Culture Shock: Dirty minds and no holy families in Eamon Kelly’s Kerry

We might think of him as a seanchaí who had come down from a mountain and been transplanted to Dublin with his stories intact, but he was nothing of the kind

There's a wonderful letter among Eamon Kelly's papers in the National Library of Ireland, written to the great actor in 1960 by Pat Brosnan, a farmer in Scartaglen, Co Kerry. Brosnan describes himself out in the haggard, making up a story for Kelly to use on his radio programme. As he's thinking through the story, he is, as he puts it charmingly, "talking out laughing".

His wife watches through the kitchen window: “ ‘I had my eye on you, you should see a doctor. Or was it the fairies you were talking to? You have the heart turned on me I declare.’ So I answered quite cool, ‘I am glad you have your eye on me all the time – it reminds me of our young days when you would be throwing the glad eye across the dance floor at me, and I have my perfect senses all the time and your heart will be set right again when I tell you I was only making up a story for Kelly.’ ”

This is lovely on a number of levels. Kelly, who was born a century ago this month and died in 2001, was thought of during his career as an authentic survivor of an old culture, a traditional seanchaí who had come down from a mountain in Kerry and been transplanted to Dublin with his stories intact. He was nothing of the kind, of course: he was one of the most sophisticated performers of the modern Irish theatre. But then “authentic” storytellers were pretty sophisticated, too: Brosnan in this letter is telling a story about how he made up a story, precisely so that it should be “collected” and broadcast. And within this story there is something that is never far from Kelly’s own narratives: the sexual tension of the wife’s gaze on her husband, both now and in their remembered youth.

In some respects Eamon Kelly was too good for his own good. He created a persona so apparently natural, so real, that he barely seemed to be performing at all, even though every movement, gesture and nuance of intonation was crafted with infinite care. He stood on stage in vaguely mid-20th-century costume, usually in a re-created rural kitchen and conjured the past – a period that ran all the way from the dawn of humanity to what he slyly called "my father's time".


Theatre of the hearthstone” He called what he did the “theatre of the hearthstone – a diversion having its seed in the time when our forefathers sat at the mouth of a cave and listened to the happening of a day’s hunting”. This was the illusion he wanted to create, the storyteller’s transporting of the listener into a state where the only time that impinges is the flow of the story itself.

He succeeded wonderfully – so well that it was all too easy to forget that he was very much within his own time, that he was shaping, inventing and indeed inspiring stories rather than merely collecting them. He was doing something much more important than preserving an old, pre-electric Irish world. He was mediating between that world and an emerging modern Ireland. And he was also subtly altering the image of that Irish past, subverting the whole notion of an old Ireland that was pure and holy.

Kelly, the son of country carpenter and himself in his early manhood a travelling woodwork teacher, knew Kerry intimately and came out of its rural storytelling culture. But he knew it too well to reproduce a cliched version of what it was supposed to be like. Was it, for example, the priest-ridden place of legend? Kelly’s stories give us a society in which priests loom very large as figures of intimate authority. But they also show an attitude to that authority that is quietly sceptical, sometimes to the point of mockery.

He relates the story of the two Jesuits who heel up on a farmer’s house at dinner time. The wife kills two young cocks to cook for the priests while giving her husband a scrap of cold bacon. Later the priests spot the farmer’s old rooster crowing in the yard and remark that it seems proud. “No bloody wonder,” says the disgruntled farmer, “and he having two sons in the Jesuits.”

Where does this story come from? Not from a farmer, of course, but from Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds. Except that, in the original, the victim of the Jesuits' greed is himself a parish priest, blunting the anti-clerical sting. Kelly uses the story to point up a tension between obedience to the clergy and resentment against them. A saying he quotes in another story is "be civil and strange with the clergy" – advice from a common wisdom more complex than received images of a cowed Catholic Ireland.

Marriage and sex

Likewise with marriage and sex. There are no holy families in Kelly’s stories: couples get married because “he had an empty house and she was tired of America”; wives run away from their husbands. Lust is abroad – one Kelly story features a farmer dressed only in his shirt, a “girl that never settled down”, a goose’s nest and the punchline “judging by the long neck on him, I’d say he’s a gander”. It seems there were dirty minds in the Irish past too. Kelly spoke those minds beautifully, and with a vividness that keeps them vigorously alive.