Once upon a time, storytellers were culture kings in Ireland

Is it the end of the seanachai? So ponders John Arnold in his weekly column

I WAS amazed how few props or furniture he brought with him — a súgán chair, a white enamel bucket filled with water and a china cup.

Off he went then with “In my father’s time...”. Every now and then he’d pause — maybe in the middle of a story — and he’d scoop the cup into the bucket, take a few mouthfuls of water and then finish the story.

The only other item he had was his hat. Depending on the scéal, it might be on his head or on his knee. He might use the hat for bringing in the eggs or for begging a few coppers.

If he was at Mass of a Sunday he’d be kneeling on the hat and if he was about trying to make a match the hat might be held politely to his chest.

He had no backdrops, no lighting effects, no drapes, but for two hours he wove his magic spell.

You know that phrase ‘You could hear a pin drop’? Well, with tales of love and land and longing mixed in with a good dollop of the supernatural he held the audience in the palm of his hand.

It was 40 years ago, here in our own Parish Hall, and I’ll never forget that night. We felt honoured that the man from Gneeveguilla and star of the Abbey Theatre, Eamon Kelly, was here in our midst.

Born in 1914, Eamon became an apprentice carpenter at the age of 14. In this trade he saw coffins being made, houses being roofed and furniture cut from timber beams.

The wireless was king but it was really still the era when the spoken word ruled supreme. A lot of the talk was of things that happened, as Eamonn said, ‘In my father’s time...’ and of course that same father of his, Ned Kelly, wasn’t born in the last century — no ’twas the century before that, in the late 1800s.

For a young fella growing up in rural Ireland in the 1920s, there was plenty to learn and pick up — if you were a good listener, and Eamon Kelly was all that!

The fact that his home was the local ‘rambling house’ meant that from an early age the young Eamon was immersed in the lore and culture of his native place in both the Irish and English languages. All he ever heard he used to good effect later in life when he took to the stage.

Here in our own parish, I can recall two houses like the Kelly home — only a hundred yards apart — where people used gather to play cards and music and chat and maybe court a bit! As far back as I can remember, and that would be about half a century, those homes were kind of gathering places of a Sunday night especially.

Some people were regulars, others dropped in now and then. Often, in the summer time especially, there’d be sons and daughters of the parish home on holidays from England and further afield.

Though Television was ‘in’ by the early 1960s, those were still places of banter and song and great fun. I suppose ’twas the same in rural Kerry where the bould Eamon grew up. He was like a sponge and soaked in all that he heard.

There are grand phrases in Irish which synopsise great wisdom. One is ‘dúirt bean liom go ndúirt bean lei’ and the other is ‘ó ghlúin go glúin’.

The former refers to ‘a woman told me that a woman told her’ so it’s, at best, second hand information and of course can sometimes be added to or subtracted from — the most famous was when the World War I order to soldiers in the trenches got mumbled, jumbled and somewhat distorted! so “Send up reinforcements, we’re going to advance” became “send up three and fourpence, we’re going to a dance”!

The latter Irish phrase means ‘from one generation to the next’.

These two sayings reflect a lot of what the seanachai relates or recites. It’s an oral tradition handed down through the clan, family or tribe and, like any oral transmission it can get somewhat transmogrified as it is told and retold.

The gift of the seanachai, of course, was not just simply a great memory but the ability to tell the story to willing listeners who, in turn, could pass it on.

In ancient times in Ireland and elsewhere, long before the printed word became available or affordable, the seanachai was as important as a medicine man or a cook or a hunter-gatherer.

Family and tribal lore and traditions pertaining to a particular sept was a jewel of great value and so the repeated telling of ancient tracts ensured their preservation.

There was a great historian and antiquarian in East Cork in the 1800s, Fr Edmond Barry. He was lucky when he came as Parish Priest to Rathcormac in the 1880s to meet a remarkable woman, Bridgid Fitzgerald of Loch an Phreachain.

Known as Bríd an Seanachais, she was hewn in the Seanachai oral tradition. From her head this woman recalled to Fr Barry the pedigrees and genealogies of generations of the Barri (Barry) family from Norman times right down to the 1800s. The venerable pastor published his book Barrys Of Barrymore from this seanachais.

One of East Cork’s best seanachais died this week. Bill Gubbins was born 14 years after Eamon Kelly and grew up in a rural Ireland, where some of the oldest people in his parish were born around the time of the Famine.

Bill followed thrashing machines and drove a lorry collecting churns of milk in farmers haggards. He attended fairs and funerals, wakes and weddings, sports meetings and matches. At all of these he heard the stories from the old people and was able to tell tales tall and small with a verve and meaning.

All over Ireland, another great tradition was the ‘fit-ups’ and amateur drama groups. Bill combined his unique storytelling style with his love of stage — he took part in some kind of play, sketch or stand-up comedy for nigh on 70 years.

Like Eamon Kelly, Bill’s timing was just perfect. It’s not always what you say in storytelling but the way you say it: the silence, the pause, the lowering of the voice, the facial look... ah yes, Bill was a master of all the traits that are integral to the skill of the seanachai.

People often ask me about the role, if any, for storytellers in the future. With so much touch-screen technology and online this and that, is the era of the seanachai just the relics of auld dacency? I don’t think so because the live spoken voice can never truly be replaced.

Of course, films and DVDs and Snackbox and Slapchat and so on and so forth are all the rage nowadays, but you still can’t compare any of these with a good story well told.

I marvelled at the way Bill could judge his audience in an instant and ‘work the room’ accordingly.

I remember a few years back I was entertaining a group of about 30 people. As I just commenced a story, I heard a loud whisper from the audience “I heard this one before and tisn’t much good”!

But sure the show must go on, says I to meself.

Times are achanging but there will always be a need, a grá — even a demand for men like Eamon and Bill who truly could take us back to ‘my father’s time’.

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