Thursday 23 November 2017

Ár mBréacha House of Storytelling celebrates its 25th birthday

By Fintan Lambe

LEFT: The open fire. ABOVE: Phil Carton and Carmel Murphy.
LEFT: The open fire. ABOVE: Phil Carton and Carmel Murphy.
ABOVE: Inside the House of Stories. LEFT: Brothers Paddy and Paul Burnell.
ABOVE: Inside the House of Stories. LEFT: Brothers Paddy and Paul Burnell.
Letitia Breen with her daughters Ciara and Aoife.
Time for a cup of tea.

in the hills of North Wexford, in a place called Raheen, Ballyduff, between Camolin and Craanford, where you'll find a warm seat by the fire, with a cup of tea, and maybe a cut of bread in your hand, and you might hear a tall tale or two, or perhaps a song or a tune.

Those with long memories will remember when it was the home of Matty Reddy. It was a very musical place in his day. Beatrice Byrne, now sadly departed, remembered the house when it was a place of storytelling, perhaps some seventy years ago.

Then electricity came, television eventually followed, and the tradition of the céilidh began to disappear, and with it, the stories and songs that had been passed down through the generations.

Reddy's house at Raheen lay empty for more than thirty years, until it was bought in 1990 from landowner Pat Whelan by Craanford native Fr Jim Fegan.

Fr Jim had done work with people in the field of personal development in the US, and then Switzerland, and had seen the impact and importance of stories.

'When I was in Switzerland, I had a dream about music, story, song and dance bringing healing to the land,' he said. He was looking to buy a house on his return home, and a friend suggested he look at the disused cottage.

It was in ruins, but Fr Jim saw the potential for the role it could play in reviving the tradition of storytelling. Ár mBréacha, or 'Our Roots' became the first house of storytelling in the area in modern times. The popularity grew, and now there are as many a seven or eight storytelling houses in Wexford and surrounding counties.

'When we started it, people didn't know what we were starting,' he said. 'Storytelling now is in the vocabulary, but it wasn't then.'

Local neighbours, tradespeople, and those interested in storytelling helped restore the old house. The tin roof came off, revealing old thatch underneath.

The House of Storytelling opened in 1991, and for 25 years it has welcomed thousands of guests across the threshold. One of those present on the first night was Beatrice Byrne whose memory went back to when stories were told and tunes were played there before.

Today, four people take turns to play the Fear and Bean an Tigh who facilitate the night's entertainment.

'We have a performance stick which is passed around,' said Phil Carton, one of those hosts. 'When you have the stick, it's your turn, you have the floor. You can pass it on to the next person if you wish. It's very relaxed.'

People might tell a story they remember from their youth, or something they have written themselves. They might do a recitation or deliver a poem, or sing a song, do a dance, or play a tune.

As Fr Jim pointed out, it's a great opportunity for young musicians to play for an audience and perhaps pick up new tunes. 'It's good to see the teenagers learning and practising their music,' he said. 'It's very hard to find an audience for your music.'

Over the years, there have been several special events, including plays written by a writers' group that has formed at the house. They're working on another play at the moment which was written by Phil, inspired by an old family story.

The house is also available for classes and courses should people wish to book it.

They also hold intermittent concerts in other venues to help raise funds for the running of the house, as there's no charge for attending the House of Storytelling.

Everyone who arrives on the first Tuesday of every month at 8 p.m. is a welcome guest. They are invited to bring something to go with the cup of tea which is served during the evening. A dedicated team of volunteers prepares the refreshments each month, including Carmel Murphy who has been there for 25 years.

Phil said that many of the guests during the summer, when the house is open every Tuesday night, are visitors from abroad.

'We've had French, Italian, Spanish and Canadian visitors,' added Fr Jim. 'The Canadians especially loved it because it was a replica of the house their ancestors left.'

Many of the summer visitors are also returned emigrants. 'They get a lot out of it as they reconnect with their story,' said Phil, explaining that she lived in England and then Dublin before moving to Gorey.

'I lost all connection with music,' she said. 'I connected again with my roots through the House of Storytelling.' She was also delighted to find that a lot of the people who attend are really gifted writers and really enjoy visiting Ár mBréacha.

Not all who attend remember storytelling when it was a common occurrence in the Irish countryside. A mix of young and old regularly visit. Children are very welcome.

'What we want to do is to pass the traditions on to the young people,' commented Fr Jim. 'Especially the music and stories. Hopefully it will outlive us all.'

So if you have a song in your heart, or a story to share, there's an open door in Ballyduff, where there's a fireside waiting, lamps lit, candles burning, and a kettle on the boil. You might pass on the performance stick this time, but you never know, you might recover a memory from childhood or discover a talent you never knew you had.

Wexford People

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