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Reviewed by:
  • Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border: Characters and Community
  • James P. Leary
Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border: Characters and Community, by Ray Cashman, pp. 283. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008. $34.95.

In August 1998, Ray Cashman—then a graduate student in folklore at Indiana University—settled in Aghyaran, a mixed Catholic-Protestant area in County Tyrone. For the next year, followed by five subsequent visits extending to 2007, Cashman conducted ethnographic field research with particular attention to the interrelationship of material culture, customary practices, narrative performances, and the local sustenance of community within a region long troubled by sectarian strife. As a result, during the past decade, he has authored a series of illuminating essays examining the politics of culture inherent both in the broad currents of Irish folklore scholarship and in such genres and practices as outlaw ballads and legends, collective and sectarian public displays, Christmas mumming, wakes, and storytelling.

Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border draws upon and considerably extends Cashman’s prior observations, resulting in one of the finest ethnographic studies of traditional storytelling since Linda Dégh published Folktales and Society: Storytelling in a Hungarian Peasant Community in 1962. Unlike Dégh, however, who focused on the majestic märchen or magic tale, Cashman turns his attention to the humble local character anecdote—a form often maligned by glib reductive quantifiers who equate “anecdotal” evidence with imprecision. Cashman effectively counters such ill-formed arguments by considering a rich corpus of recurring interrelated anecdotes deemed, as Kenneth Burke aptly recognized, “significant” by their tellers and audiences.

More specifically, once settled in Aghyaran, Cashman discovered that the regular céilis and less-frequent wakes were the primary social contexts for local storytelling. And although a range of narrative genres, among them legends, jokes, and personal experience stories figured in these events, their performance was far outstripped by the exchange of local anecdotes concerning the background, appearance, actions, and speech of memorable characters. Harkening to Franz Boas’s profound notion that studying the folklore of a people has the distinct advantage of aligning one’s inquiry with a topic “of interest to the people themselves,” Cashman participated in and even hosted numerous céilis, wrote careful notes afterward, and conducted subsequent interviews with neighbors who were at once storytellers and their audiences. He discovered that anecdotes in Aghyaran were sometimes contemplative and overtly philosophical: sympathetic with and approving of the trials and virtues of the “modest wee bachelor” and the sainted mother, or aghast at the hasty individualism of those who have grabbed the Celtic Tiger’s tail. More often, however, they clustered at the other end of a serious to comic continuum, featuring the transgressions [End Page 151] and triumphs of rough bachelors, coarse talkers, uneducated blunderers, and especially sly tricksters and witty men of words.

Crucially, Cashman demonstrates through abundant examples that these humble stories—concerning people and matters familiar to all, set in the recent past but with explicit implications for the present—simultaneously emerge out of ongoing, face-to-face interactions and are a fundamental auto-ethnographic means through which storytellers and audiences constitute, represent, critique, and sustain their collective, contemporary existence.

Put another way, such storytelling conjoins empirically evident social networks with the comparatively mystical yet nonetheless real and powerful social imagination of community. Prevailing ethnographies in the Republic of Ireland have emphasized declining vestiges of peasant culture, whereas those in Northern Ireland have stressed the clashes of Protestants and Catholics. Cashman’s hard-won evidence offers another perspective. Through their stories and reflections, as Cashman tells us in his study’s final pages, Aghyaran’s people are neither fully enamored with the notion “that modernization equals progress,” nor besotted by a romantic past. Likewise, although the respective Catholic and Protestant storytellers of Aghyaran may well align themselves on one side or another of a nationalist/Unionist divide, they are at pains to assert neighborly over sectarian values through their performances and local character anecdotes. Thus, as asserted in the book’s final phrase, “the fragile but vital construction of community and local identity becomes possible through folklore.”

Worthy for its innovative contribution to the respective discourses on ethnography in...