John Daly: ‘Still held in awe by Kelly’s timeless tales’

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John Daly: ‘Still held in awe by Kelly’s timeless tales’

  


Photo: PA
Photo: PA

I stayed up all night to watch the Oscars last week, a notion that proved as ambitious as it was foolhardy. Maybe it’s the lack of characters like Jack Nicholson or prevalence of gushiness over eloquence in the speeches, but this so-called ‘night of a thousand stars’ is becoming more an exercise in yawn stifling than awe inspiring.

As the snorefest went on, my thoughts pondered the business of storytelling and how Hollywood could learn a badly needed lesson from the expert simplicity of a master tale spinner like Eamon Kelly. Lucky enough to have seen the legendary Kerry seanchaí give his last public performance at the Courtmacsherry Storytelling Festival in 2001, just a few weeks before he passed away, I was reminded that the true art of holding an audience spellbound has more to do with exciting the imagination than it does with the inevitably predictable special effects that now dominate so much of modern film-making.

During the country evenings of yesteryear, Kelly, using only the props of a three-legged stool, an array of facial expressions and his glorious voice, enthralled audiences with rambling discourses on life, love and the whimsicality of human nature.

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In the Ireland of 2019, where the boundary between rural and urban has been diluted by cars, technology and the satellite dish, those colourful men bearing tales bawdy and true have become a virtually extinct species in a no-win conflict with ‘Breaking Bad’ and streaming wifi.

In his autobiography, ‘The Apprentice’, Kelly recalled “my childhood ears were forever cocked for the sound that came on the breeze”, and how the happenings in “my father’s house filled me with wonder”. With pots of tea, plates of doorstep sandwiches and the odd dram of poitín to oil the artistic sensibilities, the man who would one day become Ireland’s greatest minstrel chronicler listened and learned as the craft of his future trade played out against the glowing embers of a homestead hearth. With neighbours “attracted like moths around a naked flame”, Kelly saw the family kitchen as having “all the rude elements of the theatre – the storyteller with his comic or tragic tale, set against the music, dance, song and costume”.

It was an early audition to his eventual Oscar of acclaim as Ireland’s greatest storyteller with an unerring instinct to puncture sacred cows with the rapier of twinkling humour. One of his timeless tales concerned the priest’s umbrella, a novel climatic prevention never seen around the small parish deep in the wilds of the Iveragh Peninsula. Attending a wake on a misty evening, the padre left the brolly open in the porch to dry. Completing his visitation vigil, the holy man again set off down the boreen, forgetting his unique belonging.

A group of the menfolk rose to follow with the brolly – but proved spectacularly unsuccessful at manhandling the delicate device through the doorway. On the verge of taking the door frame from its hinges in utter frustration, the farmers’ blushes were saved by the returning priest, having finally remembered his missing bumbershoot. Folding the brolly like a wand, only to re-open it outside against another shower, he left behind a stunned assembly as he sallied down the lane. “Say what ye like,” admonished the village elder in awe. “They have the power.”

Another favourite concerned the two Franciscan priests who arrived unexpectedly at the farmer’s house shortly before the dinner. The wife immediately ran to the barn, selected a young cock, and popped it in the cooking pot. As the well-fed clerics exited the house hours later, one of them commented to the husband on the proud plumage of the old rooster crowing by the hen house. “Sure why wouldn’t he,” retorted the disgruntled farmer. “And he with a fine son in the Franciscans.”

Irish Independent

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