Cork storytelling group have been spinning yarns for 30 years...

Storytelling group the Cork Yarnspinners are 30 years old — and they tell NOEL SWEENEY that Covid didn’t stop them from connecting with others and sharing their stories
Cork storytelling group have been spinning yarns for 30 years...

Cork Yarnspinners, from left, Paddy O’Brien, Anita Howard and Pat Speight, outside the Deep South on Grand Parade

ON the Grand Parade, three old friends reassure each other that they will meet later that evening on Zoom.

They’ll be linking in to attend the monthly meet-up of the Cork Yarnspinners.

Roll back to this very month 30 years ago, and the notion of these friends meeting up online might have been the theme of a Back To The Future esque story being spun at the then brand new Cork Yarnspinners; and probably at a push at that.

Storytelling in Cork city and county was, in some ways, as strong before the Yarnspinners as it was after. However, the formation of the group created a space whereby tellers and other creatives with an interest in storytelling could meet and hone their craft.

The location where the Deep South pub on Grand Parade now resides was the original meeting place for the group. Back then it was the Strád Baile, an old traditional style pub; not unused to a customer blasting out a song, or a poem.

Pat Speight and Paddy O’Brien are the only two ever-present members of the group.

I met up with them both, along with Anita Howard who came on board in later years, for a chat about the early days and the present days of the spinners.

“We can’t talk about the Yarnspinners without mentioning Pat Egan, Jim O’Keefe or Bob Jennings,” Speight says, straight off the cuff.

“Pat Egan was the old County Librarian. She had a great love for stories and her work meant she could be around them all the time. She was a great force in storytelling in Cork, but she liked to take a back-seat and encourage the younger people. I learned a lot from her,” he added.

“Jim O’Keeffe was a local historian who told great stories about the older days, and Bob Jennings people will know from his rambling house radio show on the old County Sound radio station.

“They’ve all passed now, but they were all there at the start and they did so much for storytelling in Cork.

“We had the world of people coming along but it wasn’t so much about celebrity or who was there. Then, the only criteria to go along was to be a good storyteller or enjoy listening to stories. And it still is the criteria,” says Speight.

It seems only natural that he too found a home at the Yarnspinners.

“I was born in the middle of Cork city, and our house on the northside was like a rambling house. Everybody had their own seat, their own song, their own recitation.

“I used to listen to a radio show called Seanchaí on the radio and there was a guy who had a huge influence on me. His name was Eamon Kelly. I wasn’t a great singer, but I loved stories and took up the storytelling” Speight recalls.

When the Cape Clear storytelling festival took off, stories from all over the world poured in and subsequently, some members travelled all over the world spinning their yarns.

Yarnspinners outside their pre-Covid venue, the Crawford.
Yarnspinners outside their pre-Covid venue, the Crawford.

Speight travelled a great deal with Eilish De Barra, an author and a kind of Cork version of Peig Sayers, and later on he embarked on solo tours to Canada and the U.S.

Kerryman and primary schoolteacher, Paddy O’Brien was there on the first night of the Yarnspinners. In 1991, he married his wife Claire, from Ballymena in Co Antrim. She had been working in the Northern Ireland libraries telling stories to schoolchildren alongside Liz Weir, a well-known storyteller who went on to become a staple at occasions like the annual event in Cape Clear.

Around that time, Weir set up a storytelling night for adults in Belfast called The Yarnspinners.

“I got invited to tell some stories at the Belfast Yarnspinners,” says O’Brien. “In August of that year a group of us met. Pat Egan, Jim O’Keefe, Eilish De Barra, and myself and Claire, my wife was there. A few more joined in later, and it organically grew over the years.

“We invited Liz Weir down one night and she chatted to us about the formula they used in the north and that’s roughly the format we’ve been using since. We were here (Deep South Building), we were in the Spailpín Fánach and a few other places over the years.”

‘Yarnspinners’ is a Northern Irish term that’s not so well known in the south, but it had a good ring to it and the name caught on in Cork.

The group had ebbs and flows over the years and at one stage a real question mark came over its future.

Around ten years ago, some fresh blood was introduced to the spinners, with Anita Howard joining later.

Anita grew up in Liverpool to Cork parents and similarly, her home life was more than conducive to music and stories. She was a member of Bishopstown Toastmasters, and it was there she met Maria Gillen, a well-known storyteller, who introduced her to the Yarnspinners and storytelling in Cork.

Typically, their most recent meeting place is the Crawford pub on Anglesea Street but lately the group are meeting online. However, Zoom offers the group the benefit of having storytellers from all over the world join their monthly meet-up.

“As ban an tí of the group, the experience during the pandemic has been taking the sessions online,” Anita says. 

“We have people joining from Newfoundland whose stories often originate from Ireland, and we have people from America and other places increasingly involved in the group. It has been a wonderful experience bringing many international voices together.”

The stories told online are being recorded and will be archived by the Yarnspinners, and The Kerry Writers Museum in Listowel will retain a copy of them as well.

The idea is that the experiences of the unique point in time bestowed to us by Covid-19 will be recorded and retained for future generations to come, Anita explains.

The future of the craft seems bright. Howard recently took part in an online storytelling event arranged by students from a UCC postgraduate programme which was well attended.

“We’ve had events for children and young adults,” she says. “Children love stories, they bring them to life. Sometimes quite literally while you’re telling them,” she adds with a laugh.

The group meet every third Thursday of the month and if you would like to attend the Cork Yarnspinners, they can be contacted via their Facebook and Twitter pages and they will respond with a zoom link.

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