Eamon Kelly, Actor & Storyteller

Jack writes about Eamon Kelly (1913 – 2001).

Born in the Slieve Luachra area of Co. Kerry, the actor and storyteller Eamon Kelly trained as woodwork teacher before discovering a calling to the stage.

He made a notable career for himself, first as a radio actor with the Radio Éireann Players and later on stage in The Gate and The Abbey Theatre. In 1966 he was nominated for a Tony Award and won a New York Critic’s Award on Broadway for his role of the father, S.B.O’Donnell, in Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! Besides his acting excellence it is as a storyteller that many remember him.

He experienced neighbourhood storytelling from an early age and described his carpenter father’s house as being a Rambling House, the local venue for the art of the storyteller in recent centuries. For those who thrilled to his radio and TV storytelling Eamon was the epitome of the seanchaí. There is an inaccuracy here. The term seanchaí described the communal bearer of multi-faceted traditional lore (seanchas). Eamon himself pointed out that he wasn’t a seanchaí – but ‘played the part’ of a seanchaí. Indeed, to be more accurate, he was more of a scéalaí (storyteller) – one of the several functions of the seanchaí. Given the nature of late 20th century Irish society it is questionable if the term seanchaí can now be applied to more than a few. (Some individuals like Paddy Lowry and Paddy Heany in the Slieve Bloom area may well approach that status.) It would certainly be inaccurate to give the term to most modern professional storytellers, given the fact that the traditional seanchaí was defined by the local audience to whom he (and it was usually a ‘he’) imparted his lore.

It is ironic that the technology that did most to displace the traditional seanchaí – radio and television – was the same technology which bestowed the mantle of national popularity upon Eamon as a storyteller.

By the mid 1950’s the Rural Electrification project (begun in 1946) was changing the economic, social and cultural face of Ireland and around this time Radio Éireann began to devise entertainment programmes that approximated, on air, the ‘rambling house’, or ‘ceidhlí house’ format. The hugely popular Take The Floor, which was presented by Din Joe, and famously featured, for the first time, ‘dancing on the radio’ (not as daft as it sounds) began to feature Eamon in storyteller spots. He also guested on Ceidhlí House Tonight, which featured Séan Ó Riada and his groundbreaking musical group Ceoltóirí Chualann. This led to Miceál Ó hAodha (father of Nuala Hayes, the actor, storyteller and a founder-member of Storytellers of Ireland,) giving Eamon his own programme, The Rambling House. While still a member of the Radio Repertory Company, he began to moonlight with some of the Ceidhlí House cast and present a version of the show in venues throughout the country. This new milieu, no doubt, occasioned a different kind of timing in response to the live reactions. Then, with the advent of the national television station, Eamon was featured telling tales for younger viewers.

He had been pointed to traditional tales by Sean Ó Súillabháin of the Department of Folklore, in University College Dublin. He regularly visited the Gougane Barra region in West Cork to pick up tales and his fast developing repertoire was swelled by stories posted to him by his listeners. He notes that the source of one of his signature stories, The Looking Glass, was a traditional Chinese tale.

Thomás Mac Anna of the Abbey devised with Eamon a full-scale stage entertainment in Irish, featuring dramatised stories, music, mime, song, and dance under the title Scéal Scéalaí.

Eamon went on to bring his storytelling persona to the stage in a series of seven one-man shows – In My Father’s Time, The Story Goes, A Rogue of Low Degree, Bless Me Father, Your Humble Servant, The Rub Of A Relic and English That For Me (several of which he played in London and the U.S.) He christened this form of entertainment “theatre of the hearthstone.”(1) The move from a fireside seat to the stage called for a more active style of telling, one which he achieved with a mastery of ease that did not over-theatricalise the conversational integrity of his tales. Stories from these shows were published by Mercier Press and most of them are included in Ireland’s Master Storyteller: The Collected Stories of Eamon Kelly (1998). (2)

There was an essentially retrospective air of the revival to these presentations. As he said:

Setting those stories in the past is a convention, as far as I’m concerned. And it also helps me to colour in all the things, because I’m drawing from the experiences of my own childhood.

It might be noted that Eamon’s early embodiment of the seanchaí had him playing the character as an old man, while the vocal texture of his telling changed over the years to more resemble his own natural voice. In a further irony, it is still common to find at rural folk festivals a young boy recycling Eamon’s repertoire, dressed for the part in a suit, waistcoat and (junior-sized) iconic hat.

An immaculate literary craft went into the assembling of his material (in this he resembled the great Armagh storyteller John Campbell.) Indeed the fine tuning of these stories reflects on his background in carpentry and woodworking. One is reminded of the view expressed by the German thinker Walter Benjamin in his seminal essay, The Storyteller (Der Erzahler) (1936) when he says:

A great storyteller will always be rooted in the people, primarily in a milieu of craftsmen.

An essential function and impulse of the Tradition Bearer is to impart knowledge of the various crafts of the tradesman or farmer – a precise instruction on the traditional working technique. A story of Eamon’s like The Cat and the Splinter is less focused on the amusing anecdote it finishes with, but more essentially on the ‘how to’ of making a primitive light source from a bog deal splinter, a candle or a rush light. (The stories of John Campbell also often took a delight in the traditional crafts and passing on ‘how to do the job properly’.)

Two theatrical productions to which Eamon was central drew much on the storytelling style – Stone Mad and The Tailor and Ansty (both of which, incidentally, bring together the ideas of a manual craft and storytelling). Miceál Ó hAodha, commenting on his artistry, said:

He is one of that rare and disappearing breed of men who, to paraphrase F.R. Higgins, could rib a ship or turn the secret joinery of song and story.

An essential ingredient of Eamon’s art was a delight in the twists and turns of his native Kerry dialect. As he himself said of The Tailor Buckley:

He brought much of the rhythm and music of the Irish language to English.

His fellow Kerryman, the playwright John B. Keane, memorably described Eamon in full flight:

He can take a word or phrase and swing it in front of you like a hypnotist’s pendulum so that he captivates you … It’s a magician’s art.

But perhaps central to Eamon’s style was his always teasing sense of humour. Reflecting on the peasant audience for storytelling in the past, he said:

They were people who really had it very hard to live and they were dispossessed in many ways. And what saved them was the sense of humour, the sense of the ridiculous.

A typical example of his humour can be found in his version of the children’s Fianna tale, The Giant From Scotland, in which he says:

There was great trouble in the world that time too. Wars and rumours of wars, and giants came from Greece to fight the Fianna but if they did they were quiet men going home.

Other publications of his include two collections of tales for children: The Bridge of Feathers and The Enchanted Cake; his two-part autobiography (again invoking the craftsman-like nature of his trade): The Apprentice and The Journeyman.

His last public performance was at the Courtmacsherry Storytelling Festival in September 2001. He passed away six weeks later on October the 24th and is buried in Fingal cemetery.

In 2004 the Storytellers of Ireland Irish Storytelling Handbook was dedicated to Eamon and the late Alice Kane.

Let’s finish with examples of a few of the traditional closing ‘tags’ or codas that Eamon delighted in.

So put a sod on the fire, give an apple to the child and pour a drink for the storyteller.

Or this one, which he favoured (and had adapted from a tag collected by Seamus Delargy in 1935 from a Galway teller, Éamonn á Búrc):

They went the lower road, I came the high road, they crossed over the stepping stones and I came by the bridge, they were drowned and I was saved and all I ever got for my storytelling was shoes of brown paper and stockings of thick milk. I only know what I heard, I only heard what was said and a lot of what was said was made up to pass the night away!



(1) Folklore was central to the style of ‘peasant plays’ which became the signature contribution of the Abbey to world theatre. The first Irish- language play ever presented in a proper theatre was Casadh an tSúgáin (The Twisting of the Rope), a one-act comedy by Douglas Hyde. Hyde was a founder of the Gaelic League in 1893 and a committed and notable collector of folklore. (He later went on to be the first president of the independent state) Casadh an tSúgain was based on a theme from folklore where a poetic stranger enters a community with dramatic consequences. It was presented as part of a double bill in 1901 with Diarmuid and Grania by W.B.Yeats and George Moore for the Irish Literary Theatre, a fore-runner of the Abbey. Reviewing Hyde’s play for a Paris magazine, L’Européen, J. M. Synge immediately glimpsed the significance of the work. It was to trigger his own creation of a folk theatre and he was to use variants of the same theme in two of his later masterpieces, The Shadow of the Glen (1903) and The Playboy of the Western World (1907).

(2) Amongst Eamon’s papers held in the National Library of Ireland are 124 stories, compiled by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, many of them classified using the Arne-Thompson international folktale classification.

Written by Jack Lynch for the Storytellers of Ireland 

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