhythms of speech and other elements on yourself and others…and knowing you will get some of it wrong before rebuilding it and telling it better next time.
What are your thoughts on the state of storytelling today?
In semi-retirement from storytelling I am not up to speed with current events in storytelling. The shift toward The Moth-style telling of anecdotes, is great fun and is revitalizing general public interest. This is all so good, but I hope that we bring along some older traditions as we continue to evolve the new ones.
How can that be improved?
It would be nice to increase some cross-cultural sharing between modern “here is my powerful story” tellers and more traditional “here is an old powerful story” tellers.
What’s next on your creative agenda?
In my current work as an environmental magician I make use of story to inspire and empower audiences with messages about their power to protect our planet. Learning magic at America’s Hogwarts, McBride’s Magic & Mystery School, helps in this greatly. But storytelling is the root and trunk of my magic shows and my magician teachers share that lesson fully – words and ability to weave them are the greatest magic of all.