ÉAMON KELLY (1914 – 2001)



The death of the Sliabh Luachra-born seanchaí Éamon Kelly at the age of 87 on October 24th, 2001 has deprived Ireland not only of a great actor but also of its greatest contemporary storyteller. Éamon Kelly had a particular grá for this part of the country and as a tribute to him we reproduce the following two extracts from his second volume of autobiography, The Journeyman, published in 1998 by Marino Books, an imprint of Mercier Press. We are grateful to them for permission to print the following.




Micheál Ó hAodha had the idea of bringing together Seán Ó Riada with his famous orchestra, Ceoltóirí Chualann, the singer Seán Ó Sé and myself in a programme called Fleadh Cheoil an Radio. The music, singing and storytelling proved a successful combination and it ran for ages. We taped the programmes in the O’Connell Hall opposite the Gresham Hotel and if we had some minutes to spare between rehearsal and the time of recording, Seán Ó Riada and I went across to the hotel and had a cup of tea – nothing stronger before a performance. Seán, who gave a new lease of life to Irish music, was one of nature’s gentlemen. He was high good company, a keen observer of humanity and all its moods and ridiculous tenses. He had stories he had heard from his mother and in the Coolea Gaeltacht where he lived. I was welcome to use whichever stories of his suited my book, and very welcome they were, for at this stage I was running out of material. And I told him so.


‘When hard pressed,’ he said to me, ‘why don’t you do what de Valera does – go to the country!’.


I took to the roads and of all the places I halted, Gougane Barra in west Cork was the best. It brought flooding back to mind all that went on in my own district when I was growing up. Dinny Cronin, the proprietor of the hotel of that name, sent out word when I was in residence, and the neighbours arrived at night and sat in the big kitchen behind the bar and in front of the roaring fire. They were, as the man said, taking the legs off one another to tell me stories. Dinny, rising after putting a sod on the fire, would set the ball rolling.


‘There were these two women west here in Kerry. One of them was going to town and the other was coming from town after a heavy night’s rain. This was away back in 1922 when the I.R. aye were fighting the I.R. ah and all the bridges were blown down, and the people had to ford the river to go to town.


‘The woman going to town said to the woman coming from town, "Were you in town, what time is it, what price are eggs, is the flood high?"


‘The fleetness of a woman’s mind when it is in top gear! And as quick as lightning the woman coming from town answered, "I was, two o’clock, one and four pence, up to my arse, girl"’ – at which point Dinny would hit the patched backside of his trousers a most unmerciful wallop.


Dinny claimed that the Free State soldiers were the first to bring bad language to Kerry. ‘They were billeted in a certain village not a million miles from where I’m sitting, and a private soldier took a woman’s bucket without her permission. He wanted it for drawing water from the well or something. An officer saw what happened and, wanting to keep good relations between the military and the community, ordered the private to return the bucket back to the lady and apologise for taking it. The soldier took the bucket back to the woman and said "Here, Mrs Tuckett, here’s your bucket and fuckit I’m sorry I took it!"’.


One night as the rain came down in bucketful’s the conversation turned to St. Patrick. According to one man, when the saint had converted the Irish they became curious as to how the world would end. St. Patrick told them it would go up in a ball of fire. His listeners didn’t like one bit the idea of being burned alive and they wanted to know if the saint could save them from such a catastrophe if the end of the world came tomorrow. (Still the rain came pouring down, which drove one wag to remark that if the end of the world came tomorrow the place’d hardly light! He was called to order and we got back to the narrator.) The holy man pondered the people’s question and after some consideration told them he would give them a pledge that God would drown Ireland a year before the end of the world. The people were pleased with that. If they had to go, drowning was a better end than being burned alive! At this point the wag got up to go home and when he opened the door you could hear the rain lashing down on the corrugated iron roof of the cowshed. He poked his head back into the kitchen and said, ‘It looks like as if St. Patrick is keeping his promise!’

The cottage where the famous Tailor Buckley and his wife Ansty once lived was only a short distance from the hotel, and Dinny had many of the Tailor’s stories. According to Dinny, a wealthy farmer put an overcoat making to the Tailor. The farmer after a few days came for a fitting. He liked the way the job was turning out, and as he had the money handy, he paid the Tailor. When the coat was finished the rich farmer didn’t come for it. The weeks and the months went by and winter arrived and at last the farmer came for the coat. But there was no coat. The Tailor had given it to a raggedy poor man going over the hill into Kerry on a cold night. ‘It struck me,’ the Tailor told the farmer, ‘that he needed it more than you! Didn’t our Lord say to clothe the naked!’


‘A man died sitting on a chair,’ Dinny said one night, remembering a Tailor story. ‘Dammit if rigor mortis didn’t set in, and when it came to waking him he couldn’t be straightened out on the table, and a sitting corpse could look bloody awful comical. One neighbour thought of a plan. He tied down the corpse’s feet under the table and put another rope hidden by the habit around the dead man’s chest. A couple of men put a good strain on the two ropes and secured them well. When he was straightened out if he didn’t look as fine a corpse as you’d see in a day’s walk. As the night wore on people came to the wake. There was plenty to eat and drink there. Too much drink, maybe, for in the middle of the rosary a blackguard got under the table and cut the rope around the dead man’s chest.


‘The corpse sat up like a shot, saying "Ahhh" as the wind escaped from his stomach. There was a gasp of horror from the mourners and they skidoo-ed out the door the same as if the plague had hit the place!’


Even though the people in the kitchen had often heard the story before, there was a big hand and praise for the storyteller. Listeners often joined in with words of encouragement during the story such as ‘Maith thú !’ (‘Good on you!’). On his uttering a truism they’d say ‘Is fíor dhuit!’ (‘True for you!’). Or telling of some terrible tragedy someone’d say, ‘Dia linn go deo!’ (‘God be with us forever!’). When the storyteller made a very telling point the audience would all chorus, ‘Go mba slán an seanchaí !’ (‘May the storyteller prosper!’).


To Dinny I was always the seanchaí, and he’d greet me when I arrived with one of the jingles which used to introduce my own programme on the air:


Lift the latch and walk straight in,

There’s no better place for glee.

You are welcome to the Rambling House

To meet the seanchaí !


The first night I came to Gougane Barra he brought my bag upstairs. There was an occupant already sleeping in the room. Throwing down my bag, Dinny said, ‘That’s your hammock and that’s a hoor of an Englishman in the other bed!’ To call me in the morning Dinny threw pebbles from the loose gravel of the yard at my window and shouted, ‘Get up, seanchaí!’ Dinny was as famous a character as the Tailor Buckley. He hadn’t as many stories as the Tailor, but he felt that his mission in life was to put me in touch with those who had. He took me in his car at night to farmers’ kitchens all over the parish where people gathered to talk after a day’s work. I was as welcome as de Valera, a small God there then, and who had had a safe house in nearby Gortafludig during the Civil War. I told tales, some tall tales, and heard tales, some taller. I had to cast a sprat to catch a salmon. I came home with my head bulging with stories and ideas for many more.


I went to Dinny’s mostly in the winter when there was no tourists to distract the locals or take up Dinny’s time. He had no staff in the winter and he and his wife Nellie saw to my simple needs. Séamus Murphy the sculptor told me that he took Milan Horvat down to Dinny’s hotel in the middle of winter. Horvat, a Hungarian I think, was the conductor of the Radio Éireann Symphony Orchestra. It was playing in Cork and Séamus was given the job of showing the conductor the hidden Ireland so he brought him to Gougane. Dinny showed them into the sitting-room. He knew Séamus well. Séamus had been to the Tailor’s cottage and had made a now famous bronze bust of that storyteller. Seamus introduced the conductor to Dinny without mentioning the man’s occupation. Dinny sensed the imperial foreignness of Milan Horvat and was as curious as hell to know ‘where he came out of’.


He set about putting down a fire, a gesture of welcome, spattering talk all round him as he brought in the papers, sticks and sods of turf. Every now and then he cast an eye in the direction of Horvat, who was standing by the picture window: a tall, aloof man in a long black coat, holding a fairly wide-brimmed hat behind his back, his eyes taking in the treacherous and dramatic sky tinged with red, the mountains, the lake and the monastic ruin on the island, seeing them we may presume in musical terms. The fire wasn’t lighting for Dinny and he took off his cap to blow it as Séamus sat beside him. Finally Dinny’s curiosity overcame him and nodding towards the window he said to Séamus, ‘Who’s this hoor?’ Séamus, grateful that Horvat didn’t get the significance of the word, explained that he was a conductor. Dinny eyed the stranger, and with a modicum of incredulity enquired, ‘On the buses in Cork?’


In Milan Horvat’s eye line across the lake was Timmy Callaghan’s house. During my visits to Gougane, Timmy and I became firm friends and I was invited to his house. I am still not sure whether he expected me to believe all the things he told me. Timmy didn’t fight for freedom when his age group was out in the hills, but he carried dispatches hidden under the saddle of his bicycle. He was, as he said himself, a handy footballer and played in every position in the field including the mark. Because of a falling off in speed as the years went by, he found himself in the goal.


‘We were playing in the final of the parish league,’ he told me, ‘and the opposing team knowing my weakness placed all the good looking women they could find at the two sides of the goal. Blast it,’ he said ‘watching the women I left everything in, and we lost the match! …’


I left Timmy and walked back to the hotel by the lakeshore and thought of the time when the waters parted and revealed another world below. A woman storyteller, according to Dinny, was joined in butter with Timmy Callaghan’s grandfather. She was going by the lake with her firkin in the moonlight when she saw the waters part in the middle and lay bare an enchanted land, where the sun shone, the birds sang, the men worked in the fields and there was an abundance of flowers and fruit. She knew if she had a piece of steel to throw into the opening the waters would remain parted, and she could walk down, meet the people, see how they lived, and have another story to tell when she came back.

She remembered the steel tip on the heel of her shoe and she put down the firkin to untie her lace. Taking her eyes off the lake broke the spell and when she looked again the gap had closed. She was left with only what the mind’s eye can hold, a picture that would always remain vivid and bright.


It is all of forty years since I first visited Gougane. The men and women who sat in the big kitchen behind the hotel bar and hurried the night are long since gone. They lie in the little churchyard by the lake. May the sod rest lightly on them and on Timmy O’Callaghan, Dinny Cronin and the Tailor Buckley. Their spirits are somewhere in the skies in a land of fruit and flowers where the air is forever filled with music and the beat of angels’ wings.




P.J. O’Connor of Radio Éireann adapted The Tailor and Ansty for the stage. The Tailor, Tim Buckley, was a famous storyteller, and he and his wife Anastasia held court in the long winter evenings in their cottage near Gougane Barra in West Cork. Theirs was an open house for neighbours and visitors alike. Eric Cross, a visitor who came to stay for some years in Gougane, wrote down the Tailor’s sayings and stories as well as Ansty’s badinage. It was meant as a record for the old couple’s many friends, but after some excerpts from it appeared in Seán Ó Faoláin’s The Bell, the book was published.


The Tailor liked to sing out the title and the name of the publisher, he was so pleased with the project. ‘The Tailor and Ansty’ he would say, ‘Eric Cross. Chapman and Hall Limited, 11 Newfetter Lane, London EC4. Eight shillings and sixpence!’ Both he and his wife Ansty, God bless them, were as broad-spoken as the Bible, and the book was banned by the Censorship of Publications Board in 1943 as being ‘in its general tendency indecent’. But there was nothing in it that I didn’t hear from the men sitting by my father’s fire when I was growing up.


Stories like the one about the new Department of Agriculture bull that attracted much local attention. People came in such numbers that the owner of the beast decided to charge 6d a head for the privilege of viewing the animal in all its virile ferocity. One man was hanging back from the entrance to the field, and the owner asked him why he wasn’t going in! ‘I am a poor man,’ the prospective viewer said, ‘the father of eighteen children.’


‘Eighteen children,’ shouted the farmer. ‘Stand there and I’ll bring the bull to see you!’

The animal kingdom interested the Tailor greatly, and he had a story of a mule that died on the way to Cork with a load of butter. The owner so as not to be at a total loss, skinned the mule and sold the pelt in Macroom. When he came back the mule had revived and was grazing at the side of the road. His master went into a field, killed a number of sheep, skinned them, and while the hides were still warm, applied the fleeces to the mule’s body. ‘And that animal,’ the Tailor told the neighbours, ‘lived for fifteen years after with two shearings a year!’


A cat likes fish, it is said, but will not wet its paws, yet the Tailor knew of a cat called ‘the moonlighter’ that used to fish with its master. Small animals the Tailor loved, even insects, and he told of the daradaol, a slow-moving black chafer sometimes called the devil’s coachman, because his tail sticks up like a driver at the back of a vehicle. This bucko told the soldiers where our Lord was hiding, and so the animals lost their power of speech because, as the Tailor said, they’d tell out everything.


Irish was Tim Buckley’s first language and he was as fluent in that tongue as the poets of Sliabh Luachra. He brought much of the music and rhythm of Irish to the English he had learned. Glac bog an saol agus glacfaidh an saol bog tú. Take life easy and life will take you easy. The world is only a blue bag, knock a squeeze out of it while you can, was another saying of his.


The banning of The Tailor and Ansty caused a heated controversy in the press and gave rise to a four-day debate in the Senate. In time a new Censorship Board was formed and the book was unbanned, but by then much hurt had been caused to the Tailor and his wife. They, who loved the company of people in their house, were for a time deserted, and worst of all, three priests called on them one day and, forcing the Tailor to his knees on the flag of the hearth, made him burn the book in the fire.


‘It was a good book,’ the Tailor said, recovering from the humiliation. ‘It made a great blaze!’ Ansty’s only comment was, ‘Glory be! Eight and sixpence worth!’ That was a lot of money to her.


The Abbey accepted P.J. O’Connor’s adaptation of The Tailor and Ansty, and it was put on in the Peacock during the 1968 Dublin Theatre Festival. I was cast as the Tailor and Bríd Ní Loinsigh as Ansty. A young trainee director, Tomás Ó Murchú from Cork, was given the job of preparing us for the stage. My experience as a storyteller and my knowledge of the countryside – I was brought up not ten miles from where Tim Buckley was born – helped me to build the character of the Tailor. Bríd and I thoroughly enjoyed the job of getting under the skin of this outlandish old couple from Garrynapeaka. The stories, the bickering, the reminiscences, the jokes, all added up to a fine night’s entertainment …


I forget how many times the Tailor was revived, but on the last occasion my wife Maura played Ansty. P.J. O’Connor always said that he had her in mind for the part when he wrote it. At the time Tomás Mac Anna had brought a young man fresh from Trinity into the Abbey, and it was he who directed the Tailor this time. His name was Michael Colgan. He built the show out of the new, like the Tailor making a new suit. Maura’s Ansty was busy as a bee, all fuss and fooster, bringing new impetus to the part. The Tailor, because of a gammy leg, was anchored in various positions on the set. In Colgan’s direction he was orbited by Ansty, stinging him verbally into action with her acerbic tongue. She was an immediate success. With the bantering and mock-warring conflict between husband and wife, the piece played like a racy tune on an old fiddle …


There was a call from the country again and Maura and I set out on a second Tailor tour, this time under the managership of my good friend Ronan Wilmot. We went to Derry and Benburb and south to Macroom, little more than a stone’s throw away from Garrynapeaka in Ballingeary where the Tailor once lived. Coming among people who knew him and Ansty inside out was a bit nerve-racking, but we must have been on the right lines because those who came thoroughly enjoyed the evening’s entertainment. They faulted me on one word. What Eric Cross wrote as ‘keening’ the Tailor would have pronounced ‘caoining’. I should have known better.


In Macroom on the Saturday night there was only a scattering of people. Ronan Wilmot and John O’Toole, the stage manager, drove out to Gougane near the Tailor’s cottage on Sunday. In Cronin’s Hotel, after a meal, people who were all dressed up said they were going to Macroom to see their old friend the Tailor. A good omen; interest was growing, and, sure enough, the house was packed that night and the next. Then we drove on to Bantry for more full houses. The old storyteller was being honoured in his own land.

Maura and I made friends with the Tailor’s son, Jackie, and his wife, when we visited the Tailor’s one-time famous home. The day we were there, Jackie’s cow, what his father used to call the dairy herd, was about to calf. She was a friendly creature, as black as a crow, her barrel large, showing that she was near her time. I minded her out of the cabbages for a while, as I used to mind our own cow when I was a child in Carrigeen, Glenflesk over the County bounds in Kerry. I plucked a wide cabbage leaf and she ate it out of my hand. ‘You should have been a farmer,’ Jackie said, and he promised that if the cow had a bull calf he would call him after me. So it transpired, and when I met Jackie in Cork afterwards, he swore that the calf, which turned out to be a pet, used to answer to my name.

‘Éamon,’ Jackie said, ‘I sold you in Bantry fair last week for ten pounds.’


© Éamon Kelly