Savouring flavour of tales best taken with a pinch of salt

Tall stories and tangled tales are a staple at the Dublin Yarnspinners

Seosamh Ó Maolalaí at the Teachers Club in Parnell Square, Dublin, where the Dublin Yarnspinners meet to tell and listen to stories. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Seosamh Ó Maolalaí at the Teachers Club in Parnell Square, Dublin, where the Dublin Yarnspinners meet to tell and listen to stories. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Sat, May 11, 2013, 01:00

“So that’s the little song I sang for Dolly Parton and the rest, as they say, is pop history.” Seosamh O’Maolalai is telling a story to a rapt audience in a lovely airy room at the Teachers Club. It’s a ripping yarn featuring Páidí Ó Sé, wren boys, the aforementioned country music diva and a gag about Dublin football. Tales that, as one listener puts it, “you eat with a pinch of salt” are a staple at the Dublin Yarnspinners, a storytelling night co-founded by Miceal Ross.

Ross’s interest in folklore developed in the mid-nineties when he left a job as a research economist and returned to college to study folklore. “I realised that reading it on the page was like reading the words of a pop song in a book without listening to music,” he says.

Liz Weir had established Yarnspinners in Belfast (the name a pun on that city’s great textile tradition) and Ross started an offshoot in Dublin. For 18 years on the second Thursday of every month the Yarnspinners have convened and listened to a guest speaker from around the country (or around the world) followed by contributions from the floor. “Recently Nuala Hayes told a story with the clarinet player Paul Roe and it was like the clarinet was telling part of the story,” says current organiser Aideen McBride (Ross passed on the organisational baton about 10 years ago).

There is a grand tradition of mythic Irish tale telling and it’s still out there. “A friend did some collecting in the Slieve Bloom mountains about 10 years ago and there was a wealth of local stories relating to landscape and myths embedded there in people’s imagination,” says Jack Lynch, another of the organisers.


Myths and legends
Lynch has told stories all over the world and regularly dips into the rich National Folklore Collection in UCD. Tonight he tells a tale about a Cavan chancer who’s come into some luck by way of an Indian genie. Storytelling, says Lynch, had a very practical purpose once upon a time. “It was a community thing,” he says. “The Seanachaí wasn’t just a storyteller; he was also a man who knew history and genealogy. He’d come to the house before newspapers were accessible and told what happened on the bog or the latest news from the Crimea which might have been a few months out of date. Then they’d get into the repertoire of old myths and legend.”

And storytelling also has a therapeutic purpose, says Lynch. “Something happens in the chemistry of the brain when someone is listening to a story. You can see it with children in particular; they go into a bit of a trance. I remember once telling stories at an old people’s home. As I started the story a woman at the front started snoring and by the end they were all asleep.” He laughs. “I didn’t take that as an insult! I’d put them into a state where they feel safe. They can fall asleep but maybe the story’s still going in there.”

No one is asleep at Thursday’s session. There are audience-members from the US, Poland and Germany all listening to stirring tales about near-riots in Dublin cinemas in the 1950s, giant-tricking Irish heroes and foolish Russian judges. There’s a bit of banter between tales. After Richard Marsh, an American storyteller, tells a ghost story from Meath, McBride says with mock indignation: “That happened in Carlow! How dare Meath people claim our stories as their own?”

Folk tales don’t really respect man-made boundaries. He recalls spending time in Morocco swapping tales with Berbers and Tuaregs “and a number of their stories reminded me of stories from home. The late Dáithí Ó hÓgáin in the folklore department at UCD maintained that there is a basic anti-racist thing in folklore because it’s so inclusive.”


Eyes and reactions
All the key yarn-spinners are, of course, great talkers (“I’m a conversationalist, that’s what led me into storytelling,” says Lynch) but they stress that the listeners are just as important.

“Theatre happens in darkness but with storytelling the house lights need to be up because you need to see eyes and reactions, because that’s what the story floats on,” says Lynch. “Storytellers from other countries come here and feel nervous because they see Ireland as a place where storytelling is very alive. But they shouldn’t worry. They haven’t realised why it’s so good here. It’s because of the listeners. Our audience are great listeners and having great listeners is half the thing.”


The Dublin Yarnspinners are at the Teachers Club on Parnell Square on the second Thursday of every month.