Do you have a Seanchaí, or Irish storyteller, in your family? Someone that everyone gathers around at family events to be entertained and enlightened? In this letter we’ll visit with an Irish storyteller that people would travel miles to share the hearth with.
Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to the Letter from Ireland for this week. All is good here in this part of Ireland on a bright, fresh Sunday morning. How are things in your part of the world today? I’m settling into a nice cup of Lyon’s tea as I write this morning – I do hope you’ll have a cup of whatever you fancy as we start into today’s letter.
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We were at a funeral/wake yesterday, and is the convention at such occasions in Ireland – a “drop” of Irish Whiskey was poured for the mourners and well-wishers as they entered the house. Have you ever had a “drop” of Irish Whiskey yourself? I just saw a interesting item on the newswire this morning – apparently, Irish Whiskey production has now passed out Single Malt Scotch Whisky production for the first time in many decades. Now, the subject of Whiskey links up nicely with the main topic of this week’s letter – the Irish “Seanchai” or “Storyteller”.
Tadhg Ó Buachalla (that would be Timothy Buckley in English) was born sometime in 1863 near the village of Kilgarvan in County Kerry. I was unlikely that he was an eldest son, as he took on the craft of Tailoring at an early age – and then travelled the roads through the local townlands, villages and towns. As he offered his services, he also became a welcome source of news from the neighbouring parish. And, no doubt, he embellished much of that news with a few new facts and conjectures.
Timothy the Tailor was stepping up to becoming what we call in Ireland a “wandering Seanchai”. In Irish society, the Seanchai (pronounced “Shan-a-kee) were the storytellers that took on that age-old tradition of the “Filí” – poets and historians who captured history, genealogies, customs and magic in story and verse.
One day, Timothy came to the area of Gouganebarra where he met up with Anastasia McCarthy. They must both have liked what they saw, as Timothy and Anastasia were married and settled down on a patch of land in the townland of Garrynapeaka.
Their little whitewashed cottage sat at the end of a road – people had to make an effort to go that far, and they certainly did – to drop in a bottle of whiskey and listen to the Tailor tell his stories by the fire.
“Come down to the Tailor’s and hear himself talk. Wet or fine, early or late, alone or with a crowd, there’s a welcome awaits you. Across the door of Garrynapeaka there is another world, where values are different, where there is still a zest for the details of living; where time no longer matters; where there is much laughter and little harm; and mixed with the laughter, wisdom and a fresh sense of reality, a man is judged by himself alone, and not by his position or title, or his own sense of self-importance.”
By the 1930s, the Tailor and Ansty had well retired – and received many visitors to their little cottage by both day and night. One of those visitors was a man from the County Down called Eric Cross. Eric was a regular visitor, a good listener and observer – and wrote down much of what he saw and heard. He assembled these quotes, observations and stories into a wonderful book called “The Tailor and Ansty”. As we go through the rest of this letter – I’ll include some nice illustrative excerpts from the book in quotation marks.
“The Tailor is a gentleman of leisure. He stays in bed each morning until “Seán the Post” arrives on his way up from the village, with whatever letters there may be, and the much more important local news he may have collected on his four miles journey from the village.”
In 1942, Eric Cross published the book “The Tailor and Ansty”. The reception was very positive – especially from the Tailor and Ansty themselves, but something happened within a short time of the publication.
“The Tailor’s imagination is highly inflammable. A word will set it blazing. His memory is a storehouse to which the most trivial phrase is a key.
‘There was poetry in the old days, and there were more poets and better poets. I remember long before I ever saw the first pair of bellow for blowing up the fire, hearing it described this way:
“My back it is deal,
My belly’s the same,
And my sides are well-bound with good leather.
My nose it is brass,
There’s a hole in my ass,
And I’m very much much used in cold weather.”
The Tailor and Ansty were country folk – used to looking at nature and what went on in the farmyard – just like the majority of Irish people of the time. Much of what was quoted in the book was bawdy, but it was also the everyday poetry of the farm and land.
It’s hard to explain this time in Ireland – right up to the late 1980s – to someone who did not experience it directly. Looking back now, it appears that the recently removed British administration created a vacuum into which stepped the Roman Catholic administration of the time – overseeing a form of puritanical morality that disapproved of the fondness for fun that most Irish people welcomed in their lives every day.
“You never know who you might meet in the Tailor’s. Today you may go and find ‘Dan Bedam’ scratching his head over some yarn of the Tailor’s. Tomorrow, you may find a touring American whom the Tailor invited in for a ‘heat of the tea’. Another day it may be the sergeant of the Civic Guard or a ‘travelling man’ who will stay the night.”
It took a full ten years for the ban to be lifted on the book. Both the Tailor and Ansty had died during that time, and are buried side by side in the little old graveyard near Saint Finbarre’s Oratory in Gouganebarra, County Cork. If you are ever out that way, do drop by to pay a respect. I’m sure they would welcome the company.
“The day was ended. All the labours of the day were done. The shutters were drawn across and the door was closed against the night. The lamp on the wall was lit. The sign of all these things was that Ansty was at last still, and was sitting by the fire gazing into the heart of it.” The Tailor starts:
“There was a friend of mine by the name of Paddy Sullivan who went to Algery, which is part of Africa ….”
So, tonight, Carina and myself will pour a glass of Irish Whiskey – and drink to your health – and we hope you will join us with a “Sláinte!” or two in your own time. As the dark fall about us, it will be time to remember a story or two – one of which will the story of the wonderful world of the Tailor and Ansty.
So, let’s leave the last word to the Tailor:
“Glac bog an saol and glacfaidh an saol bog tú.”
“Take the world fine and easy, and the world will take you fine and easy”.
Also, thank you to Simon O’Flynn – one of our Green Room members here in Cork – for the gift of the book “The Tailor and Ansty”. It has provided much pleasure and laughter over the past months.
The Tailor and Ansty by Eric Cross is available on Amazon here.
That’s it for this week. As always, do feel free to leave a comment below if you would like to ask a question or share a story of your own.
Slán for now,
Mike and Carina.
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