Thomas McCarthy grew up in the culture of bothántaíocht, when people would go from house to house, singing and storytelling. He can remember being a child, listening rapt as his grandfather, aunts and uncles cast a spell over visitors, as they recounted tales of banshees, fairies, the Fianna and Cú Chulainn.
These memories are extremely precious to him now, as the ancient art of storytelling has all but died out.
“I had an auntie who lived with us, she was in a wheelchair, she was my mother’s youngest sister. My grandmother died when they were all very young and my mother reared her. We would run to bed every night to listen to her stories. My grandfather was a seanachaí — there are still people in Birr who tell me about when they were young, how they would often go to my grandfather’s place for singing and stories.
“He could tell a story for a week. He would start about 8 o’clock at night, finish in the early hours, then he would tell them to go home and come back the following evening, and he would take it up again. The house used to be packed with people. At the time we didn’t realise what we had, we were silly. If I had realised when I was younger what we had, I would have taped every word he said.”
McCarthy, 53, has inherited his family’s storytelling skills, as well as their prodigious gift for retention.
“I never learned them from books, I learned them off my family. It was all passed down. They wouldn’t put them down on paper, they knew them from heart. There were over 250 of the Fenian lays [the cycle of stories relating to the Fianna] and my grandfather knew them all. They are fabulous stories, I would know a good half of them myself.
McCarthy grew up as part of the Traveller community, moving from his hometown of Birr in Co Offaly to London when he was ten years old. He is keen to keep the oral tradition of storytelling alive, and has done outreach work with schools in London. He is appearing at this year’s Cork World Book Fest, and will also visit schools in the Aran Islands in June. He believes it is more important than ever that children experience the human connection inherent in storytelling.
“It’s essential, especially in this world we live in now, where everything is electronic. With storytelling, you are grounding the children, they are not looking at a phone or a screen. They really get into it. I’ve gone into schools five or six years later, and they’ve come up to me and said, ‘will you tell me that story about the hunchbacks’. They always remember the stories. It is great that it transports them to a different world.”
McCarthy’s skills as a singer are also in demand, and this year, he was named Traditional Singer of the Year at the prestigious TG4 Gradam Ceoil awards, the citation for which noted: “This singer has a voice of great strength, tone, character and beauty. His technique is a joy to listen to. His art is particularly illustrative of the power of storytelling through song, beyond simply singing the song.”
McCarthy says that while the folk song tradition is thriving anew, the same can’t unfortunately be said for the seanachaí. “All that generation [have gone]my uncle was the last one to do it. My auntie is still alive, and I’ve begged her to come out and tell us a few stories, but she is too lonesome, thinking of them all, she starts crying. She is the last of them now.”
McCarthy has often been asked to put his stories down on paper, something he is considering doing now.
“Some of the stories are unknown and I have been asked several times would I write a children’s book so I am thinking about doing that because the stories are fabulous. They deserve to be put in a book.”
The Ancient Art of Storytelling with Thomas McCarthy is at the Triskel in Cork on Saturday at 11am, as part of Cork World Book fest