Multilocality and the narration of place meanings in an Irish story

 Multilocality and the narration of place meanings in an Irish story

 Chad Buterbaugh
Indiana University

Professional Irish storytelling reaches an audience well beyond Ireland, yet many stories are infused with specific information about Irish customs and culture. The listener who is unfamiliar with such specifics must rely on the storyteller to mediate perspectives on Irish culture that are at once comprehensive and relatively easy to understand.

This paper focuses on a single performance of a story about a bewitched field in Ireland. In particular, it explores how place meanings may be mediated in social, legislative, religious, and folkloristic contexts. The narrated, multilocal presentation of these contexts then create a story in which unfamiliar listeners are invited to a deeper understanding of a place with which they have no personal experience.


In this paper, I focus on the performance of an Irish story in order to explore how place meanings may be articulated in social, legislative, religious, and folkloristic contexts. I argue that the narrated, multilocal presentation of these contexts can create a story in which the unfamiliar listener is invited to a deeper understanding of a place with which he has no personal experience.

In the pages that follow, I will examine Rodman’s notion of multilocalityi and suggest its pertinence to a story told by professional Irish storyteller Eddie Lenihan. I will then briefly describe professional Irish storytelling as an art form and situate Mr. Lenihan as a unique performer within it. Finally, I will perform a textual analysis of the story in which I discuss the threads of meaning that cooperate within it to form a non-geographical but still comprehensive sense of a particular place.

Multilocality and the making of place

While working with professional Irish storyteller Eddie Lenihan, he offered me an old story about a bewitched field near his home in County Clare. I had never been to this field, and I had no connections with its people or history. Yet, in his telling, Mr. Lenihan created a sense of familiarity that brought the field to life in terms of the social customs of the community surrounding it, the antiquated local law that figures prominently into the narrative, the religious authority that influenced everyday life at that time, and how Mr. Lenihan himself verified the events of the story through his own research. I was left wondering: How can storytelling mediate place meanings for audiences with no personal experience in a given landscape?

Rodman (2003) critically examines the anthropological notion of place by suggesting that, as a concept, it is just as complex as culture. She argues that places are socially constructed by their inhabitants and therefore multivalent. Accordingly, place warrants scholarly attention beyond merely serving as the site of ethnography: “Places are not inert containers. They are politicized, culturally relative, historically specific, local and multiple constructions” (2003: 205). Rodman introduces the term multilocalityii, which she summarizes as the complexity of place based “…on connections, on the interacting presence of different places and different voices in various geographical, anthropological (cultural), and historical contexts” (2003: 212). Thus defined, multilocality becomes a versatile tool in terms of making place meanings. It can be used as a method for experiencing a place that has diverse meanings; a way of comparing multiple interpretations of place meaning; a way of understanding one place by relying on knowledge of another; or a way of creating multiple meanings for the various individuals interacting with a given place (2003: 212). It is the last use with which I will concern myself here, and for that reason I will quote the original text: “A single physical landscape can be multilocal in the sense that it shapes and expresses polysemic meanings of place for different users” (2003: 212). In this sense, landscape is a tool to be used in the construction of personal meaning, and all landscapes have multiple meanings, owing to the number of people who have had different experiences in them. In the end, the multilocal landscape melds with human activity to create a collaborative system of meaning that rearranges itself based on individual desire, which in this case is the narrative report of a professional Irish storyteller.

The multilocality of the field in Mr. Lenihan’s story is the way that it creates meaning for the unfamiliar listener (or the user, in Rodman’s terms) through performance. In effect, this is a narrated multilocality in which place meanings can be communicated largely outside of a geographic context. Barring personal experience with the field as a physical place, the unfamiliar listener is better equipped to acquire an understanding of it through the narration of its other meanings: social, legal, religious, and folkloristiciii. As Mr. Lenihan explains, the piece of land in question is a social gathering point, a landscape subject to the rule of law, and the site of a religious ritual. Framing all of these meanings is his interest in the field as a locus of research. I argue that each of these meanings is a narrated, multilocal thread through which the unfamiliar listener is invited to understand a particular place in non-geographic terms. I would also posit that an additional element, which I will call the main text, moves the narrative forward by tying these threads together. I am not inclined to call the main text a multilocal thread in its own right, as the meaning it mediates is a composite of the field’s social, legal, religious, and folkloristic meanings. Therefore, I will give it only cursory attention. My true purpose in the analysis that follows is to identify each multilocal thread in the story, demonstrate how each thread relates a particular understanding of place, and discuss how the threads connect to one another to form a narrative portrait. I will do this by transcribing Mr. Lenihan’s story from a recording of our interview and presenting it in four parts interspersed with discussion supporting my argument. I hope to present a portrait of a narrative system in which the unfamiliar listener may be immersed, may explore the foreign landscape; and may acquire the experience of a haunting unencumbered by doubt. First, however, I will provide an overview of professional Irish storytelling and the distinct voice of Eddie Lenihan as a member of this artistic community.

Professional Irish storytelling

I took a research trip to Ireland in 2007 to complete a brief survey of the state of Irish storytelling. Professional tellers were the ones who were most available to me during my short stay mainly due to their visibility online. It was easy to get in touch and set up interviews by email and phone. In the end, I spent time with professional tellers in Dublin, Galway, Cork, and Crusheen, Co. Clare.

The interviews I gathered formed the basis of my conception of professional Irish storytellers as a loose-knit, geographically-dispersed, artistic community in which storytelling performances take place mainly in public venues like festivals, libraries, or schools. Listeners encounter performers via travel to performances or by purchasing recorded collections of stories. In these contexts, performers select a number of stories to tell. These could be ancient Irish myths, memorized and faithfully told, or they could be looser anecdotes about local history or people. In one live performance, the stories were world tales performed at a kind of open stage event emceed by a small group of professional tellers (Oh-Aissieux 2007: personal communication).

Professional Irish storytelling does not depend on the knowledge and participation of members of a local community (see Glassie 1995, 2006; Cashman 2008). Although audiences might come from the locality in which a performance is taking place, they also might come from the next town, county, country, or continent over. One issue the performer is then left with is how “local” to make the stories—in other words, how should they be linguistically crafted to make them more or less familiar to the crowd? Should places and people be named or abstracted? Should historical events be glossed or situated in time with careful exposition? Tellers fashion their own opinions in this regard. Pat Speight, a Cork native and resident, tells stories in which characters are unnamed and place names are mentioned only in passing (Speight 1999). He also slows down his speech and smooths his accent in front of non-Irish audiences (2007: personal communication). Richard Marsh tells myths and legends that are filled with the names of places and people from pre-Christian Ireland, complete with pronounciations in Old Irish (Marsh 1998). Interestingly, he is a native of Detroit, Michigan. I have found Mr. Lenihan’s stories to contain more variation in terms of place specificity. While one tale might bear the title of “The Savage Pigs of Tulla”, the next might describe a landscape in broad, geographic terms: a bog, a tree, rushes, and a stream (Lenihan 1988: 2002). As an aside, his Kerry accent is always admirably pronounced.iv

I should note that I have not published close textual analyses on any stories told by professional Irish tellers, other than the one included in this paper. My statements are impressions based on personal interviews and sound recordings. In the long term, I do want to explore how professional Irish storytellers adapt their telling to make place more or less local. However, since such a study goes well beyond the scope of this paper, I will focus here on one story in particular, told by one professional teller—Eddie Lenihan—to one listener—yours truly.v The story was performed extemporaneously, in the context of a conversation Mr. Lenihan and I were having about senses of place during our interview three years ago.

Eddie Lenihan, professional storyteller

Eddie Lenihan welcomed me into his home on May 21, 2007. On that day, I was a researcher to whom he had granted an afternoon’s time to talk, record, and share tea. Through the course of our open interview he returned to his kitchen often, to boil a new pot of water or grab a pack of fig bars to share. We chatted in front of a warm fireplace, next to a picture window opening out into the deep green of Crusheen, Co. Clare, in the West of Ireland.

Mr. Lenihan, frankly, was a catch. He is a noted professional storyteller with many books and recordings to his name, including a televised storytelling series. He travels internationally to perform. I was surprised to see an Ohio State University pin on the lapel of his sweater that day. But above and beyond these career artifacts, Mr. Lenihan is a dedicated folklorist whose activities over the last three and a half decades have produced a library of tapes that fill every spare corner in his house. He lives amidst field recordings containing hundreds of hours of stories collected from the elderly men and women of Ireland, or the Old People, as he calls them, not meanly. These recordings are the corpus from which he draws all the material for his performances. Mr. Lenihan is unique in this way. The other tellers I consulted are open to learning stories from books or other sources, but not him: “The only stories I tell are the ones I’ve heard from Old People. Not book stories. At least that way you have a sense of passing something on that’s worth passing on” (2007: personal communication).

Another of Mr. Lenihan’s prerequisites for good storytelling is having had some first-hand experience with the subjects of the tale being told. When a story deals with a specific place, for example, he is compelled to locate that place himself and compare its geography to what was narrated. With this method, he has been able to conclude that the Old People possess remarkable senses of place: “I have met some of these Old People that will take you back to medieval times. They can take you back before the Famine, and not just fancifully … They knew every inch of their own place, the names of fields, why those trees were there, a house that would have been there maybe 50 years ago but gone now. They knew it. Still there in their mind” (2007: personal communication).

Fairy lore and the significance of the invisible world are also important to Mr. Lenihan’s work. He points out that Irish fairies are not the creatures of mischief and delight that many American or other foreign visitors might suppose. If you disrespect these fairies, the result is simple: “You’re dead.” To paraphrase Mr. Lenihan: The fairies have their own culture and their own agenda, and they’re to be understood as rightful inhabitants of the Irish landscape (2007: personal communication). This is the attitude that compelled him to protest an Irish highway project in 1999. The proposed road would have required the uprooting of a regal hawthorn bush, a plant that marks an important site in the fairy world. The attention that his protest drew, which included a blurb in People, ended in the re-routing of the highway (Lenihan 2002).  I hope I have given an adequate portrait of a complex man. The time taken in this description is meant to foster a greater understanding of the analysis that follows.

“Only about fifteen miles from here …”

At this point, I will include a full transcript of the story Mr. Lenihan told about a bewitched field in order to illustrate its multilocal meanings along several axes. In making this transcription, I will use two conventions for translating Mr. Lenihan’s spoken words to the page. First, each complete idea appears in a single paragraph. Second, each individual statement within an idea begins with a new indentation. At times, a cascade of statements will move across the page within an idea, not unlike the way Mr. Lenihan’s speech tends to frequently interrupt and resolve itself. Please also feel invited to access a subtitled recording of the story by contacting me at

This story takes place in four major strokes. After each one, I will stop to provide a close analysis of what has happened in terms of multilocal narration. After the story finishes, I will return to make comments on the story as a whole and conclude.

So we begin:

If you know a story about a place, that place can never be the same again.

Whereas if you don’t know the story about it, one field is the same as another.

For example, I was told a story,
               And I’ll use it in the upcoming bookvi now, because it’s of that very thing,
                              I know of a field, which would be only about fifteen miles from here,
                                             And, if you go into that field at night, you can’t come out of it.

Now it’s a small field, no more than an acre in extent

             And you’d say to yourself, looking at it, “But I mean, how—how couldn’t you come out of a place like that?”

Because even if you were a blind man, even if ‘twas the darkest night of the year, all you have to do is feel your way along the hedge until you come to the gate,
               There is a gate in it,

                            And not just that, but there’s a road at this side of it and there’s a road at that side of it.

Two parallel roads, a small, regularly-sized field, and yet,
               You can’t get out of this at night, now, come on, Jesus, I mean, you say to me,
                              “How could you? That’s science fiction!”

And yes, I was told the story behind it.

In the introduction, Mr. Lenihan begins the main text of the story, which at this point is a template upon which meaning can be built. He makes choices that open the field up to greater understanding by a listener who has never set foot in it. Topography is foregrounded but generalized. The field is located in space, but a listener couldn’t get there based on the description of “15 miles from here”. The field’s size is also estimated generally. It covers no more than one acre of land, thus giving the listener a space in which to begin adding further general details: “hedge,” “gate,” “road.” Using geographical details that most listeners are likely to have experienced, the story invites the opening of one’s memory to retrieve such details from wherever and whenever they may come. Rodman argues that static conceptions of place are problematic in that they do not recognize its “attendant dimensions of power” (2003: 205). However, through the generalization of such details here, the unfamiliar listener enjoys as much geographic reference as is digestible by an outsider. I would argue also that in narrated multilocality, it is first necessary to have at least some concept of the physical landscape in which to locate the meanings of the multilocal threads, when they appear.

The first of these threads—the folkloristic—is introduced in this passage when Mr. Lenihan utters, “For example, I was told a story”. Apart from invoking a generic distinction, this frames him as a researcher. The subsequent statement about planning to include this story in a book further clarifies his position as a collector of folklore. That he “was told” the story behind the field suggests that he learned it from one of the Old People during fieldwork. These references begin to inscribe the field as a place that contains meaning in terms of ethnographic research.

The folkloristic thread also serves to illustrate Mr. Lenihan’s skepticism. As a researcher, he is initially doubtful of the idea that a field could trap its visitors inside. His doubt will prove an important factor in the conclusion of the story, and I will attend to it later. For now, let me consider what can so far be said of the multilocality of the field. First, and most simply, the field is geography. Second, and more interestingly, it is a zone in which a folk belief comes into contact with the discerning eye of the researcher.

Mr. Lenihan continues:

And the story was, that,
               You see, in the time of the RIC,

                              English rule here, and the Royal Irish Constabulary, before our present police force,

                                             There was a rule,
                                                            And the rule stayed up into the New State as well,
                                                                           What they used to call the bona fide rule.

And the bona fide rule was that if you lived three miles from a pub, you were a genuine traveler, a bona fide traveler, and you had to be served no matter what time you showed up in the pub.
               It could be two o’clock in the morning, he had to serve you, or else he’d lose his license.

Now of course you could see immediately what kind of—
               All kind of trickery that would lead to.

All the locals who wanted a late drink, they’d go to the pub and say “Oh, I’m a bona fide traveler.”

Now the publicanvii would know them all, he’d know: [inaudible]

               “You? Bona fide traveler? You’re only living there a quarter mile away from me, don’t I know it?”

But, they could say:
               “Well, you know, I came around the long road tonight. I came three miles.”

And sure, how could the publican tell?
               He couldn’t!

And he was caught in the middle, you see, because if the police raided, and found all the locals here, he’d be fined!
               But if he didn’t serve them, he could lose his license.
                              You know, ‘twas a bad law. ‘Twasn’t, ‘twasn’t well thought out.

                                         ‘Twas well meant. Just for the sake of poor, benighted travelers who were a long way from any place, that might want a bit of heat and a bit of drink, and maybe something to eat.

Um, but ‘twas abused, naturally, you know.
               People are going to find out all the loopholes in any law.

And the local women, they were sick of this.

             The local—their men, their husbands, gone every night, you know, taking the shortcut through the fields, you know, a quarter of a mile to the pub, and drinking money that was badly needed at home, for the family, for children—

                              When money was scarce!

So, when obviously, they could get no good from their husbands, they went to the local sergeant,
               Of the RIC.

And he was very sympathetic, you know, but he says,

             “What can I do? I don’t have the manpower. I can’t be watching every turn of the road and every field. We just don’t have enough men to do that.”

But he said,
               “Look. I know what you’re going through.”
                              He said, “Try the priest. He might be able to do something for you.”

In this passage, the three remaining multilocal threads appear: legal, social, and religious. The legal thread appears in terms of the Royal Irish Constabulary, which is situated in time, introduced with the vernacular acronym, and then explained as the law enforcement body of an occupying power in Ireland before the creation of the Republic. The bona fide rule then emerges as an outgrowth of these conditions. Its text, briefly but clearly articulated, is the portal through which the multilocal thread of sociality appears. We are told that in this case, legal meaning “immediately” precipitated social meaning. Mr. Lenihan supports this claim as he describes an aspect of the social life of the day: the local men bend the rules to enjoy a late-night drink with one another. It is tempting to laugh at the occurrence, but Mr. Lenihan reminds the listener that drinking was a problem not only in this instance but also “every night” at that time, resulting in the suffering of wives and children. This revelation adds depth to the meaning of the social thread and ostensibly presents the flip side to the men’s custom. A space of conflict opens up, and the suggested solution introduces the last of the multilocal threads, religion: “Try the priest. He might be able to do something for you.”

Another conflict is also at work. At this point, the unfamiliar listener has developed a geographic meaning for the field and is developing a series of meanings regarding folkloristics, Irish law and social customs, and to a very small extent, religion. The latter meanings hang together in some way, but as of now they have a halting relationship to the place itself. The field appears only marginally in this passage, as the path the men take to the pub. This, along with its geographic introduction earlier, has positioned it as the location around which the action of the story will take place, but nothing more. Its meaning is not yet multivalent. For that reason, I cannot claim that any multilocal work has occurred yet. On the other hand, I can claim that further artful narration will tie these meanings—these threads—together, thus creating a comprehensive portrait of place.

Note how Mr. Lenihan accomplishes this in the following passage:

Now, as it happened at the time—
               I did a lot of research on this, to find out what was the case, as much as I can find out—
                              And it seems that the priest at the time, he was just a young man,
                                             Out of Maynooth Collegeviii,
                                                            And hated drink:
                                                                           “Oh, the drink, the—”

And I suppose with good reason,
               Because there was an awful problem with drinking in this country, and they often—

                            Like, the women would complain about money being drank that, that was badly needed at home.

But anyway,
               He listened to the women, and he says,
                              “Right,” he says, “Leave it to me.”

On the following day,
               In daylight,
                              He came to the field, with his Book, opened up the Book.
                                             He was—he wanted to be seen, now,

                                                        And of course there was plenty of the lads there to watch him, you know, from behind ditches and behind bushes, and,

                                                                           “Geez, what’s he up to?”

But anyway, he started his reading—
               Blessed himself, started the reading out of the Book,

                            Now they couldn’t hear what he was saying, and probably ‘twas in Latin anyway, so they wouldn’t be able to understand him.
                                         But, when he was finished, he closed up his Book, blessed himself, and walked away.

And of course, do you think that stopped the boys?

“Fuck’s sake, we don’t know what this is about, you know. Anyway, we’re going to go there the usual way.”
               —When it came nighttime, go drinking.

And, you know, three or four you saw would go through this field.
               Now they were going through other fields as well,
                              But on that particular night when they were going through the field,

They couldn’t get out of it.

Now, a small little field.

And other fellas going through other fields or maybe going the road to the pub,
               They heard the shouting and the screeching inside, in the field, you know,
                              “Let us out! Let us out!”
                                             And they were wondering, “What the fuck is going on in there?
                                                            Is it so the boys are drunk or what?”
                                                                           You know, “They can’t get out of a little field.”

But it wasn’t drunk at all because the boys hadn’t been to the pub,
               They were on their way to it.
                              But they couldn’t get out of the field until morning came.
                                             And then they were able to come out.

The pervading multilocal thread here is that of religion, which brings significant conflict with it. To begin, Mr. Lenihan dips into the folkloristic thread by reminding us that the story he is telling takes place in the context of research that he has personally completed. This statement of purpose somewhat conflicts with the authority embodied by the priest, who arrives with an austere overtone that suggests he will take control of the situation. Armed with his conviction that alcohol is an evil, the priest also opens up a conflict with the men’s custom of going out drinking together. Religion seems to favor a more cooperative social whole, and therefore cannot abide the men’s misbehavior. Finally, the very fact that the priest has been summoned represents the failure of the legal establishment, thus precipitating a third conflict between religion and law. In a way, the priest is the ultimate foil. The religious meaning that he brings with him opposes aspects of the folkloristic, social, and legal meanings created thus far. The only sense in which religious meaning acts as a unifying agent here is in its support of the local women. They trust in God for a solution to their problem, and God sends an agent to help them. A portrait of religious power dynamics begins to emerge in terms of religious presence in the community, how spiritual power may be wielded, and when it may be invoked. We also witness the consequences of disrespecting that power. Given the men’s reaction to the blessing of the field, they seem not to be doubters but individuals who don’t stop to consider the importance of such a rite. Their lack of reflection results in a night of unhappy entrapment. Note that the punishment for their thoughtlessness is relatively minor: it is psychological and temporary rather than physical and permanent.

The religious thread is unlike the legal and social narrative threads. Apart from generating several conflicts, it does not orient the unfamiliar listener quite as carefully. The priest is not situated in history, as were the RIC and the bona fide rule. Neither is he contextualized socially, in terms of regular associations he might have had with the community. He is cast instead as an abiding presence invoked in a time of need.

In a sense, we have reached the end of the story. The portrait of the field as a social construction of those living in it is complete. Mr. Lenihan’s narration has tied the legal, social, and religious threads together here to create a multilocal sense of place. As the priest arrives to the field, in daylight, carrying what we assume is the Bible, the field as geography begins to change into a “dynamic, socially constructed” landscape (Rodman 2003: 217). The priest approaches a place in which legal ambivalence and social malady co-exist in an untenable union. Religious power is summoned to “mark and contest boundaries” set by the “conflicting interests” (2003: 217) of law and sociality. The priest is not on a unifying mission, however. His solution is to exacerbate the sociality that divides men from women. If the men find greater satisfaction with one another, then let them stay together perforce, lost in the dark and “shouting and screeching” in fear. Mr. Lenihan’s narration dramatically frames the field as a place through which the unfamiliar listener may understand the meanings it holds with respect to the Irish community surrounding it.

In this place, religion is a nexus. Legal and social aspects of life must submit to its judgment. The purview of religion seems to be very wide, but its power can be collected in one location if the circumstances call for it. Here, the endangerment of the family unit results in a successful invocation of religious power within the borders of the field. Next, there is law, which acts as a benign entity in this case. In theory, law is meant to improve community life, but in practice, it has the opposite effect. When the bona fide rule is set in place to administrate certain aspects of place by measuring the distances of the roads between pubs and houses, local attention shifts to landscapes that remain unadministrated—the fields. One particular field then becomes a locus of illegal activity, and the law suffers an embarrassing defeat to religion as this problem is corrected. Finally, there is social life, which manifests in the story as constellation of different agendas. However, there is a sense that harmony is possible when these agendas do not cause harm to others. The men run in to trouble by drafting the landscape in service to an agenda that indirectly harms women and children. Thus, a single field becomes the venue for teaching them a lesson.

I am not comfortable taking this functionalist reading very far beyond the borders of the field and its immediate environs. For example, I would not use Mr. Lenihan’s story as evidence of a larger Christian morality in Ireland, or as proof of an inherently flawed Crown legal system. My purpose, once again, is simply to provide an example of a multilocal Irish place and to show how storytelling may present a comprehensive portrait of it in terms of the community in which it exists.

As I have noted, this passage reads like a conclusion. The men have misused the law and paid for putting their families in jeopardy. However, I am including a fourth passage in this transcript, as Mr. Lenihan took a few more minutes to expand on the final multilocal thread of folkloristics:

Now, I had heard about the places like that, you know,
               And strange places, that if you go in at night, you can’t get out.

But this one I followed up.

And, by pure chance—
               He’s dead now—
                              Didn’t I meet one of the men who had been in that field?

He was an old, old man when I met him.
               And it took him a long time to talk about it.
                              And he didn’t really want to,
                                             But once he knew that I knew about the field,

                                                        And had been told by one of his neighbors about, and all the rest of it, he finally did tell me.

And he said—
               And I wouldn’t think he was a man that was afraid of the dark, you know.

                           He was, you know, he was a man that probably traveled out playing cards and dancing and whatnot through the fields, all walking, of course, that time—

                                             And he said,
                                                            “I know,” he said, “it doesn’t make any sense.”

                                                                     But he said, “The reason why we couldn’t get out of that small little field was—”

And I put it to him, you know,
               Couldn’t you feel your way along the hedge to the gate?

“No,” he says, “you couldn’t,
               Because, inside that field,” he said, “It was like looking—”

                            Being out in Kansas someplace, looking out at the prairie, to the farthest you could see, to the horizon on all sides around.

                                             No landmarks, no nothing.
                                                            Just level, level ground.

And he said, “That’s the reason we were wandering around the field,
               Because we didn’t know where we were going!”

And he said, “A little field that looked like, from the outside to be only a acre, it looked like you were inside it ten square miles.
               You were utterly confused,” he said.

He said, “One night is all I did it.
               One night.”

He says, “I never—I never wanted to be in that position again.”

The folkloristic thread takes control here for the first time. Until now, this thread has been comprised of a series of phrases reminding the listener that Mr. Lenihan gathered this story from another source. Now, it emphasizes his experiences as a professional researcher. Where the narrative itself has resolved, background information and folkloristic determination rush in to prod the loose ends toward a sort of bottom line. The storyteller himself moves outside the story, from which vantage point he may solicit further information from those who still reside inside of it. The resolution of this thread is based on a direct report from a person who lived the story. He is an authoritative voice called in to verify the seemingly magical happening. However, Mr. Lenihan constantly interrupts the direct report with skeptical questions, creating a narrative tangle and solidifying his position as a folklorist. His is the voice of the rational observer, whose measuring of place Rodman finds problematic: “There is little [anthropological] recognition that place is more than locale, the setting for action, the stage on which things happen” (2003: 207). Yet I believe that Mr. Lenihan’s folkloristic consideration of the field does not really negate or lessen the importance of its socially constructed, emic meanings.

The theoretical springboard for this paper positions multilocality as a tool that “shapes and expresses” place meanings for “different users” (2003: 212). I have argued that Mr. Lenihan implements a narrative frame to do this for the unfamiliar listener. However, it is appropriate at this point to consider the shaping and expressing of Mr. Lenihan’s own senses of place. He is a folklorist, but this role need not limit his conception of the field as a static site of academic inquiry (2003: 204). I argue that his narration of the folkloristic thread in this story complements rather than usurps the emic meanings generated by the legal, social, and religious threads.

Consider the resolution of the folkloristic thread in the last passage of the story. Mr. Lenihan offers an ambivalent explanation of why the men became trapped in the field. This is significant given his interest in fairy lore. He takes the fairies, or the Good People, seriously. To him, they point to a morality that we may use in our own lives: “To respect the Good People is basically to respect yourself, and your surroundings” (2007: personal communication). This attitude bears out in the place meaning that emerges from Mr. Lenihan’s narration of the folkloristic thread. Examining the final passage reveals a hidden subtext in the seemingly rational, enlightened report of his conversation with the old man. Ostensibly, Mr. Lenihan just wants to get to the bottom of things. Can a field really “trap” somebody inside? The answer seems to be no, since the old man reports having been stuck simply because he misjudged the size of the field while looking at it from the outside. But the critical listener formulates more questions from this explanation. Had the men really never traveled through that field on their way to the pub before? The story suggests that the bending of the bona fide rule had been going on for some time. Why would the dimensions of the field suddenly have changed on this night? Mr. Lenihan makes no claims that it was the priest’s blessing or anything else that caused this. He simply tells us that the anomaly was, and reports the genuine fear he observed in the old man: “You know by the way a person tells a thing whether they were frightened or whether they want to talk about this or not. For some of these people, telling lies about things like that would be the same as telling jokes about their dead relatives—a thing you don’t do” (2007: personal communication). Therefore, the entrapment becomes unexplainable. It is left to hang even after the story ends, and the listener is invited to speculate—to allow his or her own predispositions dictate—whether or not to read the field as the site of a supernatural occurrence.

I submit that Mr. Lenihan’s narrative articulation allows equal space for place meanings generated by the local people, who lived through an unexplainable experience, and the researcher, who seeks a rational explanation. In explaining what she sees as an imbalance of power between the ethnographer and the interlocutor, Rodman asserts: “Returning control over the meanings of place to the rightful producers requires reconsideration of questions of power and agency that implicate both anthropology and the people we study” (2003: 208). Mr. Lenihan’s narration demonstrates a reciprocity between his outlook on fairy lore and his expectations as a folklorist.

Finally, note how the final last passage of the story crystallizes geographic place meaning for the unfamiliar listener. At the moment of highest dramatic tension, when the experience of being stuck inside the field is about to be mediated in a direct quotation from one of the men who was in it, Mr. Lenihan interrupts in the middle of a line of reported dialogue. He himself then describes how being inside the field is like being in Kansas. My own identity as the unfamiliar listener is significant here. I came from the United States to conduct this interview. I probably know nothing about a nondescript field in Co. Clare. But, I might know something about Kansas. Even if I haven’t been there, I come from a country where the notion of the space of the Great Plains is well represented in literature and film. As a colleague put it, “You don’t have to have been to Kansas to know about Kansas”. The choice to include this detail allows me to relate to the physical experience of the men in the story as much as is possible for me.

Before moving on, I am compelled to recognize the performative wherewithal that closes out the narration. Mr. Lenihan’s seemingly anxious back-and-forth movement between his own words and those of his source creates dramatic tension for the researcher of folk tales, the kind of person who might be assumed to be looking for the rational explanation that inspires storytelling traditions. Sure, it might be that Mr. Lenihan is just a good conversationalist, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that the main narrative finishes so unspectacularly (“But they couldn’t get out of the field until morning came. And then they were able to come out.”). Furthermore, the folkloristic thread contains at least three false starts into a final explanation before it finally arrives. Whatever else is true, the unfamiliar listener—this unfamiliar listener—enjoys a good bit of drama getting to the bottom of the story here. This shows that the skilled narrator can manipulate multilocal threads in order to emphasize or dramatize certain place meanings.

From multilocality to meaning

In a summary analysis, let us look at how the multilocal threads interact. To review, the story of the bewitched field wove legal, social, religious, and professional threads into the fabric of a main text to create a comprehensive and largely non-geographic portrait of place for an unfamiliar listener. The legal thread funneled information from broad to narrow. First came an indication of English occupation, which moved into a description of the occupiers’ police force, and ended with the significance of a particular law in the social life of the community. The legal thread in this way opens up the narrative space for descriptions of social life. The social thread described a community of families raising children in rural Ireland, as well as the practice of local men going to the pub together at all hours. Next is the religious thread. When legal action proves ineffective and social malady persists, religion appears to provide an incontrovertible solution. The priest makes a very public display of power before the misbehaving men, and this part of the story ends on a religious note as the men are temporarily trapped by the spiritually inscribed landscape.

From the very beginning of the story, a folkloristic thread runs beneath every word. First of all, Mr. Lenihan performed the story extemporaneously in the context of an interview about his storytelling career. As we talked specifically about the importance of place in Irish storytelling, he chose to tell the story of the field as a relevant example. In the story text itself, the folkloristic thread blinks in and out occasionally in the form of phrases like “I was told the story”, or, “And I suppose with good reason”, both of which remind the unfamiliar listener of Mr. Lenihan’s previous experience of having heard this story for the first time. The folkloristic thread does not emerge completely until all other multilocal threads have ended. After the men in the field are trapped and released, Mr. Lenihan the researcher narrates his experience of getting to the bottom of the story by asking around and eventually interviewing a primary source.

The locus of all of this activity is the field, a multilocal landscape rife with meanings. Mr. Lenihan narrates these meanings to create a comprehensive portrait of place meanings in lieu of a trip to visit the physical landscape.ix



The example I’ve chosen is exceptionally specific, but I hope it is a worthy illustration of how the narrated, multilocal place may provide unfamiliar audiences with an insider’s look at Irish history, customs, or traditions. Moving outward from this example reveals an expanding analytical frame that focuses on how professional storytellers might mediate place meanings for wider, more diverse audiences, as well as what’s going on in Ireland that could expand or reformulate senses of place at large. I have not addressed these issues here only because I cannot do so in the space allotted. What I can do, however, is share a few points that might serve as touchstones for future study.

The economic prosperity of the Celtic Tigerx has come and gone, but from it has emerged a body of literature in which scholars reconsider senses of place and identity. Senses of place are no longer confined to an articulation of the relationship between local landscape and the local body (see Evans: 1973). Instead, locality is defined as a set of meanings, inexorably bound with time and the world outside the community (Wilson & Donnan 2006: 133). Immigration has created religious and ethnic diversity. Muslims open successful community centers in Galway. Nigerians organize protests in Dublin. As long as professional storytellers are touring, they are liable to encounter these multicultural presences, all of which have unique ideas and expectations regarding senses of place. What does local narration sound like in such contexts?

Furthermore, the professional storytelling community contains a multiplicity of voices. Different tellers have different ideas about what storytelling should be, and I should note that Mr. Lenihan might be considered one of the most traditional among them. Others can and do narrate senses of place in different ways. Studying these differences might reveal how professional storytelling fits into the larger Irish oral tradition, which goes back at least as far as recorded history.



Cashman, Ray. 2008. Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border: Characters and Community. Indiana University Press.

Evans, E. Estyn. 1973. The Personality of Ireland: Habitat, Heritage and History. Cambridge University Press.

Glassie, Henry. 1995. Passing the Time in Ballymenone. Indiana University Press.

Glassie, Henry. 2006. The Stars of Ballymenone. Indiana University Press.

Lenihan, Eddie. 2002. Home. Eddie Lenihan, Seanchaí – Storyteller.

Lenihan, Eddie (professional Irish storyteller), in discussion, May 21, 2007.

Lenihan, Eddie. 1988. Storyteller 1 & 2. Claddagh Records, Compact disc.

Marsh, Richard. 1997. Saints and Gore and Fairy Lore. Self-published, Compact disc.

Mercer, Michelle. 2006. A St. Patrick’s Day Tale: Storyteller Eddie Lenihan. All Things Considered, National Public Radio.

Oh-Aissieux, Coilín (professional Irish storyteller), in discussion, May 19, 2007.

Rodman, Margaret C. 2003. “Empowering Place: Multilocality and Multivocality.” In The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture, edited by Setha M. Low and Denise Lawrence-Zúñiga, 204-223.

Speight, Pat (professional Irish storyteller), in discussion, May 26, 2007.

Speight, Pat. 1999. Tales from the Hat. Self-published, Compact disc.

Wilson, Thomas M., and Hastings Donnan. 2006. The Anthropology of Ireland. 1st ed. Berg Publishers, December 12.


Chad Buterbaugh is a folklore studies doctoral student at Indiana University. His research focuses on the contemporary narrative performance of folk tales, legends, and myths in Ireland.



i The anthropologist Margaret Rodman offers layered definitions of multilocality in her 2003 article “Empowering Place: Multilocality and Multivocality”. She defines the term as the act of “looking at places from the viewpoint of Others,” as “comparative or contingent analyses of place,” as “reflexive relationships with places,” and as the way that a physical landscape “shapes and expresses polysemic meanings of place for different users” (2003; 212). It is with the last definition that this paper primarily concerns itself, though all four definitions weave in and out of the analysis at different points.

ii Rodman’s article introduces a second term, multivocality, in which she articulates the ways in which place meanings “can be told and heard with senses other than speech and hearing” (2003; 214-5). Since I am taking verbal art as my subject, I will not discuss multivocality here.

iii Some threads occasionally appear in historical terms, which seems perplexing. However, I hesitate to suggest that there is a unified historical thread in the story. Although Mr. Lenihan alludes to historical realities, they are tangential to the field except in the broadest sense (e.g., the field existed when Ireland was under English rule). Therefore, instead of proposing to analyze history as a multilocal thread here, I will treat it as a background construct that gives context to the crisper meanings generated by other threads.

iv Mr. Lenihan is a native of Brosna, Co. Kerry, living in Crusheen, Co. Clare.

v I approached this research “form-first”. I began by carefully studying the transcript of Mr. Lenihan’s story and formulating a research question from it. I then read widely to locate a theoretical discussion into which I could introduce his story as an example.

vi Mr. Lenihan was working on a book about fairy lore at the time of the interview.

vii The owner of the pub

viii St. Patrick’s College, the seminary associated with the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.

ix If such a trip had been feasible, I have reason to believe we would have taken it. Mr. Lenihan ended our interview by driving us both to a closer site of folkloristic interest—a nearby forth, or circular land mass, which is traditionally understood as a fairy dwelling.

x “Celtic Tiger” is the popular name for the period of economic growth experienced in Ireland during the years surrounding the turn of the 21st century.


1 Comment

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