Issue 234,  published November 12, 2019

Primal Stream

This one needs a wind-up. Back in June, I interviewed Alan Bennett from the HeadStuff podcast network in Ireland, who had just taken over a historic recording studio in Dublin and was about to reopen it as a podcast studio complex.

We were talking about the state of Irish podcasting more generally, speculating as to why Reuters research from 2018 shows podcast listening in Ireland to be so much higher (38 percent accessing a podcast in the last month) compared to its near neighbour, the UK (18 percent). One of Alan’s ideas was that culturally, Irish people are much more at ease with a kind of oral storytelling that facilitates making or listening to a podcast. “Irish people, as the stereotype goes, are a nation of storytellers,” said Bennett. “And they always like to talk and I think podcasting gives people the ability and the flexibility to do that on a slightly bigger scale.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d come across an attempt to connect podcasting with some historic tradition of storytelling, but I found the way he framed the point intriguing. To support the point, he told me that one of HeadStuff’s most popular shows is Motherfoclóir [Nick’s note: Yep], a conversational podcast themed around the Irish language in which the hosts tell each other stories about how their language has shaped their lives, and hear related anecdotes from listeners.

Similar comparisons have been made about other cultures with a strong historic connection to oral storytelling too — the Sowt network in Jordan is one such example, where podcasting allows producers to tap into an existing familiarity with intimate storytelling, but also be more progressive in their topics than conventional live performances might allow.

I’ve always been aware that myths and folktales are popular subjects for podcasts — after all, Lore is just one of the most prominent examples of a very healthy subgenre — but I had long understood this phenomenon along logistical lines. Consider: the subject matter for these shows is generally in the public domain and pretty easy to research online. The stories rarely require interviews or extensive sound design to be told well, and the host probably won’t need to travel far or use fancy equipment to get good results. It’s just a good subject area for the self-starter, I thought, in the same way that non-investigative true crime is.

But my conversation with Bennett got me thinking about the more primal connections between audio, storytelling, and folklore. This is an idea that has been around basically as long as podcasts have, probably gaining more traction in the post-2014 era. In 2016, the creators of The Black Tapes put it very succinctly in an interview with the i newspaper: “In place of a tribe member telling you the tale of a wandering spirit outside your thatched roof village, it’s a voice on the other side of the planet uploaded to a server and delivered to your portable device through your headphones.”

I must admit, I’ve heard people make the point that podcasting is just the twenty-first century incarnation of ancient fireside storytelling before, and it was one of those marketing-speak truisms that has always made my eyes roll (see also: “intimacy”). File it in the category of “probably true but mostly too vague to be meaningful.”

I’ve since revised my opinion on this completely, I think, and this can be partly credited to the host of Irish folklore podcasts I’ve been listening to recently. Aside from Motherfoclóir, I’ve been really enjoying Fireside, which is making its majestic way through the Historical Cycle of Irish Mythology via stories like the myth of Tír na nÓg and the adventures of medieval king Cormaic Mac Airt, and Blúiríní Béaloidis, a show made by the National Folklore Collection in Ireland to highlight fragmentary or lesser known stories.

What all these shows have in common is a kind of immediacy and specificity, which I hadn’t felt so strongly when listening to, say, Lore or Myths and Legends. The stories there are well told and neatly packaged, but they feel somewhat removed from their original contexts. What I’ve come to realise via listening to some of these Irish shows, or Audible’s recent folklore Original Hag, is that these shows can provide a very obvious and present connection, via this kind of oral storytelling, to the places where these stories originate today. I like the Donegal episode particularly of Motherfoclóir for this reason — two of the hosts originate from that isolated county, and therefore their anecdotes and reminiscences feel rooted in modern life.

Hag does this in an especially overt way. Audible commissioned eight novelists from the UK and Ireland to tell a different folk tale or fable, putting particular emphasis on providing a feminist or contemporary gender perspective. The folklore academic Professor Carolyne Larrington sourced the original stories, mostly choosing lesser-known material, and then writers who come from that particular place were commissioned to write their own version. Each episode includes a full performance of the new story, scored with original music, plus a discussion between the author and Larrington. (The Feminist Folklore podcast does a similar thing, as do other shows on the same lines.)

On the internet, there is a tendency for stories to become separated from their geographical point of origin. But when the local element is reintegrated into these podcasts, they become something different. Making that link to oral storytelling customs feels more valid when a podcast is drawing on a lifelong connection to a place and its stories. That’s where the so-called intimacy of audio can really take us: a story told from my home, played in yours.