‘I learned storytelling from country people and Travellers’
Michael Harding: In the old days country people were slow to talk about personal or emotional matters
“Lovely men and women that are long dead and gone, though I still remember the simplicity with which they could sum up their entire life in a few sentences” Photograph: iStock
I learned storytelling from country people and Travellers by just listening to them: in the houses of single men in West Cavan, or in the trailers of Traveller women in Tullamore, or in the family kitchens of elderly couples on the Leitrim hills.
Lovely men and women who are long dead and gone, though I still remember the simplicity with which they could sum up their entire life in a few sentences. Often I listen back to their voices from ghostly kitchens that were long ago tossed and covered with sitka forest.
In the old days country people were slow to talk about personal or emotional matters, so I couldn’t ask them the kind of questions that anthropologists or journalists might ask.
Instead we chatted about weather or cures or the location of some nearby holy well.
Every story contained an attempt to resolve the mystery of life
Eventually an accidental word would trigger some acute memory and then the meaning of an entire life would spill out in a few words. Every story contained an attempt to resolve the mystery of life; because meaning matters to a storyteller more than happiness.
One day I was talking to a man about his schooldays.
“I was no scholar,” he said. “The teacher had hands like shovels and he’d put my head through the desk sometimes with a blow.”
He folded his arms, leaned back on his chair and held his head up, like he was giving evidence.
“The master would sit up near the fire, and we’d be standing around him,” he said.
“If you made a slip in your reading he’d jump like a greyhound and bate you down to the end of the room.”
I asked him if he was happy as a child. But rather than tackle that curiosity with further psychobabble he continued with his autobiography.
On the day he died, a nun came up and locked the gates to the house
“Me father had a heart problem. He died at 40 years of age. He was the boss man in the County Home and he had a little office to sign people in, and it was down to him if a person got in or not. And he had a free house that came with the job. When he married they had eight children, but on the day he died, a nun came up and locked the gates to the house and told me mother she had to be out before she even buried him.”
Without help from me he had found a seam to the heart of his story.
“So me mother was a midwife and she had a pony and cart, and she delivered thousands of babies in her lifetime,” he declared.
Sometimes peoples stories are animated by long buried rage or anger about things that happened years ago, and I’d be obliged to lighten the conversation by making tea.
Nowadays people don’t realise that the art of tea making, and elaborate discussions about various blends of tea, were not just inane murmurings; they were a complex form of punctuation during emotionally difficult narratives.
The kitchen darkened and it began raining
“I remember a Traveller man coming to the house on his bike,” he continued, “in the middle of the night, and me mother had to go off in the dark to the camp with her pony and trap and the man’s bicycle in the rear of the trap. But that was an emergency. Mostly the Travellers used to camp down the road close to us; cos they knew she was there in the house.”
Finally he had arrived at the heart of his narrative.
“I was sowing spuds with her one day, and the guard came to take me back to school. It was lunchtime. So I went back and then the master came in his car, and drove up to the wall of the school as he always did after his dinner. I could see him from the classroom, hopping out of the car with the Irish Independent under his arm. But as he was coming in the front door I was going out the back door. And when the guard came looking for me again, I stood me ground.”
“And did you not go back again?” I wondered.
“Never,” he said. “I told the guard I couldn’t go to school cos I was too busy moulding spuds for me mother. And me mother agreed with me. And the guard was sent away.”
The kitchen darkened and it began raining.
“She was a great woman,” he whispered, with wet eyes, and he wiped his cheeks with the back of his hand and I guessed that it might be time to make the tea.