A Story about a Tale

Jack Lynch writes:

Weather lore has always been a feature of native oral traditions around the world. One of my favourite sayings from the Irish vernacular is: Garraí ar an ngealach – Báisteach – meaning ‘A garden (or a halo) around the moon foretells rain.’  A Misty Moon, as the French writer, Colette, called it. The adage: ‘Red sky in the morning – shepherd’s warning. Red sky at night – shepherd’s delight’ is perhaps the most widely-remembered practical saying.

There are also the less predictive and more metaphorical and poetic sayings. Weather gods and spirits feature in indiginous lore and in the traditions of all native peoples around the globe. In this part of the world an obvious example is that Thunder is the sound of the god, Thor, hammering on his anvil. 

In conversation recently with the Occitan storyteller, Monique Burg, after a Dublin Yarnspinners session, she mentioned that when the sun shines through a hailstorm, people say that “The Devil is combing his mother’s hair.” This reminded me of a similar folk-saying and of a story about a story that it conjured up for me.

While I was working with Aideen McBride over a number of winters on the Tales project in Ballymun, a Dublin Community Television company wanted to film storytellers on the stage of the local Axis Arts and Community Resource Centre. Each of a half-dozen storytellers were to be filmed telling two tales. This was in 2012, the bi-centenary of the first publication in Germany of the Grimms tales. The Brothers’ tales were not prescribed for the recording and, as my first offering, I told a Morrocan story collected by a friend in Marrakech. The  second story I had in mind to tell was a Grimm’s tale. However, it turned out to be too long and I was asked to come up with something that better fitted the film-makers’ 10 minute time-limit. So, while other storytellers were being videoed I was thumbing through my copy of The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, the Vintage edition, translated by Jack Zipes. I came across the tale, Mother Holle, which I knew, and which would fit the bill. Mother Holle is an old German moral tale about a kind and hard-working girl who is mistreated and exploited by her nasty stepmother and her lazy and vindictive stepsister. In the course of the tale, the girl, in another realm, encounters Mother Holle, a frightening-looking but kindly cailleach. The old woman gives her sanctuary in return for doing the household chores, telling her to take good care to make her bed nicely and to give the eiderdown quilt a good shaking to make the feathers fly. At this point on the page* Zipes has a footnote that reads: *Whenever it snowed in olden days people in Hessia used to say Mother Holle is making her bed. Closing the book, I was just about to step on stage to tell the story, when I was struck by the sudden memory of a piece of family lore told by my mother about my very young self.

As both my parents had day jobs I was often in the care of our elderly next door neighbours, Bob and Rene Thorne. The following incident was reported to my mother by the very kindly Mrs.Thorne (what a happily folkloric name!) This must have taken place when I was not much older that two years of age – I was walking and just beginning to string sentences together.

The story goes that it was midwinter and I was in her kitchen which overlooked her back garden. I still have memories of that kitchen, its cosy smells and the blanketing warmth of its Aga range. Mrs.Thorne had left the room at one point (the range, no doubt, had been fenced off with chairs – to keep me out of its range). She told my mother that, while down the hall, she heard a loud hullabaloo coming from me in the kitchen, a loud hollering that had her running back to see what was amiss. She found me standing there, eyes-wide, insistently exclaiming: “OODLE-OO! OODLE-OO!” She was baffled until this little fella pointed out the window into the back garden where blanketing flurries of wispy snowflakes were descending from the sky. It was, of course, my first experience of snow but I had seen chickens and hens and feathers on my grandmother’s farm in Co. Cavan.

I managed to steal the time to include this scene into a short introduction to my telling of the Brothers’ tale.


[From Storyteller, the newsletter of Storytellers of Ireland. Issue 29, Spring 2020]


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