IRISH RAMBLINGS #35: “Wild Adventures at the Belfast Storytellers Conference”

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My second of 10 sojourns to Ireland was a summer-long storytelling tour of the island that was certainly one of the highlights of my life. I kept copious journals recording my remarkable experiences. When I read them in 1996, I realized there was a book in it. So I wrote one. Took about a year and a half, but it was time well spent. I am a much better writer as a result, and let’s face it: anyone can begin writing a book. It’s an achievement to FINISH writing a book. I never attempted to publish, as travel writing is like milk: it has an expiration date. The Ireland I describe in this book no longer exists. Little more than a decade later, it is almost an historical document. But it’s good. I like it. It’s fun to read. That is enough. It would be even better if people would read it. Books like having readers. It makes them happy.

JUNE 11th, 1994

> It never matters how much time I allot myself to prepare for something, I am usually a few minutes late.

. Unfortunately, time, tides and trains wait for no man.  After a jolt of coffee and a hot shower, there was no time left to feed myself- before racing out of the hostel and sprinting the few blocks to the Botanical Gardens railway station, to catch the Cultra-bound train.  Today was day-one of the much anticipated Belfast Storytelling Festival.  I really wanted to be early, so I could talk to someone at the station about making sure the message was conveyed to stop at Cultra.  I didn’t want a repeat of my previous debacle with Carmel.  Double-checking the schedule, just to be certain, the Cultra stop was indeed labeled: “By Request Only”, so I waited in line at the ticket booth to get instructions.  The bored drone behind the counter listened impatiently to my story, and rudely chided: “What do you want me to do about it?  Ask a conductor.”  The trouble was, that from the station to the train, from the train to my stop- there was no conductor to be seen.  No one checked my ticket as I boarded, and as we chugged along towards my destination, no ticket-taker came waltzing up the aisle.  The closer my stop came, the greater my anxiety rose.  I pounded on the locked steel door labeled: “NO ENTRY”, but received no reply.  Finally, in frustration, I leaned my head out the window as we approached Cultra station, and luckily spotted the conductor, in the car ahead, yelling to get his attention.  “No problem!”, he yelled back.  “We’ll stop for you!”  They did, but I couldn’t help but wonder how long I might have ridden that train to nowhere, if that guy wasn’t hanging his head out a window at the same moment I was.

. I followed the signs to the Parochial Hall which seemed to be the centerpiece of the mock-village, and went inside to present myself.  An energetic woman recognized me as we passed in the stairwell.  I had no idea how she would know me from Adam, until I she identified herself as “Liz Weir”, the producer of the event, to whom I had sent a press-kit that included a photo.  Perky Liz, took me upstairs to register, and then escorted me to the mens dorm, where I could safely dump my gear, and accompany her to the first event of the weekend festival.

. The morning session introduced us to four storytellers, accompanied by two musicians.  The diverse set of speakers represented the four corners of the British Isles: “Frank” was born and bred in Ireland, “Amy” hailed from England, “Allison” lived in Scotland, and “Daniel” came from Wales.  They all had their charms and talents, but I was most struck by the younguns.  Amy was a game redhead.  They youngest of the lot, she was all of 18, if worldly and womanly for her age.  Daniel was in his mid-twenties.  Clean cut and presentable, his wit was the driest and most subtle of the lot, representing a real departure from the style of his elders.  With his clear, clipped diction which sounded more American than English, Daniel was far and away the easiest for me to understand, and thus the easiest to relate to.

. During a mid-day tea break, I chanced to meet the unforgettable “Andy McKinley”, who was feasting on the array of tiny cocktail sandwiches, set out for our munching pleasure.  I recognized this great, portly personage from a TV ad campaign promoting tourism in the North, that was currently bombarding viewers in the republic.  In the spots, the rotund character-actor winks slyly at the camera, urging us to forget our fears and come up North for a holiday.  Smiling a disarming, partially-toothless grin, he croons: “Come up for a visit!  You’ll never know until you go!”.  The first thing I noticed about Andy was the silly hairstyle: the most shameless pathetic comb-over of an almost completely bald head I had ever seen.  Did this man really think the constantly flopping strands of long hair he kept coaxing back into place, fooled anyone into believing he had a full head of hair?  It was ridiculous, if somewhat charming, for the optimism it betrayed.  The next thing I noticed about Andy, was his… odor.  The pungent vinegar smell of old urine emanated from his clothes and assaulted the olfactory senses of all those in his vicinity.  Consequently, people tended to leave Andy a great deal of ‘personal space’.  The character began to flap his gums in my direction, launching into a story that I found nearly incoherent, considering his thick accent coupled with his terrible toothless diction.  I could only smile wanly as he spoke, nod and keep maneuvering upwind.  But as I discovered, once engaged by the gregarious elder shanachie, one finds it very difficult to disengage.  I was thankful when Liz announced the imminent start of the afternoon session, a welcome and timely diversion.

. Splitting us into three groups, leaders escorted us by rounds to three buildings.  Inside each, a wordsmith was waiting to entertain us, in increments of roughly twenty minutes.  This was a delightful conceit.  Each locale had its unique flavor and charm and most of the tellers were very accomplished, making for a really stellar afternoon of yarnspinning

. Dinner, (if you can call it that), was some kind of unidentifiable mush passing for truly lousy vegetarian lasagna, accompanied by overcooked cafeteria veggies that just made me sad.  Andy cornered me again, joining my table for the unappealing meal.  The more I listened to his tortured English, the more of it I understood, coming to realize that for all his unpleasant attributes- Andy was a very funny man, who seemed to have a gift for finding a wealth of humor in everything that crossed his path- a rare endowment indeed.

. For the final session of the day, Parochial Hall was brimming with excited story-lovers, anxiously awaiting the usual late Irish curtain.  To my left was Daniel, the well-spoken Welshman I really wanted to talk to- but on my right sat a braying computer-geek from Seattle, who rambled on about his life as though I were his bartender, psychoanalyst or father-confessor.  Just when I thought I couldn’t stand another word of techno-babble, I received a startling but welcome tap on one shoulder, turning to see my newest hometown friend “Jimmy Kelly”, arriving just as the show was about to begin, and thankfully displacing the annoying cyber-drone, who was making my moment misery.

. (Before this, I had only met languid Jimmy on one occasion, when a mutual friend brought him to the ‘OFF TO IRELAND Party’ Tina threw me before I left Santa Cruz.  At the time, my wacky friend “Jacqui”, was dating Jimmy, and when she heard about the party, she was eager to introduce us, because we were each planning to be on the Emerald Isle at the exactly same time.  Studying the map tacked to my living room wall, Jimmy and I discussed the possibility of joining forces at some point- perhaps even traveling together for a spell.  Ultimately, we arranged to meet in Belfast for the storytelling jubilee.  Jimmy called Liz at the last minute, and reserved a spot in the overnight dormitory- and now: here he was!)  I welcomed my new Celtic companion, as the evenings craic commenced.

. The evening session was hosted by two performers of national reputation.  The star of the show was a man whose name I had heard many times through my travels.  (Whenever I mentioned my desire to be a storyteller, people brightened and asked: “Oh- like John Campbell?”.)  Appearing with Mr. Campbell, was his musical friend “Len Graham”.  The onstage duo was easy and down-home countrified in a ‘Garrison Kellior’ kind of way.  John spun folksy tales in a relaxed drawl, interspersed with Len’s plaintive a cappella ballads.  Intermission consisted of a glass of cheap wine and a blizzard of simultaneous stories, exchanged at lightning pace among the audience.  The second act was a group-affair.  John and Len opened the set and then began calling about a dozen guest storytellers up from the audience.  Most were bitingly funny, though a few were very hard for my American ears to decipher.  One fellow from County Tyrone had virtually everyone present, doubled over in convulsive stitches.  The only two people in the hall who seemed unable to understand a single rapid-fire laugh-line of his monologue- were Daniel and I.  Turning to each other, we shrugged in befuddlement: comrades in the brotherhood of the ignorant.  The onslaught was wearing a bit thin by the time our hosts brought the evening to a close, just after midnight.

. The thirty or so of us who where staying the whole weekend, ambled back to the common-room between the two dorms, popped open a table full of alcoholic beverages and formed a motley circle for a drunken late-night story-swap that lasted well into the wee hours.  It was a verbal free-for-all, such as I have never known.  Generally, one person held the chair at a time, spinning their own personal spell in a freewheeling round-robin of ironic tales and knee-slapping anecdotes.  Uncharacteristically, I never spoke a word, choosing to blend-in as an observer, rather than stand-out as a speaker.  Besides, there was never really a junction at which I could seamlessly jump into the fray.  The stories being spun were so self-referential and culturally insular, that words from me would have stood out like a shrill meow among dogs.  Besides, as the fevered discourse picked up steam, there arose a kind of competitive one-upsmanship, which quickly spiraled out of my league.

. A warm fellow named “Pat Ryan” generously provided the Bushmills.  As luck would have it, Pat was the shanachie whose change of plans enabled me to secure my first-ever professional gig in a foreign land.  He had contracted to do an event in a nearby locality later that month, but had been forced to cancel on short notice.  Without even hearing me work, Pat suggested I fill in.  Calling over a comrade, he introduced me to “Sam Burnside”, a fellow who worked with an outfit called the ‘Verbal Arts Center’, in Derry, saying: “This is the man who needs the services of a storyteller.”.  Shaking my hand heartily, Sam asked if I’d decided to do the gig at Springhill.  I assured him that I was eager to, though I hadn’t realized I had actually been offered it- and the delicate question of my fee had yet to be addressed.  Sam dismissed the subject, saying that was strictly between me and the National Trust- custodians of the estate where the shindig would be held.  His agreement with the Trust stipulated that they issue the check and the arts center reimburse them.  When I was clearly unsure of what this meant, Sam interpreted: “You got the gig.  Just tell them what you like to be paid!”.  So it was, that I agreed on the spot, to appear twelve days later, in a place called ‘MONEYMORE’.  (Needless to say, I liked the sound of that!)

. As the night wore on, the focus fragmented into a percolating stew of competing yarns.  John had us spellbound with gems of locution, while his cohort Len slumped on a stool in one corner, cradling a vessel of Scotch to his breast as though it were a fragile newborn, and steadily nursing the bottle to its completion.

. Being a (partially) clueless man myself, I didn’t notice at first, how completely the more aggressive men were dominating the proceedings, until one of the few woman present cleared her throat to speak.  Liz rose to the occasion, announcing that he had a tale to share.  Shortly after she began, many of the menfolk began to turn their shoulders and chat amongst themselves, in what I perceived as a rude affront to their hostess.  Eventually, Liz was forced to raise her voice to compete with the louts who were now carrying on at full, discourteous volume.  As Liz struggled to finish her story, I felt more and more ashamed of my sex.  Eventually, I could hold my tongue no longer.  Rising to my feet, I interrupted Liz with an apology, interjecting a loud: “EXCUSE ME, GENTLEMEN!”, into the gathering.  Having been so quiet for so long, my outburst appeared to come as a bit of a shock to some of them.  The room fell silent.  I spoke to defend my besieged friend.  “Please- we wouldn’t be here having such an excellent time, without the effort and dedication of Liz Weir.  She’s listened patiently for a long time.  Can’t we show the woman the same respect she showed us, and give her our full attention, so she can finish her story with some dignity?”  Shamed into realization, the jackals fell silent.  Thanking me softly, Liz completed her story to a polite but grudging ovation.  The party recovered, and roared on with no signs of abating before sunup.

. Seeing my opportunity to say hello and offer some support to “Tricia”, a storyteller who had previously told a bawdy ‘Goddess’ story that I had found refreshing, I excused myself from my conversation with Jimmy Kelly and crossed the room to engage her.  Suddenly, the buzz of the room was pierced by a loud CRASH, that sounded like a violent shattering of glass.  The booze-drenched roar of the room suddenly expired.  Stopping in mid-stride, I turned to see what the commotion was.  The entire room was focused on me, recoiling in an almost cartoon freeze-frame of horror, as though I had just committed some mortifying public faux-paux.  For an instant, I thought I might have accidentally knocked something to the floor, but scanning the room, I saw that I never been anywhere near a table, or any other object I might have upset.  With no debris obvious, I shrugged to myself and continued on my way to shmooze with Tricia the new age ”wiccan”, who had so captivated my ear.

. Our party raged on for hours, developing into a great, roaring verbal brawl.  The empties piled up, as the group thinned to include only the dedicated hard-core revelers and overnighters.  Noticing that Len had passed out cold, slouched upright in his chair, arms cradling an empty fifth, head tilted comically back and drooling profusely, I suggested to his cronies that perhaps it was time to drag the sloppy fellow to bed.  A group of men assembled, and lifted Len like a sack of potatoes, bearing him like a corpse to his bunk in the back.

. I paid Liz to use her credit card to call Tina in back home in California, which was beginning to seem like the distant memory of a previous life.  Heart beating every bit the excited lover, I was again crushed to hear the cold recitation of her answering machine.  I told Tina’s recording tape: “The more fun I have, the more I miss you!”  Then, thoroughly sodden, I retreated to the stuffy dorm and crawled onto my lumpy mattress, just as the clock was about to strike four A.M.- the long-delayed end of a remarkable marathon day! …

>  JUNE 12th, 1994

. I awoke too early, to the pitiable moans of agony rending the air from a bunk across the room.  Big, smelly, funny Andy writhed in torment, wailing from the intensity of his excruciating back pain.  With no way to help the poor, suffering creature, his pitiful cries tore at my sympathetic heart and annoyed the hell out of me.  Desperate to cram in another few hours of precious, rejuvenating slumber, I fished out my earplugs, stuffed them into my head and rolled over to thankful sleep.

. When I came-to, Jimmy Kelly was packing his gear to depart.  Though staying the weekend, he had agreed to make a one-day detour to Dublin where he had an audience scheduled with the Irish ambassador to the U.S.  “Chris Matthews”, who owns ‘The Poet and Patriot’ Irish pub in Santa Cruz, had asked Jimmy to deliver the text of a play he had written about the Irishmen who fought with the Mexicans in the turf war of 1912.

. There was a primitive kitchen area in the common room, where coffee, tee and breakfast cereals were provided for the (mostly hungover) guests.  As I propped up my sagging mind with morning coffee, I began to talk more intimately with Daniel, confessing to some despondency over my inability to secure many gigs in Ireland, a country I’d imagined would be very welcoming to performers of my ilk.  The Welsh wordsmith listened politely, as I whined about all my unanswered press-kits and the skin-deep friendliness of the Irish people, telling him about the seemingly well-meaning insincerity of Soibbean in Carlow, and Joanne in Listowel.  It all must have sounded like sour grapes to him.  (He was doing okay in the field.  In fact, Daniel was making his living as a full-time storyteller, a wonderful fate that has eluded me for decades.)  I wondered aloud, if it might have been a real mistake to call myself a “storyteller” instead of a “monologist”, since no one in Ireland goes out specifically to hear a storyteller.  Typically, he goes to them, in a manner- telling tales in exchange for drinks in the local pub.  Daniel listened patiently to my bitching, and then offered some thoughtful feedback.  “Even the well-established shanachies of Ireland can’t find work outside their own parishes.  Since every small town has its own storyteller who is fully familiar with every local character and conflict, the Irish are at a loss to think why they would need another.  An important function of the shanachie is gossip-mongering, something no outsider or blow-in could ever do for them.  It’s a provincial attitude which preserves local culture, but excludes in the process all outside influences and ideas.”  (Exactly what Paul was trying to say in his darkly cautionary letter.)  Now here was some perspective

. While crunching thoughtfully on my corn flakes, I was jarred my the loud, desperate cries of a man in distress, resonating from the depths of the building.  A terrified disembodied voice cried: “HELP!  HELP ME!  HELP ME!”.  Everyone present leapt to their feet, following the pitiable wails down the hallway to their source: the men’s toilet.  There, jammed into one of the stalls, was poor helpless Andy, splayed across the floor like a rubber scarecrow.  He had fallen and could not get up.  His legs were wedged beneath the considerable weight of his frame, and Andy just didn’t have the strength or leverage to lift himself up.  Jimmy Kelly, John Campbell and I tried our damnedest to help the poor soul to his feet, but it was awfully tight with four of us in that stall, and even with our combined efforts, grunting and heaving, we three would-be rescuers could not lift Andy’s considerable body mass up from the floor.  The longer we struggled the weaker we grew, and the more serious the situation became.  Andy’s knee was obviously strained and one leg was quickly loosing blood-flow.  We knew that if we didn’t get some more manpower fast, Andy’s injuries could extend well beyond his wounded pride.  Knowing my meager strength and bulk was all but worthless, I raced out to gather help.  Finally, with the group effort of four stronger men than I, they managed to lift the hapless shanachie to his wobbly legs and walk him slowly to a waiting armchair.  The unlucky actor was sweating profusely, face flushed red- winded and wheezing.  Liz offered to drive him to the nearest hospital, but Andy repeatedly insisted that he was okay.  He was fine!  He just needed to catch is breath.  When he began entertaining us with ribald jokes, we knew Andy would truly be all right.

. Pausing to say good-bye, Jimmy Kelly reminisced with me about the previous evening’s intemperance.  He had been one of the group who carried a blacked-out Len in to the men’s dorm, to put him down for the night.  Apparently, as they lifted his limp body up into the top bunk, Len let rip a big fart, directly in Jimmy’s face!  Laughing, he quipped: “Just like a storyteller.  He always has to get the last word in!”.

. But Liz Weir’s boyfriend “Billy” had a bombshell that made Jimmy’s anecdote pale by comparison.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, Len in his alcoholic delirium, sat stewing with anger about my scandalous admonishment to he and the old-school heavies.  As I passed by, he heaved an empty bottle of whiskey at me, missing the mark thankfully, but sending the glass canister shattering to the floor, unseen at my heels!  So THAT explained the mysterious loud crashing sound I had I had heard the night before, and the skewed expressions of dismay that followed!  Thank God the alcohol had destroyed his aim, or the evening might have ended very differently for me, indeed!

. The next item on the schedule was a morning ‘story-swap’.  In contrast to the boozy free-for-all of the night before, this round seemed flat and hungover.  Energy flagged.  Endings seemed a tad fuzzy and unclear.  It was nobody’s finest hour.

. Lunch was the same dismal pabulum they had been serving us all along.  Picking around the inedible parts, I looked up to see a woozy Len, alone, eyes closed, head propped against the wall for support- obviously paying the price for the previous evenings drunken rampage.  Feeling a self-righteous sense of indignation, I saw the perfect opportunity to express it.  Ambling casually over to Len, I cleared my throat loudly to roust him from his stupor.  Shaking his hand, I complimented him on his evocative singing.  Then commenting on the array of lapel buttons covering his hat and vest, each, announcing different allegiances and associations, I noted that he seemed to be missing an important pin, that he really should be wearing.  Len looked down to spot the missing slogan, but couldn’t find it.  Smiling, I persisted, telling the confused dolt: “You really need a button that says: ‘Instant ASSHOLE, Just Add Alcohol’!”

. Then, as he struggled to compose an appropriate retort, I turned and walked away, savoring my revenge…

.

© Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kevin Paul Keelan and lastcre8iveiconoclast with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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About KPKeelan

Fool, Philosopher, Lover & Dreamer, Benign TROUBLEMAKER, King and Jester of KPKworld, an online portal to visual and linguistic mystery, befuddlement and delight.
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