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Irish folklore overcomes societal marginalization

Alli Weiler, March 18, 2013

Irish folklore is more self-expression and social critique than simple storytelling. Personal and passed down narratives offer exploited peoples the opportunity of an alternate history, free of stigma.

That is the view of Dr. Ray Cashman, associate professor at Ohio University and folklore expert.

Elon University’s Program for Ethnographic Research and Community Studies (PERCS) brought Cashman to speak at the school Monday, March 18. Cashman primarily spoke about his recent work in Ireland with a storyteller there who, Cashman said, is using words to battle the marginalization associated with poverty.

Cashman told the audience about how the tension among various groups in Ireland is reflected in its traditional folklore, and he described a constant battle between religious, political and socioeconomic sects.

“It is the natural thing for folklores to blame the high class for the low class struggles,” he said, adding that the poor rely on their versions of spoken history to redeem the prejudice and stereotypes placed on them by their oppressors.

Cashman introduced James McGrath, or “Packy Jim”, the storyteller he met in Ireland, who first opened up Cashman’s eyes to this breed of folklore.

He described Packy Jim as a bachelor who upholds Irish tradition both through his folklore and his impoverished way of life. Packy Jim’s lifestyle clashes with his neighbors. Cashman said they wish to distance themselves from the old, stigmatized living that he still represents.

Cashman said the neighbors’ anecdotes of Packy Jim referenced his “eccentricities, laziness and selfishness.” They believe his life to be easy.

Yet the neighbors praised Packy Jim as the keeper of Irish history.

The more folklores Packy Jim revealed to Cashman, the more Cashman learned to focus “less on the lore and more on his uses for it.”

Cashman referenced one story Packy Jim told him about the origination of angels. He eventually realized it to be a critique of the Irish compulsion to constantly create winners and losers in life. Cashman explained that Packy Jim felt that the Irish were always trying to outdo one another, or “make the fool a bit ‘foolier.’”

Cashman also spoke about how little Packy Jim told of his own past. In one of his few personal stories, Packy Jim eloquently presented a favorable persona of his younger self.

“He doesn’t boast about his young self but draws us in with his charming anxiety,” Cashman reported. “He charmed us with his self-deprecating, modest and lovable character. The intimacy of exposing the forgivable mistakes he made undermined the less charitable stories told about him by neighbors.”

He said Packy Jim used his personal stories to “push back at the stories that fueled the local economy of reputation.”

Cashman said that Packy Jim’s versions of local folklore contain revisions. He works with old stories and recycles them to better comprehend his society and his role in it.

Juliana Swaren, an Elon freshman, identified with this part of Cashman’s speech. “Packy Jim truly employed Irish folklore as not only a means to have a say in society and history, but also his own personal role in it,” she said.

Emma Luparello, also an Elon freshman, said, “It is nice to see how his storytelling allows him to both connect and reason with his fellow Irish neighbors.”

Cashman explained that it is people like Packy Jim who keep storytelling alive. Without voices recycling and reinventing stories, the marginalized masses might remain unheard. He said that storytelling would always be there as long as there are people in need and who remain open to it.

“We would do well to learn to be attentive and to reconsider what we think we know,” Cashman asserted.