Bringing tales of the tailor back home


The 'filthy' stories of a west Cork seanchaí were the subject of a high-profile censorship case in the 1940s. Actor Nuala Hayes tells Sara Keating about returning The Tailor and Ansty to its roots.

Popular figures of cultural history, Tadhg Ó Buachalla and his wife, Anastasia, are now regarded as authentic figures of Ireland's peasant past: Tadhg's indolence is matched by his eloquence, Ansty's industriousness comes with a quick, contrary tongue - they are real-life counterparts of the characters of JM Synge. In their own time they may have offended Free State sensibilities for embodying an unsavoury colonial stereotype, but in recent years historical revisionism has elevated them as victims of de Valera's puritan age. Reading between the rigidly drawn ideological lines, however, suggests a far more complicated reality.

The 1929 Censorship of Publications Act provided an official mechanism for developing the moral conscience of the Irish mind. Members of the public were invited to contribute to the process of moral policing by taking an active part and submitting books they found unsuitable for public consumption. So many books were sent to the board for review that few were read from cover to cover and some of Ireland's greatest writers found their books banned on the basis of a certain turn of phrase, a single line or a few paragraphs. Between 150 and 170 books were proscribed every year; being banned became a literary rite of passage that was almost more important than being published.

The Tailor and Ansty, by Eric Cross, was the subject of one of the most high-profile censorship cases of the 1940s. A collection of the popular stories of a west Cork seanchaí and tailor, Tadhg Ó Buachalla, the book's publication in 1942 provoked a bitter four-day debate in the Senate in which the "sex-obsessed" tailor and his "moron" wife were used as public examples of the "sores of moral leprosy" that threatened to "undermine Christianity" even in the most remote rural areas. Despite his prominent authorial voice, Cross himself disappeared from the debate, and it was Tadhg and Ansty who ended up at the centre of the controversy, condemned not just for the stories themselves but for the values these stories apparently projected about rural Irish life. The local clergy forced the controversy into the local community, arriving at the couple's cottage proclaiming that "this book is filthy and your house is filthy" and forcing the tailor to burn the book in his own fireplace.

Frank O'Connor, the official authority on the scandal, reported that after this incident the couple were "boycotted" by the local community. However, O'Connor's version of the scandal was told with his own ideological objectives in mind, and as the members of the New Theatre production of The Tailor and Ansty, which begins a nationwide tour next week, have found out, when opinion hardens into received wisdom the subtlety of real-life situations is often lost to posterity.

THE NEW THEATRE'S interest in producing PJ O'Connor's 1968 stage version of The Tailor and Ansty was rooted in the concept of a homecoming project. Ronan Wilmot, who had toured the country as production manager with the indefatigable seanchaí, Eamon Kelly, decided to play the garrulous tailor himself, while professional storyteller and actor Nuala Hayes took on the role of director and, later, of the tailor's cranky wife. It was Wilmot who had the idea of bringing the play back to its west Cork roots, and Hayes admits that re-setting the production within its own landscape complements the play's function as an oral history. O'Connor's "adaptation is very clear", she says, and he uses the tailor's stories in Cross's book to tell the history of the book itself and its consequences for the lives of the infamous couple.

The Gougane Barra Hotel, located near the Ó Buachalla cottage and run by the Lucey family, who remember the couple well, was considered as a potential venue, but a neighbouring field beside the couple's grave proved a more appropriate site. As the production descended upon the area, however, Hayes found that received accounts - including that of PJ O'Connor's play, perhaps - had misrepresented local understanding of the whole affair. Hayes found out from talking to the community that "local people still resented the word boycott being used in relation to how they had treated the tailor and Ansty. People stayed away, not because they disapproved of them or thought that they had brought disgrace but because they didn't know what to do". Most, in fact, believed that the couple had been exploited; the tailor and Ansty had not known that Cross had written a book until it was published, while the allegations about obscenity should not have been attributed to the tailor in any case, as he had not invented the stories but had simply collected them from various sources on his travels and at his fireside.

Hayes suggests another possibility: that it was fear of the priests' power, rather than any agreement with their actions, that had influenced their initial avoidance of the couple's house. The church's influence on developing the official moral conscience of the nation was explicit in the Censorship Act's definition of obscenity as "suggestive of, or inciting to sexual immorality or unnatural vice or likely in any other similar way to corrupt or deprave", and its provision of a special clause that prohibited any literature that "advocates the unnatural prevention of conception or the procurement of abortion or miscarriage or the use of any method, treatment or appliance for the purpose of such prevention". Ironically, it was the tailor and Ansty's frank discussions about the importance of reproduction - the only acceptable motive for sexual relations - that proved objectionable to the censors.

In fact, the cultural conflict that caused the controversy in the first place may be traced back to the growing institutional influence of the Catholic Church throughout the early 20th century. Gougane Barra and its surrounding locality was (and still is) a Gaeltacht area. The church had long encouraged the use of English rather than Irish as a civilising force, but where Irish still remained the first language, puritanical Victorian values had not conditioned the native tongue. The tailor's earthy language and his wife's concern with reproduction were not unusual: in a country where agriculture was the main industry and marriages were dictated by economics, an interest in animal and human breeding was not only natural but necessary.

THE INSIGHT THAT the tailor's story gives into conditions of life in rural Ireland in the 1940s is a key to its contemporary appeal. While the intrusive authorial voice in Cross's book and the tailor's own tendency to exaggerate severely compromises any anthropological value, descriptions of the rituals of weddings and wakings and of the fodeens (hedge schools) that the tailor himself attended are invaluable as well as entertaining. Many of his stories reveal local superstitions, while his own philosophising dwells on the implications of the gradual modernisation of Irish society. Most significantly, the tailor's stories reveal the art of storytelling itself as ritual, and nowhere is this value more important than in the stage version of the play.

Hayes believes that this is where The Tailor and Ansty retains its key cultural importance.

"I approached it as a piece of storytelling . . . not as someone who would impose my own view on what happened, but as somebody who had observed and understood the conditions that work best for telling a story," she says. "I tried to have the tailor be a storyteller, so that he is telling the story to the audience, to keep it as live as possible . . . so that the audience are in the kitchen with them. It's a different way of being with the audience; it keeps it real."

For the audience members in Gougane Barra last summer, the production was real indeed. Itran for six weeks and will return for another run this summer after an extensive national tour. What really happened between the community and the couple in those months in 1943 may forever remain a mystery, but the community has had the chance to celebrate once again the lives of two of its own. Hayes and Wilmot may have raised some ghosts, but they also "set them to rest".

  • The Tailor and Ansty tours to the Civic Theatre, Tallaght (Jan 30 to Feb 4); Ramor Theatre, Virginia, Co Cavan (Feb 9-11); Watergate Theatre, Kilkenny (Feb 16-18); Pavilion Theatre, DúLaoghaire (Mar 1-4); Briery Gap, Macroom, Co Cork (Mar 7-12); Belltable, Limerick (Mar 27 to Apr 1); St John's Theatre, Listowel, Co Kerry (Apr 11 and 12); Dunamaise Theatre, Portlaoise (Apr 13 and 14); Town Hall Theatre, Galway (May 29 to Jun 3); and Gougane Barra Hotel, west Cork (Jul 4 to Sep 3)