News & Features

Keeper of History, Teller of Tales

 

Gabrielle Woeltje is a natural storyteller. Instantly likeable, this native Irishwoman and Fontbonne University alumna charms listeners with a lilting accent and an endless arsenal of tales.

Woeltje, 49, came to the United States in 1986 for what she calls “the grand adventure.” Born in County Tipperary in the parish of Templemore, she grew up on a farm, the sixth child in a family of 13 children.
 
“We were our own community,” she said. “Our house was like a train station — it was exciting to grow up there.”

During her childhood, she was always setting off on one experience or another, wandering the fields and forests of her family’s land with a band of siblings, cousins and friends. She combed the woods for signs of the fairies, leprechauns and banshees that populated the legends of her country.

“The older generation would sit by the fire and tell stories,” she remembered. “In each generation, there is a Seanchaí. My mother was her generation’s, and I believe I am mine.”
Woeltje explained that when broken down, the Irish word Seanchaí means “old expert,” but in essence, the Seanchaí is the storyteller, the keeper of history, legend and lore. Ancient Celtic tales were memorized and shared orally by bards, thus beginning the storytelling tradition.

“In the late 1700-1800s, the people truly believed these stories,” Woeltje said, illustrating her point with an anecdote about a man acquitted of his wife’s murder because he unequivocally believed she was a witch. “You can’t look at history through the eyes of today, but through the eyes of that time. If we lose this understanding, then we will lose an understanding of the people who came before us.”

Her passion has lead to nearly compulsive writing and researching. By day, Woeltje is a social studies teacher at Holy Redeemer School in Webster Groves, Mo., but she is also a children’s book author, a genealogist currently editing a book of clan history, a columnist, a historian and a 2010 Fontbonne graduate with a Master of Arts degree in education with a concentration in the teaching of reading. She has had three children’s books published, all in Irish, a language she said, shaking her head, that she sees dwindling in this fast-paced world. Each of the books explores an individual Irish myth or legend — witch, leprechaun and selkie, a mythological creature that can shed its skin as a seal to become human.

“Ireland is losing much of its cultural identity; it’s becoming European. I’m a traditionalist,” she said. “I like to stick with the old ideas.”

And so she does. Her children’s books are based on traditional Irish lore, although the stories are her own. She uses her mother’s tales for inspiration, such as the threat of a witch in a nearby castle who would put bad little children in a spiked barrel and roll them down a hill into a pit, or the leprechaun who, it was said, regularly climbed the next-door neighbor’s chimney.
 
But as important as the stories themselves are, perhaps even more important is the tradition of telling them. Woeltje’s mother, who passed away suddenly this past December, told the stories to Woeltje, sitting at her knee. In turn, she hopes to keep them alive for her own three children, Maeve, John and Éile, and for future generations so that they, too, will remember and connect with their families and their past. And so she keeps writing.
 
“It’s a compulsion,” she confessed. “The stories come whether you want them to or not.”

Editor’s Note: To purchase a book by Woeltje, visit www.forasnagaeilge.ie or www.coislife.ie (look for the button to change the language to English).

Learn more about Fontbonne's Master of Arts in Education: the Teaching of Reading