Ireland in Stories and Poems

Neil McCarthy and Niall de Búrca performed at the University of Vienna: an evening of myth and poetry.

Storyteller Niall de Búrca | Photo: Tanja Steen and David Erickson

There was not an empty seat in the hall on Jun. 15 when poet Neil McCarthy and storyteller Niall de Búrca delivered their double performance in the C2 lecture theatre on the campus of the University of Vienna. Organised by ViennaLit and the Department of English Studies, it was the beginning of an afternoon of Irish myths and poetry.

Neil McCarthy doesn’t read his poetry, he performs it. And on this afternoon, his witty, ironic, political and personal poems poured out of him for over half an hour, as if imagined in the moment, he captivated the astonished audience in a haunting language that displayed a fine sense of rhythm and vivid imagery.

As the performance unfolded, each poem was introduced with a tale of its time and place, making the stories and protagonists of his poems suddenly immediate and real. So everyone in the lecture hall suffered with the man sitting desperately on “Parliament Bridge,” waiting to jump.  With the poem “Vienna,” McCarthy shared with the audience his first experiences seeing famous Viennese sights while searching for inspiration. It was refreshing to see the city from a different point of view, through the eyes of an Irish poet.

Then came the even more animated storyteller Niall de Búrca, whose characters sprang to life in his mimic and gestures. In the comic horror story “Fiddly Dee, Fiddly Doh,” Niall de Búrca revealed his talent for captivating his audiences with the contagious energy of an experienced performer. De Búrca leaned toward the audience: “Billy heard a voice whispering under the bed,“ he continued. Members of the audience perched with trepidation on the edge of their seats as they watched him bend down apprehensively to look for the source of the whisper. Nothing; the audience relaxed. Suddenly, a hairy hand grabbed Billy from behind, and shrieks pealed from the crowd as many jumped out of their seats in surprise.

Niall de Búrca’s next story, “How the English Language Came to Be,” was another entertaining performance that was received with delightful laughter as he creatively illustrated how English became a linguistic conglomeration of bits and pieces of many different languages. A magical vegetable given by God to man held the gift of a unique language in each piece. But when the English man forgot to show up to receive his share, he was forced to go around picking up portions of the magic vegetable and thus collected bits of other languages that had fallen to the ground. Eating a piece of Irish caused him to blurt out words like torry and galore; a slice of German produced kindergarten. When he tried Panjabi, he found himself saying pyjama and bungalow, the French gave him romance, and the bit of Arabic had him exclaiming banana and algebra. The English man’s language thus grew rich with diversity; “It celebrates humanity,” de Búrca concluded. His smiling audience agreed.

Niall de Búrca made it clear that there is a difference between delivering a story and truly telling it. His ability to evoke a wide range of emotions from his rapt audiences enables him to bewitch people with his stories and make listening to him, as well as watching him, an unforgettable experience. The Irish tradition of storytelling is a somewhat foreign concept to many in Austria and Germany, where the oral tradition had all but vanished by the first half of the 20th century, in part because it was deemed to be an irrational pastime that lacked public interest. Historically, in Austria, stories are typically read or told in the for of lullabies, almost solely to children; they are not seen as part of adult lifestyle. In Ireland, however, de Búrca stressed that storytelling is part of everyday life and is not limited to a specific audience. By employing a range of voices, pitches, and dialects, and by using his whole body while performing, de Búrca blurred the line separating ‘childish’ and ‘adult’ behavior, making the Austrian audience forget about age for a little while – a necessary first step towards integrating Irish storytelling tradition into Austrian culture. And these days, a handful of events like the 23-year-old “Festival of Narrating Arts” in Lower Austria are evidence that the act of telling and listening to stories is regaining popularity.

Neil McCarthy at Treehugger Dan’s in Budapest | Photo: Tanja Steen and David Erickson

We met Niall de Búrca afterwards at a Kaffeehaus and were fascinated yet again by his lively, physical way of speaking and his talent to enthral. He began his career as a storyteller, he told us, some 18 years ago and over time has become one of the best-known Irish storytellers both home and abroad. From his travels he has found that storytelling is a universal mean of communication and that stories actually have the power to “jump language.” He often throws in bits of Irish Gaelic during his stories, and finds that, in the context, it is easily understood.

De Búrca was exposed to stories from a very young age and tells stories as his mother told them to him. “You don’t have to study theatre to become a storyteller,” he said.

“It comes from the home, from the little babies onwards, from around the kitchen table when you’re with your family and you’re happy.”

And because it is a part of everyday life, “everyone can be or is a storyteller,” he continued. Still, there is a lot to learn; what he called “the nuts and bolts of it,” the skills, and the dedication to a craft like any other.  To do that, you have to just “jump right in.” The essence of storytelling is to have the urge in you.

“In Ireland, we have a word for it; it is grá, which means ‘love’. You have to do what your calling is in life!” For de Búrca, that calling was to bring ancient myths to audiences who have often never heard about them, but who quickly recognize their relevance to their own lives. Thus, he insisted that folklore is not a dusty box you put in the back shelves of a library to look at only every now and then. De Búrca considers storytelling the “spear head” of folklore and he continuously proved how alive béaloideas (folklore from the mouth) is. Famous Irish writers like Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and William Butler Yeats have all drawn from this oral tradition.

“We love storytelling in Ireland,” he said.

Another essential concept folklore is duchas, which means heritage. His biggest aim, de Búrca said, was to use his stories to reveal to young people that this is who they are. They have a remarkable heritage that they can be proud of and learn from, which helps them to grow up confident with a good self-image. In his performances, he shows teenagers “how to overcome things like bullying, how to prevent suicide, how to be confident going into the world – by using ancient stories. I think that’s cool!”

His repertoire spans a wide range, from mythological tales to kings and heroes stories, from the “fianna” – which is extremely popular – to the “Ulster cycle,” folk hero tales, universal urban legends, and personal stories.

De Búrca takes many of his stories from the inexhaustible pool of legends passed on from generation to generation; others he creates anew, sometimes at the request of art galleries and museums. De Búrca sees his stories as friends who let him know when they are ready for performance, which can take anywhere from five minutes to a year and a half. To invent a new story he “takes the local and ordinary that people enjoy, puts it in a pot, stirs it, adds a little bit of exaggeration, and draws it out – and that’s what people like.”

His philosophy: “Follow your bliss.”

This, says poet Neil McCarthy, is also true for him. Having started his career by attending open mics and poetry slam, he hosted “The Verse and the Voice” in 2005, a co-op of Irish poets and musicians. While he had studied literature at the National University of Ireland in Galway, he was never interested in writing “high-peak-poetry,” although Dylan Thomas and other Irish poets had a huge influence on his writing.

For McCarthy, a good poem is not only a pleasure to read, but also an instrument to be performed: it has to flow, and for this occasion, he performed poems from his poetry collections “Naked in Vienna“ and “Seven Cities.”  Living in Vienna has been frustrating for him as he has found that Viennese people “lack crack,“ meaning that they are not as spontaneous as people in Ireland. Still, he likes the relaxed atmosphere of the city, which he describes as a “city which is exhaling.”  But he may not stay; he will be going on a tour soon with a group of Irish musicians and hopes to find a new, “inspiring” place to live.

Ireland is an important place for artists, he says, but it is vital for them to travel, knowing they will always be happy to come back home.

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