At Cill Rialaig Artists’ Retreat, Co. Kerry
Start in the Meeting House
of this restored stone-built village,
standing before the portrait of the Seanachaí
who dwelt in the next cottage
where for a short time, I will stay.
He, Seán Ó Conaill, told stories here
as a way of guiding and heartening
the people of this place
who lived from fishing and farming –
hard lives under the hard winds.
There are so many reasons
to find ways of holding strong.
Seán spoke not a word of English,
never thought twice about that.
And not one day spent at school –
the life of this place, were all.
Yet fifty years later
Seán Ó Conaill could tell, word for word,
a story he’d heard, as a boy,
read from a journal.
He was a storehouse of tales
passed to him from the voices of others:
his own people, and strangers –
wandering beggarmen, for instance,
whom he’d invite in from the rain
to sit by his hearth for long hours
before resting their bones in sleep.
Hundreds of stories at his fingertips –
a measureless resource
for the people of his village
in cruel times, winter times,
as in the good times.
Mind you, there were those who thought Seán
strange, seeing him out there, talking to himself
as he worked in the fields, gesturing
to the air as he rehearsed
the tales chosen for that night
or, when the sift of years made inroads,
those he would shore up, lest they slip away.
Story was always his life.
When a boy he’d crept out one time
to travel through the dark
to hear a certain storyteller,
then, on his return in the small hours
had to swim a flooded river –
a near thing. He told no one.
But those new stories lived within him.
So much seemed, was, under threat.
Seán believed the Irish language would die.
Had he known it would survive him,
he’d have tried harder, remembered more stories,
so he said, late in life.
But there were the years when
Séamus Ó Duilearga came from the North,
returning many times
to inscribe the tales –
Seán always pacing his telling
to that writing hand.
So that those stories became a book, inches thick,
Seán Ó Conaill’s Book: Stories and Traditions from Iveragh,
that I have under my hand now –
tales of joy and folly, of gold-coin hope,
of glory and danger, of death,
brutal or pitiful, and death cheated,
trickster tales – anarchic sleights of hand –
along with strong-arm myths, fey legends
and many a ghost story.
Some, he may have had his own way with,
put his own stamp on –
a word or phrase, here and there –
while staying true, close to the source.
Seán Ó Conaill –
farmer and fisherman,
And, if I read certain falls of light
and shiftings of air, aright,
a companion, still, in this place.
Seán Ó Conaill (1853–1931). Seán Ó Conaill’s Book: Stories and Traditions from Iveragh is a folklore classic which, in Séamus Ó Duilearga’s words, ‘attempts to show the richness of story and tradition stored in the memory of one man’.
Diane Fahey’s fourteenth poetry collection, Glass Flowers, is forthcoming from Puncher & Wattmann in November. She has been the recipient of various poetry awards and writing grants, and holds a PhD in Creative Writing from UWS. She lives on Wadawurrung Country, in a bayside town on the Bellarine Peninsula, Victoria. dianefaheypoet.com