The 'seanchai' recounted tales that were meant to educate and entertain

Ireland's last storyteller lives in the U.S.!

If you’re tired of TV this Christmas and want your kids to explore something new, why not introduce them to a rare phenomenon, an Irish seanchai (storyteller)? Ireland is a nation of storytellers, that we know. Everyone has heard about (or read) our brilliant writers, and you might have told a tale or two yourself in a late-night pub session. But rarely do we think of the traditional storyteller, the seanchai.

Batt Burns is perhaps the only "seanchai" in the U.S. Born in Kerry in southern Ireland, he is also the grandson of a storyteller. On his website he recalls an era before TV and other distractions, when his granddad would entertain him with tales of mystery and imagination.

The art of the seanchai is an ancient one in Ireland. Storytellers used their talents to communicate traditions and history to new generations. Storytelling was also a way of passing the time -- with our dismal weather this was a necessity.

“The old customs were preserved,” Batt says. From his grandad he would hear “the ancient tales of Ireland being recounted by the fireside during the long, harsh winter nights.”

As an adult Batt became an elementary school teacher, but he didn’t forget his grandfather’s special skill. In his work he strove to innovate, and he wrote his own series of schoolbooks on the environment.

In 1994 he returned to his roots, so to speak, quitting teaching and moving to the U.S. where he began to work as an entertainer. In the role of storyteller Batt has performed in schools and universities across the country and has been on radio and TV. In 2002 he told stories at the Kennedy Center in Washington on St. Patrick’s Day.

Many of Batt’s grandfather’s stories took the form of poems, and verse remains a big part of Batt’s repertoire today. He also has a new book out, “The King With Horse’s Ears and Other Irish Folktales” (Sterling Publishing, New York).

Batt’s stories are enough to scare and charm any young child -- tales of ghosts, folklore, poetry and adventure. It sounds like a wonderful way to pass a cold Christmas night.