Part Three – Crashing and Landing
When you come off the plane and they have a sign with your name on it, you know you’ve made it. Storyteller Aideen McBride had a bright smile as well. She’d invited me to perform for the Dublin Yarnspinners, but we had got to spend some time wandering about the city and countryside before the gig.
At the Hill of Tara I began to understand the weight stories have in Europe. Standing on a fortification mound that dated back five thousand years, I looked across fields at forests and towns that had existed for generations.
America is new, going back only a few centuries. We’ve written our own history knowingly and arrogantly—contrasting ourselves with the “old world”. The ancient stories that Native Americans tell are largely lost to the general public.
In Ireland, though, every turn of the road, every rock has a story. There’s history and mythology in the language and the names. Even if your average citizen doesn’t have the repertoire of a storyteller, she knows and has a sense of the place and the tradition.
It’s a bit overwhelming.
Wednesday evening I slipped off to the Brian Boru pub for a music session, and was asked to share a story. Brian Boru was the High King of Ireland a thousand years ago. How dare I even think of speaking in his pub?
I told “Old Scratch Nickels,” about the joy of beating a dead politician’s corpse, which it turns out is a fairly universal theme.
Thursday night I was featured at the Teacher’s Club—Club na Muinteoiri. I arrived an hour early to find the room empty and a packed Improv festival in action downstairs. Was anyone even going to show up? I took comfort in the fact that even in Europe part of the storyteller’s job is to rearrange the chairs in the room to make it suitably comfortable for listening.
Ones by threes the audience dripped in, until there was a fair sized-crowd and…
If I only had five or six stories, then I’d simply start my set and hope for the best. But with several hundred in my head the question was, “How do I win these strangers over?” I’m great with children. I’m awesome with families. Adults? They scare me. While my goal is to transmit joy with story, grown-ups can be skeptical and standoffish.
Even worse, this performance was the day after we’d gotten the explosive results from the United States presidential election. As an American it was, to some extent, my job to both mitigate and connect.
So I borrowed a cell phone and set a timer for three minutes of political analysis—and ranting—with a bit of hope.
“I have no evidence that this will happen,” I said in closing, “but I hope for all our sakes, that he will be the best President our country has ever had.”
There was a pause as the audience looked as skeptical as I felt.
Time to change gears and start telling real lies.
“You’re probably wondering how I ended up in East Berlin, looking up at three hundred and seventeen watermelons falling out of the sky. And you’re probably wondering how I survived…”
The gig went well. Even—or perhaps especially—my closer, “Cinderella Spinderella,” which killed. After the show, several listeners asked why I didn’t begin with that. To be honest, I couldn’t trust that a fairy tale would work as an opener. I’m still not sure if it would have.
The next morning I was up before dawn and on a train South to Sneem, where Batt Burns met me at the Killarney train station.
As we drove through magnificent green and rolling hills, Batt tried to reassure me, “There are two other storytellers on the bill. Both of them are Irish. Whatever you do will be fine.”
Yeah, right. It was a crazy busy day, like stepping onto a moving roller coaster.
First stop was a primary school. Home territory. Though in America when you ask a youngster, “What’s your favorite dessert” the answer is never, “Custard!”
After a quick nap, I met the other tellers, Pat Speight and Jim Maher, for a group storytelling in the Wrestler’s Bar pub.
Pat and Jim are Seanchaí. You can tell because they wear hats and vests. They had the crowd in the palms of their hands with their traditional Irish stories and occasional song. Grownups in a pub, with alcohol can be impatient and belligerent. The last thing you want is to alienate an audience. Each tale that Jim or Pat told was short, about three or four minutes, and ended with a punch line. The festivalgoers loved them.
My stories aren’t like that. Three minutes is really short. Lots of my tales have jokes, but they rarely stop on them. While about seventy-percent of my work is original, many of them sound like old-fashioned folk tales. Others are set in the village of Chelm. Some are “autobiographical lies.” I don’t have any short jokey stories about men, dogs or horses…
But maybe Abu Ali and the Donkeys?
I have no idea what I began with, but somehow I survived and they clapped.
All weekend I felt a tension between my work and the form and style of the Irish storytellers. The crowd-pleaser in me wanted to keep the mood going and tell more of the same. The egomaniacal “artist” in me wanted to challenge the status quo and lay out something in the second person.
All weekend back and forth between short/jokey and long/narrative.
Family shows were easy. I was on my own and could control the entire experience, but Batt is committed to creating a new generation of seanchaí. All of the pub programs were swaps alternating between the “pros” while encouraging audience members to find their voices. Everyone took turns telling.
By Sunday afternoon, I’d sketched the outline of new story just for Sneem, about Sean O’Malley Cohen, a half-Jewish half-Catholic Atheist Irish American “returning home” only to be suddenly killed, as he looked the wrong way crossing the street. The priest looked at the poor man, who was wearing his finest suit. Could he even be buried in consecrated ground? “He studied Nietzsche in college,” someone said. “Ahh,” sighed the priest. “All dressed up and nowhere to go.”
The crowd at Riney’s Bar laughed on cue.
At the closing session, though I finished with “It Ate My Sister.” A ten-minute “autobiographical” story about a sibling rivalry that ends with me hurling five gallons of rock salt at a giant carnivorous slug. There’s even a laugh toward the end —“and I was charged with assault”. Everyone cracked up.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Batt said, “Mark Bind…”
“Sorry, Batt,” I had to interrupt. “American stories keep going for just a bit longer.”
And for a few minutes more, in a pub in Ireland, the story continued…