CORK woman Rae McKinlay took a lifetime to finally live on her own terms.
As a child, growing up in an upper-middle-class family in Glasgow, the ‘introverted’ Rae felt forced to live the life of an extrovert to gain her parents’ approval.
“They were socially mobile, and they wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer,” she recalls.
“I had a love for stories, for drawing, a love for fairies.”
Later, Rae married a businessman and became convinced that for a woman to be ‘good enough’, she had to appear content at social gatherings where cheese and wine were de rigueur.
Finally, at 57, she decided to break free from her self-imposed ideals and began building the life she had always envisioned.
Now 60, with her short hair dyed fiery Rebel red, Rae is one of Cork’s few storytellers.
For Rae, who lives in the quiet village of Ballydehob in south-west Cork, everything had to fall apart before finally coming together.
With a half-smile, Rae recalls how she had enrolled in UCC to get her ‘paper qualifications’ as a community worker, only to lose her job right after graduation due to the economic downturn.
In a radical move, Rae, who was by then divorced, enrolled in a post-graduate Digital Arts course.
Although the concept of working with computers was alien to her, she had to create her own website as part of a module.
“I was in a class, and they were explaining HTML and coding languages to make a website of some sort for our thesis, and I was nearly in tears,” she recalls.
When Rae was feeling helpless at this onrush of technical information, comfort came in its unlikeliest shape: cartoon stickers.
“I was in such a bad place, I call it my darkening of the soul, and I found these stickers, and I made a visual story with them,” she recalls.
Her story was also related to the university course, with the tale’s monster being called XML, the coding language used for creating websites.
“You might think, ‘Oh my God, that sounds daft’, but that was actually a breakthrough because then I found that I love telling stories,” Rae says.
“So I went to my tutor and asked if I could do a comic book, and I did a comic book called Virtually Rea’s.”
Looking at her finished comic book, Rea decided that she wanted to be a storyteller and there was little stopping her.
“Even though I was approaching 58, I went to the Innovation Academy, because I thought, I’m going to do something for myself,” she recalls.
There, Rae met Mary Walsh, a passionate woman who was determined to keep the tradition of storytelling alive in Cork.
Legend holds that if one kisses the Blarney stone, one will receive the gift of the gab. So, Rae kissed the stone before telling her first story in front of an audience and joining Ms Walsh’s storytelling group, The Gab.
Since then, Rae has been travelling around the country, telling stories at pubs, children’s camps, Christmas events, birthdays, and festivals.
She has also recorded a CD of her stories, for which she has designed a cover using her computer.
“I went from zero to creating my own website,” she says.
The 60-year-old storyteller has managed to do all this, despite having a long history of grappling with agoraphobia, or fear of open spaces.
Rae, who is wearing blue jeans that match her eyeshadow, says she developed agoraphobia while still married.
“It was once upon a time,” she reflects. “One day, I had taken my daughter to a sports event, and I came back and felt kind of sick.”
The next morning, she woke up with an unbearable fear of going outside — her introverted mind could no longer function in the body of a faux extrovert.
“I was housebound for 18 months,” Rae recalls.
Later, a therapist suggested that she should stop feeling obliged to go out, meeting people and posing as an extrovert. Following this advice, she is now managing her fear of open spaces.
“The reason for my panic and anxiety was because that I was not who I was,” explains Rae. “I was living as an extension of my parents, my ex-husband and the community around me.”
Pointing to her warm, low-ceiling apartment and her solitary life in Cork, Rae says: “I’m happy like this.”
In her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, American author and self-proclaimed introvert, Susan Cain, writes that being an introvert in a world that increasingly and misguidedly ‘respects extroverts’ is extremely difficult.
“The stress of not being true to ourselves can make us physically and mentally ill,” she writes.
Rae is hoping that, as well as that aspect of her life, her story will also strike a blow against ageism.
The storyteller believes that women past a certain age often feel ignored and invisible when talking in a group of people or seeking employment.
“I don’t feel like I’m 60,”she adds, “but it’s very difficult for women to get work when they’re over 50.
“I have IT skills now, but IT companies think that you’re slow if you’re over 50.
“I can go and climb Mount Everest to prove that I’m fit, but I don’t need to prove myself to anybody.”
If you are interested in inviting Rae to tell a story at your event see https://www.the-story-pilgrim.com/