Words: Dylan Murphy
Photography: George Voronov
Event Photography Courtesy of SEANCHOÍCHE & Molly Keane
Storytelling is a universal human instinct. While everyone’s journey is different, the ability to empathise and see yourself in others is what often binds us together. In a time where our opportunities to connect are at threat, storytelling night Seanchoíche has become a gentle force of nature pulling us closer together. Ahead of a run of events in partnership with Guinness across the Island, Dylan Murphy spoke to the founder Ciaran Gaffney about the significance of storytelling in Ireland and how Seanchoíche is extending its legacy.
Returning to the Museum of Literature Ireland is a bit of a full circle moment for Gaff. Today, the six foot something Irish native is sitting comfortably in the very same room he visited over a decade ago as a school pupil. Back then, he was fortunate enough to publish a series of short stories through a program at his school with the launch day taking place in MOLI. Given he was raised on a diet of fiction books, it’s no surprise he took to creative writing and storytelling. “I just loved writing. I loved English, it was my favourite subject. It sounds really dorky but English paper one was the best day of my life”, he laughs. “Growing up, I just loved telling stories and listening to other people tell their stories”.
Ciaran Gaffney or Gaff as he is better known, is the mind behind the storytelling night Seanchoíche. It’s an experience designed to bring together ordinary people to tell their stories. Coming from Seanchaí, which is Irish for a storyteller and Oíche which is Irish for night, Seanchoíche (pronounced shanna-key-ha) pulls an age-old tradition into the modern era. Most attend with the intention of listening to stories and finding shared connection in the room. While others that are confident enough to speak to a crowd, sign up to tell their own stories around a theme that’s selected in advance. That can take the form of anything from a poem about forgiveness, to a personal anecdote about love or a classic folklore tale about heartbreak. It’s a fluid night that’s appeal is in the personal touch. Sure, storytelling has a well established history in Ireland, but Gaff learnt through living in Miami, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam and London that sharing lived experiences is a universal source of connectedness.
“Having lived in so many different places the one thing I’d realised was that we are such storytellers. Irish people, but also just people in general. I think that we really gravitate towards narratives and anecdotes. That’s how we communicate and how we connect with one another”, he explains.
Lockdown put these realisations under the microscope and as the world began to reopen Gaff put out the feelers for an event that could fill the social vacuum that’d been left in the wake of the pandemic. He posted a close friend’s story on Instagram, with vague aspirations for an event where people could tell stories around a theme. He didn’t even have a venue, but that didn’t stop a number of his friends responding enthusiastically. So, he organised it in The Fumbaly Stables, brought along a film camera and worked it out as he went along. It went better than he could’ve ever imagined. People respectfully observed the stories of others and there was no judgement, just supportive claps and cheers for nervous speakers. It’s even more remarkable, given the developments we’ve seen in other types of events. Post-Covid, we’ve consistently witnessed examples of poor etiquette at gigs being broadcast online. Whether that’s people talking through sets, attendees filming whole concerts or even interrupting artists, it’s clear there’s been a shift in behaviour at live events. Seanchoíche, however, appears to not only avoid those faux pas’ but actually reject them. With audience members rarely using their phones and actively respecting the speakers, not only out of politeness but because they are so wrapped up in the magic of the experience.
“I think the power of Seanchoíche is in the perfect balance of empathy and catharsis that fills the room. The room is teeming with people who are coming to listen to other people tell their story – not to judge them and not to criticise them. You don’t judge the standard of their public speaking skills or anything like that. It’s purely just to connect and to kind of find little nooks and crannies and someone else’s narrative that they can relate to and they can empathise with and they can feel. When you sense someone is nervous and tripping up on their words as they’re telling a story, the whole entire room will applaud them, smile and encourage them. So that kind of beautiful balance of empathy amongst the crowd and the other speakers” Gaff says, smiling.
Given the success of the first event, it’s understandable Gaff had fears that the “electric” atmosphere would be difficult to replicate. Fortunately, the next edition and all the others that have followed have been able to recapture that same magic. Subsequently, Seanchoíche has grown to have multiple monthly chapters in different cities. It’s even had appearances from artists like Maverick Sabre, Nealo and Shiv, who launched a single at one of the nights. Next month it’s hitting the road, visiting Donegal, Dingle, Amsterdam and Mayo. It’s not hard to see the appeal of being a speaker. You have the opportunity to get something off your chest and find reassurance in an open and welcoming community.
“Everyone in the room kind of rides that wave together,” he says. “It is kind of hard to capture it when you are telling someone that hasn’t been to an event. I hate that whole ‘oh you had to be there’ phrase, but it does immediately hit you when you walk into the space. When the first speaker gets up there and tells a story, anything can happen. The unpredictability kind of has everyone at the edge of their seats as well. It’s not really like a stand up comedy night, exclusively. It’s also not a tragedy exclusively. It feels like a tasting menu of different people’s lives essentially.”
This communal experience has become even more potent given ongoing eradication of third spaces. The few that do exist often revolve around alcohol. Which is fine, but given Gen-Z’s increasing appetite for experiences that don’t involve drinking, it’s important to have other options too.
“I think people were towards the pandemic we were bursting to connect and bursting to just be in a place where they can feel at one with other people. People are looking for other outlets. Yes, the events might have alcohol at them, but they can also be enjoyed without alcohol. Where you can still be there until midnight and not really drink anything. I think it meets a lot of different needs and desires, some of which are more obvious – the experience of connecting with being entertained, getting something off your chest. But then also there is also finding a little bit of alternative entertainment and nightlife in the city”.
“I’ve had people come up to me saying ‘Gaff, I actually can’t imagine a life without being able to go to Seanchoíche and listen to stories or tell stories’. But something I underestimated before doing Seanchoíche, was the power of being a spectator in the room. The power of being a speaker is kind of obvious. It’s super, super cathartic, it’s a really great experience, you get to try out creative juices and you get to see people respond to things and you have to say. But when you’re actually listening and you’re so moved by someone’s story or you understand someone better after they tell their story or you see yourself in someone else that’s actually almost unparalleled in how it can nurture you and how you can feel. So it’s quite cool that everyone gets a slice of the pie.”
Though he’s spoken at Seanchoíche, Gaff’s most memorable experience came as an audience member. It was one that connected people in different parts of the world and arrived courtesy of a young Zimbabwean who spoke at one of the London events. He’d been living in the capital for over a decade and spoke without hesitation about the difficulties of assimilating into England. Having struggled with the cultural differences, he detailed the rollercoaster of finally finding a sense of community in church after years of isolation, before being rejected by the congregation for coming out of the closet. Thankfully, he bookended his story with the welcome news that he has found a sense of home in the queer community. However, not ending there, this particular story actually extended itself in unexpected ways through Seanchoíche. “It was an amazing story – you could hear a penny drop. He was an impromptu speaker who decided to speak on the night. What was really special was, when I announced that we were doing a Seanchoíche in Melbourne, he said, ‘oh, Gaff My aunt really wants to speak at this’.” Gaff explains. “So down in Melbourne, 15,000 kilometres away, his aunt got up and told a story as well. They’re both such different narratives of what it means to be from Zimbabwe, that means to be African, what it means to be moving to the country that is predominantly white. And it was just such an important narrative and two completely different generations from the same family. Just the fact that different members of a family can tell a story at our events are completely different ends of the earth” he says.
“It’s just so special. And so you can see again, full circle.”
Seanchoíche is teaming up with Guinness as part of a run of pop-up events across Ireland. August 3, they head to Downings, Co. Donegal, followed by an event on August 10 in Dingle, Co. Kerry, with an event running on the same day in Amsterdam, before finishing in Westport, Co. Mayo on August 24. Click here for tickets.
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