I found a lovely photograph today which was taken in the early 1930's in Co. Kerry...it is of a small group of children around a man called Sean Mhichil Grumail...Sean was a dancing teacher...of Irish dancing...and a storyteller. He, like many before him, travelled around telling stories.
Stories about the old kings and the battles they fought...stories of rebels and highwaymen and the beautiful old Faerie tales and myths and legends.
The story tellers were greeted with enthusiasm when they appeared in an isolated town-land...welcomed into the cottages and plied with a new laid egg and freshly baked soda bread...a mug of poiteen and a pipe of baccy. Each story teller had their own repertoire of favourites and had they visited the same area before then the cottagers would ask...please tell the tale of Brian Buru again, or of Deirdre of the Sorrows.
Sitting on the floor and on the wooden benches beside a turf fire, with candles lighting the dark corners and the cat curled up on somebody's lap, he would have had a rapt audience well into the night . There'd be a bed for him of course...a straw pallet on the hearth where he could sleep in peace until the following morning.
Sometimes the story tellers stayed a while...all they asked for as payment was a bed and a meal and a pipe of tobacco...sometimes they'd have up and gone when the rest of the household woke the following morning.
Now the dancing masters were of vital importance in days gone by...the English disproved of Irish dancing and banned it from being practised. So travelling dance masters would go from place to place...visiting the hedge schools and small communities to teach the traditional dance. Like the story tellers, all they asked was a bed and food in payment...though some of the hedge schools charged the pupils a penny if they could afford it to pay the dance master for his time and skill.
There were no proper dancing shoes then...just bare feet.
Sean Mhichil Grumail would not have had to sneak into the town-lands under cover of darkness to tell his stories...the children he taught Irish dancing were already attending school...if erratically...though I would think he still spent his nights on a straw pallet in front of the open fire and welcomed a meal of potatoes washed down with illicit poiteen.
In the days before television and radio people made their own entertainment...since few could read and books were expensive anyway...the travelling story tellers and the dance masters were welcomed with pleasure. There were travelling Harpists and fiddle players who'd earn a bed and a meal in public houses and the big houses on huge estates before moving on to another county or another area...
Harpists were important people in the time of the old Irish kings...entertaining the assembled company as they ate roasted wild boar and drank copious amounts of rough ale...English Royal Courts had jesters and fools who played silly tricks and were often skilled acrobats...they too were important members of society because they provided entertainment.
There are few town-lands here in the West who don't have a road-side memorial to a fiddler or a harpist...not famous, in as much his name may not be known outside his small town or village...but famous because he provided much pleasure from playing fast foot tapping tunes or melancholy airs...
I'm always horrified when I happen upon an American Irish music site on the internet...no Irishman worthy of the name would be caught stone dead singing Danny Boy...and I doubt many local musicians would even know the words of Molly Malone...
They sing and play haunting songs of brave rebels...of the mists over the bog roads and a good local fiddle player will bring you to tears with some plaintive air...but they do sing Whiskey in The Jar when it's late and everyone is slightly or very drunk and joins in the chorus...it isn't all doom and gloom...then the floor vibrates and hands are sore from the clapping .
I would have liked to have met with Sean Mhichil Grumail...I'd have much liked to have listened to his stories...it would have been such a pleasure to watch as those small children followed his steps of the Irish dancing...even better would to have lived in our little cottage a hundred and fifty years ago, and to have welcomed in a travelling story teller and all the neighbours, and sat spellbound as he told of fearsome battles and the Tuatha de Danaan in their glass boats travelling the wild oceans...
I'd have liked that very much.