We Irish are a nation of storytellers, and here’s how it’s done

WHAT are we if we’re not our stories? — so went the ubiquitous radio ad earlier in the year. It was for a play — the Walworth Farce, also known as ‘The Play With All The Gleesons In It’. Cork people cringed when they heard the ad.

We Irish are a nation of storytellers, and here’s how it’s done

We always do when we hear an ‘outsider’ doing Corkish. But to Brendan Gleeson’s credit, it was not a bad Cork accent. And his character had a point — what ARE we if we’re not our stories?

The Irish are lauded for their great oral tradition and our seanchai, but every country had an oral tradition. It’s just that ours survived longer.

An oral tradition is handy, because no-one takes written notes, and when the English came around asking questions, there was less evidence. This tradition is carried out proudly to this day, for important things, like blanket bank guarantees.

You don’t need to be a seanchai to tell a story. It doesn’t have to be about the time a fairy, the Devil and the Blind Goat of Cnoc Na Puca played cards for the soul of Fruachrach of The Thousand Moles.

You just need a bit of a yarn. A yarn is difficult to define. Ideally, it takes place some time in the past, but not so far back that the situation doesn’t resonate in some way. You should be able to say: ‘You see, in those days ...’ and then name the modern convenience that didn’t exist back then: a mobile phone, a microwave or child labour laws.

A lot of yarns involve a figure of authority looking less authoritative, a victim of hubris. Often, it was clergy. A parish priest in a ditch, a nun on a unicycle, a bishop’s hat being blown out to sea. This reflected, at the time, an acceptable level of subversion.

Future yarns will, hopefully, tip some other sacred cows. Maybe the dynamic, go-ahead founder of an internet start-up company will fall over a cat during his product demo. Speaking of which, it’s no harm at all if your yarn has an animal in it, though it depends on the animal. A racehorse is an animal, but its noble and rather fickle bearing means it doesn’t have the same bathos as, say, a terrier barking at a hedgehog.

Once you have a yarn, you have to tell it right. There are some basic rules of thumb. Don’t begin with ‘OMG THIS IS THE FUNNIEST THING EVER!’ It isn’t and you’re saddling your story with too many expectations.

You must fight through the interruptions — up to a point. We’ve all been in the situation — you’re in full flow and then someone comes in wondering who has left their headlights on. So, then you try to start the story again, but the host is asking everyone ‘are ye alright for tea?’ The third attempt is spoiled by a phone going off.

At this stage, there has been so much palaver about trying to get the bleddy yarn started, that you need to abandon it, because the story of the telling has now outweighed the telling of the story.

Watch out for the ‘YouThinkThatsBad’. Some people — comedians are the worst offenders — can’t hear someone else’s story without a more extreme version. If you’ve a dog, they’ve an elephant. If the aliens that abducted you were from Mars, theirs were from Jupiter.

There’s nothing you can do about these people. Except tell unflattering yarns about them when they’re not there.

Now, I’ve delayed long enough. It’s time to start. Did I ever tell you about the curate and the bullock?


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