Written by Helena Byrne – First published in Celtic Canada Magazine, Spring 2016
“My grandfather would only shave once a week, on a Sunday, before going to mass. I recently became aware of this little fact. It might have seemed a very simple, perhaps insignificant discovery to someone else, but for me it felt like a bit of a revelation. A snippet of my grandfather that I hadn’t expected to find on my journey when making an album of Irish folklore stories.
I work as an Irish folklore storyteller and singer in Ireland, regaling audiences with tales of the Other World and the mysterious Fairy Folk, with traditional Irish songs and insights into the Irish life of days gone by. I’ve been doing this work for a number of years and have been very fortunate to meet many fascinating people with wonderful stories along the way. The Irish people have a peculiar relationship with the Fairy Folk today, one that can be difficult for other nationalities to grasp. If you were to ask an Irish person if they believe in the Fairies their response to you would most likely be “Ah, that’s all in the past”. Life has become busy and advanced. We’re technology-savvy, we seek the science behind how things work, and our street lamps and headlights have brought light to some of the deepest, darkest country lanes.
You would be forgiven for assuming that the beliefs Irish people held so strongly in the past have all but vanished. However, this is not what I have found. Hearing these stories of the Banshee, the Pooka and the Other World seems to re-awaken some deep respect for these beliefs within Irish people. I’m often approached by someone who believes a loved one experienced something ‘Other Worldly’, usually beginning their story with “I know it sounds silly, but my mother heard the Banshee”, or “I know a neighbour who interfered with a Fairy tree and woeful things happened”. It seems once we scratch the surface and dig below our newfound modernity, there still remains a profound intrigue and respect for the Fairy Folk. Listening to these stories made me wonder. How many of these tales and encounters with the Fairy Folk were resting in the back of Irish people’s minds, remaining untold and potentially forgotten?
I had already begun working on my new album of stories and had selected a number of much loved Irish folk tales. Now I was on a mission to include stories that had previously not been recorded. First of course, I had to gather them. So I did what most people would do and put the word out on Facebook, asking friends to share any stories about the Fairy Folk they might have. I got a strong response, with lots of friends describing brushes with mysterious characters and unusual goings-on around Fairy forts and trees. But when a message came through from my cousin, my attention was immediately drawn to it. “Dad has stories about Granny and Grandad in Myshall”.
This was my cousin Josephine, and the grandparents she was referring to were my father’s parents. My grandmother Nancy passed away when I was about ten years old so my memory of her, though fond, is blurred through youth-tinted glasses. My grandfather James passed away when my father was nine. So I had resigned myself to the notion that some fragment of James’ character would remain with my father, but for us grandchildren, he would remain elusive. I also, ashamedly, felt that James was of such a distant generation having being born in 1901, that even had I enquired about him, I wouldn’t have discovered anything to connect with.
My cousin’s dad and my uncle Jim lives in Graiguenamanagh, County Kilkenny, in the homestead where my father was raised. Kindly he agreed to a chat with me. I wasn’t sure what to expect. As we sat down at the kitchen table I wondered if our meeting would last only as long as the cups of tea in our hands. Thankfully this was not the case, and two hours later after countless anecdotes, we called it an evening. Jim had brushed away the cobwebs and recounted many of the tales that his father James had told over half a century ago, first hand experiences with the Fairy Folk and the supernatural. It was surreal. Not only was I hearing these gripping and magical stories from my grandfather, but I was beginning to form a picture of the person he was by peeking between the lines. He played card games with neighbours, he took a break from work every day at one o’clock to listen to a radio drama and indeed, he shaved once a week, on a Sunday, before going to mass. In those two hours I learned more about my grandfather than I had ever thought I would. However, one detail struck me far more than anything else I heard that day, when Jim described days in which visitors would call to the house and be entertained for hours on end by my grandfather’s stories. Lo and behold, my grandfather was a storyteller.
In the months that followed I got into the studio and recorded my album ‘Scéal’. I included a number of my grandfather’s stories. Making it that bit more special, my father lent his voice to a selection of the stories, and my brother, also named James, performed the role of our grandfather for the recordings. I will never know what my grandfather would have thought about the album, what he would have said about his grandson and namesake James speaking words I imagine he would have uttered, or how he would have felt about my efforts to keep his stories alive. I can only hope that he would feel proud. What I do know is that he is no longer so elusive or intangible to me. I found a connection. Long before I had spoken my first word, let alone told a tale, my grandfather was regaling family and friends with his stories. Now I can share his stories with my audiences and I’ll do what I can to keep our tradition of storytelling alive.”
Want to see Helena perform live? Upcoming Shows
‘Scéal – a Collection of Irish Stories, Music & Poetry’ is available now
Vocals by Helena Byrne, John Byrne, James Byrne & Mary Byrne
Tin Whistle by Colm O’Snodaigh and Piano by Josh Johnston.
Photography by Laelia Milleri, Dress by Claire Garvey.
Graphic Design by Jamie Hickey.
Recorded at Quiet Cailín Studios and Cauldron Studios.
What People Say About ‘Scéal’
“There is a very unfortunate impression that the art of traditional storytelling is only suited for the juvenile mind, and adults are somehow exempt from its virtues. Byrne, a Kilkenny native… certainly doesn’t feel that way, and “Scéal” states her case for reclaiming storytelling as multi-generational entertainment – and, of course, a way to pass along history and culture.” – Boston Irish Reporter, May 2016
“If you don’t get goosebumps when you hear her beautiful voice then you may need to consult a medical professional because chances are, you’re dead inside.” – Travel Ireland Magazine, March 2016
“A brand new album from an Irish storyteller bridges the gap between Irish legends and folk music.” – The Irish World Newspaper UK, April 2016
“I didn’t want the stories to end, each one was more spellbinding than the last.” – The Celtic Connection Magazine USA, March/April 2016