The Proverbial Glimmer

An té a thabharfas scéal chughat tabharfaidh sé dhá scéal uait.
He who comes to you with a story will bring two away. (Traditional proverb)


Jack Lynch writes:

I was an actor before I was drawn to becoming a storyteller and doubled in both callings for some years. The differences between the two crafts are many and distinct – a topic for another day’s discussion. Some years ago, I had a part in an award-winning Rough Magic touring production of Shakespeare’s comedy, The Taming of the Shrew (believed to have been first staged in 1592). It has been often seen as a problematic play by some feminists, in the sense that the comedy is based on the unrelenting misogyny endured by the titular ‘shrew’, Katerina, ever under the thumb of her emotionally abusive husband, Petruchio. Every night, behind the set, awaiting my cue, I would listen to the scene where, as they pause in their travels along a ‘public road’, Petruchio turns up the chauvinist heat on Kate (who our director Lynne Parker’s has sunbathing). He praises the moonlight, “How bright and goodly shines the moon!” She corrects him, saying that it is the sun. This kicks off an exchange where no matter what she says, he vehemently and repeatedly contradicts her. She finally responds with:


Kate: “… be it moon, or sun, or what you please:

And if you please to call it a rush candle,

Henceforth I vow it shall be so for me” (Act 4; Scene 5)


I’m immediately reminded of Eamon Kelly’s story, “The Cat and The Splinter,” a jocular tale of a carpenter/wheelwright and his famously well-trained cat. The story finds its terminus in the seanfhocal: “Is treise dúchas ná oiliúint” – Nature is stronger than nurture. (I’m reminded of another one – “Briseann an dúchas trí shúile an chait” – Heredity breaks out in the eyes of a cat). Eamon starts his tale by giving very detailed descriptions of the making of a Splinter: from sawn and seasoned strips of bog deal; and a Rush Light : a part-peeled rush dipped in goat’s fat – both precursors of the candle and both staple light-sources in rural Ireland in the not too distant past. It satisfied me that this practical traditional of the rush candle invention was still recognisable more than five centuries after its mention by the Bard.

I don’t remember the rush candle myself but, as a small child in the 50’s, holidaying with my grandmother in Cavan, I remember my father wiring her house (which had been built by my grandfather) in advance of the Rural Electrification Scheme. I still have a childhood memory of the use of candles and paraffin lamps before ‘the polemen’ brought electricity to that part of the country. My father, also a Jack, was, like his father, a carpenter and also a Jack of All Trades. (My grandfather’s actual trade was that of a stonemason and his sister, my grand-aunt, Katie, was, amongst other things, a cobbler.) He would show me some tricks of the trade – for example: the proper rhythm with which you sawed timber; and how not to “choke a hammer”. Then there is the ancient carpenter’s rule-of-thumb: “Measure twice, cut once.” (Of course, there is also the (flat-thumbed) ‘gunthering’ carpenter’s saying: “I don’t understand it! I’ve cut a piece off this length of wood – twice – and it’s still too short!”)

Walter Benjamin wrote: “An orientation towards practical interests is characteristic of many born storytellers…All this points to the nature of every real story. It contains, openly or covertly, something useful. The usefulness may, in one case, consist of a moral; in another, in some practical advice; in a third, in a proverb or maxim.”


The importance of this lore element of seanchas – how a job was best carried out – was central in the stories of great tellers like the Armagh genius John Campbell, and, of course, Eamon Kelly. Eamon had left school age of 14 to become an apprentice carpenter to his father, a wheelwright. He later taught woodwork before becoming an actor and storyteller. This seanchas is emblematic of Eamon’s storyshow stage-craft and, indeed, featured in many of the numerous theatre roles he played – from the stone sculptor, Seamus Murphy, in the latter’s memoir, Stone Mad; and (another) Seamus, in Tom Murphy’s TV drama Brigit, which concerns a woodcarver who is shortchanged by the scandalised clergy when he carves a statue for a local nunnery and refuses to add paint to his bog oak creation. The real, unspoken, scandal is that he has produced his imagined representation of a goddess named Brigit, who had been demoted to a saint named Brigid.


The saying: “He who travels has a story to tell” has a mirror image in our Storytellers of Ireland motto, “Two Shorten the Road,” the kernel wisdom of the old Irish tale, An Gobán Saor/The Stonemason. Again, Walter Benjamin wrote:

“Proverbs turn knowledge gained from experience into a wave in the endless, breathing chain of life lessons that come to us from eternity.”      

Benjamin, the German-Jewish Marxist thinker, gives us a crucial and timeless meditation in his essay, The Storyteller (1936). In it he contemplates how stories travel and identifies two basic types of traditional storytellers, which he suggests are the teller living at home imbued with local stories and lore; and the traveller who comes from afar –  the farmer or blacksmith and the merchant seaman. He writes:

“The full extent and historical breadth of the realm of storytelling is inconceivable without these two archetypes…..the resident master craftsman and the travelling journeyman worked together in the same workshops, and each master craftsman was a travelling journeyman before settling down in his native land or abroad. If farmers and seamen were the past masters of storytelling, then the craftsman’s workshop was its university. There, tidings of foreign lands brought home by the widely travelled were combined with lore from the past most often preserved by the sedentary.”


Walter Benjamin was a marked man, high on a Gestapo hit-list, and, on the French-Spanish  border, on September 25 1940, after the group of Jewish refugees he was travelling with were threatened by the fascist Spanish police with being deported back into the hands of the invading Germans, he took his own life with an overdose of morphine tablets. 


I’ll conclude this ramble with a final quote from Benjamin’s 1932 essay, “The Handkerchief”:

“Storytelling is not only an art, it is even more an honour, if not, as in the East, an office. It leads to a kind of wisdom, just as, conversely, wisdom often proves to be a story.”


[From Storyteller, the newsletter of Storytellers of Ireland. Issue 27, Autumn 2019]

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