- Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border: Characters and Community by Ray Cashman
If the proverbial pen is mightier than the sword, as Irish literary giants espouse, then the stories told by Irish local characters are mightiest of all. At its core, Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border: Characters and Community is a book about a marginal community and the characters that maintain it, a story of becoming and belonging. Set in the small town of Aghyaran, County Tyrone, on the historically volatile border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the community resides at the intersection of fundamental and often provocative differences. Having worked the Aghyaran field for nine years, Ray Cashman identifies and unpacks the social occasions in which storytelling performances organically transcend religious, ethnic, and political differences and thereby reinforce peaceful co-existence.
In effect, Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border is both a sophisticated social study and a genre-based ethnography. Ray Cashman writes gracefully and intelligently, and with utmost respect and affection for his informants throughout. His thick and thorough contextualization frames empirical texts and brings the traditions and tradition-bearers to life.
Having first clearly laid out his methodology and theoretical stance, in chapter 1, “Goals and Orientations,” Cashman raises questions of cultural relativity and reflexivity that he will address throughout the book: Why do people choose to tell stories, and why do they self-select the specific stories they tell at any given time? Can we—and how—do we measure the “social work” of stories (pp. 1–2)?
In chapter 2, “Aghyaran: A Sense of Place and History,” Ray Cashman paints a stunning descriptive portrait of this English-speaking agricultural town with a population of 2,500, and thus provides the physical, geographic, and historical [End Page 98] landscape in which he will locate the characters (oftentimes his informants) as he introduces them to the reader.
From here on, Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border is broadly presented in two parts. The first part is largely concerned with particular storytelling venues where differences evaporate, such as ceilis and wakes; both are communal gatherings where togetherness and commonality is reinforced through the sharing of traditional texts and forms (chapter 3, “Ceilis as Storytelling Contexts,” and chapter 4, “Wakes as Storytelling Contexts”). Although the impetus for ceilis and wakes differs, both facilitate a measure of celebration and entertainment, and participants often pass the time by engaging in banter and the sharing of anecdotes. Wakes particularly lend themselves to outpourings of colorful reminiscences, such as moving and humorous anecdotes that commemorate the recently departed’s role in and contribution to the community.
Chapter 5, “Local Character Anecdotes,” serves as a transition to the latter part of the book, which focuses on the nature of character and the forms and functions of anecdotes. Generic fluidity and intertextuality are discussed in chapter 6, “The Wider Range of Storytelling Genres.” Anecdotes in general express localized perceptions from the past that inform the present, and color both the narrator and audience’s worldview. However, both narrator and audience tacitly understand the intricate and inter-textual responsibilities, adroitly walking the ethical tightrope between wit and neutrality, excess and insult. Furthermore, anecdotes cross paths with other genres such as jokes and folk-tales, and in doing so, alter their guise from fact to fiction or fantasy. Parenthetically perhaps, we are reminded of the tension between native and academic classificatory systems. For example, while forms such as “codding” and “raking” might be treated as minor genres by an out-group, they have social utility for the in-group, providing subtle, skillful, and vital negotiation of the social equilibrium.
The delicate dance of community inclusivity is dissected and deconstructed in chapter 7 (“Anecdotes and the Literary Character”), chapter 8 (“Anecdotes and the Local Character”), chapter 9 (“Anecdote Cycles and Personality Traits”), and chapter 10 (“Patterns and Implications”). Through deep analysis—textual, textural, contextual, intertextual, structural, performative, and so on—Ray Cashman offers in-depth and insightful...