Last year Oein DeBhairduin bought a dictaphone, turned it on and started telling stories.
He remembered them all from his youth — ghost stories, tales of giants, and an account of why the moon moves.
“My father would have been a great storyteller. The same with my mother and grandmother,” he says.
As a member of the Travelling community in Galway, folklore and oral storytelling are part of DeBhairduin’s heritage.
“I wanted to ensure that I was doing the stories that I inherited as much justice as I could,” he says.
DeBhairduin collected 100 stories that were handed down to him by generations of families and compiled 20 of them in a book, Why The Moon Travels, which he says is the first book about Traveller folklore that is written and illustrated by Travellers. Leanne McDonagh, a Traveller woman, did the artwork.
Traveller stories and histories have been recorded before but it’s mainly been done by people outside of this community, DeBhairduin says. There aren’t many people who aren’t Travellers who know a lot about Traveller culture either, he says.
The whole point of the book is to show some material that is important in Traveller culture, he says.
Putting these folklore stories together was a difficult task for DeBhairduin.
“It was tricky to capture stories on a page that have been passed down through generations by oral tradition,” he says.
The way in which stories are told and contextualised can be as important as the story itself, says DeBhairduin.
A Tradition of Oral Stories
“I think there is something innately human in getting together and sharing a tale,” says DeBhairduin.
Folklore stories in the Travelling community are significant because they are a point of memory, he says. But often people can forget their importance, and how much they mean to Travellers.
“They are a point of resistance, resolution and resource,” he says.
“I genuinely believe that this is precious and important to us all because they really show our innate humanity and our familiarity with one another.”
Folklore stories often seek to highlight human flaws that are sometimes not discussed, such as one story in the book, about how the badger gets its stripes.
In this tale, a rock falls on a woman who gets stuck underneath it. Animals of the forest attempt to save but it is the badger that has the most determination and persistence of the other animals.
“At the end she is saved by him. She blesses the badger and as a way of saying thank you she gives the badger his stripes,” he says.
He says the underlying message of this story is about how misfortune can befall anyone and how sometimes help can come from unexpected places.
Another tale in the book is about the women who pick herbs and gather them in their basket.
“On one level it is about the creation of the first spiders and where they come from. On another level, it’s about the efforts and sacrifices women take and their unnoticed labour,” he says.
With their pickings, they make bracelets for the children to wear on their wrists as a way of protection.
But as more children are born into the community, the women must keep up with the demand for making these bracelets.
“Eventually they work themselves until they are just fingers. What happens is, the basket on their backs becomes their bodies and they became the first spiders,” he says.
From there the spiders began weaving webs around the world to protect everybody.
“We are ridiculously wild creatures, each and every one of us and sometimes we put limitations on ourselves that are so unkind. Stories do a lot of freedom to us,” he says.
Publishing an Unheard Voice
When recording each story, DeBhairduin did his best to preserve them just as they were, with as many details, perfections and, sometimes imperfections as when he first heard them.
He listened back to see what aspects of the story worked and what didn’t.
Maintaining the oral aspect of the story was crucial, he says.
“When you are telling a story orally there is a rhythm and a flow to it and I wanted to conserve that as much as possible,” he says.
Gráinne O’Toole, who co-edited Why The Moon Travels alongside Fionnuala Cloke at Skein Press, knew of DeBhairduin through his work in activism with the Traveller movement and LGBTQ rights.
O’Toole became aware of DeBhairduin through his blogging website Keeping A Campfire.
He writes about his own life, traditional skills, and crafts on the blog.
“ I was very interested in his style,” she says.
O’Toole says that there’s not enough literature from writers that are on the margins.
“We wanted to work with writers who don’t see themselves or their communities in Irish literature,” she says. So she co- founded the publishing house in June 2017, which specifically caters to people on the margins and lesser known aspects of Irish life.
This Hostel Life by Melatu Uche Okorie was the first book published by Skein Press, back in 2018.
It depicts life for migrant women in Ireland, from everyday racism to what life is like inside Direct Provision.
O’Toole asked DeBhairduin to send Skein Press samples of his writing and they were impressed with the poetic and lyrical style they saw.
“When we saw the beauty of his writing and what he was writing about, we met with him and looked to see if we could commission work from him,” she says.
A Sense of Collective Ownership
Selecting the final stories for the book was one of the biggest challenges, DeBhairduin says.
He had to refine and choose just 20 stories total, out of more than 100 that he collected.
Family and friends were consulted by DeBhairduin to ensure that the selection process gave a proper insight into the folklore of this community.
“Because these have a lot to do with Travellers, there’s a collective sense of ownership over ideas, especially coming from my own family. I had to make sure that people were okay with it,” he says.
Why The Moon Travels is a story that explains the movement of the moon and DeBhairduin felt that it would make a fitting title for this book.
“The moon is an iconic focus in our lives but it’s not limited. It’s forever changing and growing,” he says.
The sense of mystery around the moon is enhanced by its distance to us, he says.
He says that this is sometimes how different communities see each other, adding that people think they know a lot about each other but but when they don’t know the narrative behind the story they fill it with all sorts of ideas, he says.
“Travelling for us is not just a physical act but it is a perception of life and how we engage with one another. It’s such a natural thing that the moon itself does it,” he says.