By Scott Alarik
Of all the ancient traditions of Ireland, that of the seanachie, or storyteller, may be the most endangered. Irish music is so vibrant today it seems impossible to imagine that many feared its extinction 50 years ago. Both Irish dance and language are enjoying tremendous revivals. But the seanachie, root of so much of Ireland's literature and personality, has not yet found a place in the modern cultural arena.
Irish-American storyteller Sharon Kennedy is on a crusade to change that, to use her abundant stage charms and spellbinding narrative skills to present the art of the seanachie to modern audiences. Her latest work, "Irish Saints and Sinners," traces the seanachie tradition from ancient tales to modern times.
Kennedy has done extensive field work in Ireland, learning from actual seanachies how they use their richly poetic techniques. She began with local storyteller Jennifer Justice's adaptation of a whimsical folk tale filled with magic, ghostly visages, and earthy wit. Kennedy used it to create an essay in the ways of the seanachies, who apply many of the tricks of the ballad to embellish and advance the narrative. Repeated phrases ("the mud and the muck and the mire") were used like song refrains to build suspense and mark the passage of time.
The glossary of the seanachie thus set, Kennedy unraveled an epic tale of legendary fiddler Raftery. His music was repeatedly
described in a chorus of poetic images ("like the fleet of fairy folk and the beating of their ten-times-ten-thousand feet"). After the primer of the first tale, the flowery excesses felt like the music they were meant to be, luring the audience to the mystical and deeply romantic climax.
IRISH SAINTS AND SINNERS:
FROM GALWAY TO BOSTON
An evening of storytelling with Sharon Kennedy
Directed by Kristin Johnson and Jennifer Johnson
Technical director, John Peitso
At: Charlestown Working Theater, through March 19
Between stories, accordionist Noeline Morrisey and guitarist John Carew played traditional Irish tunes with pleasant gusto.
The second act, Kennedy was no longer a seanachie but became ordinary characters telling their stories. First, she was a delightfully shy 19th-century girl telling a bittersweet yet tartly funny tale of anti-Irish bigotry on Beacon hill. Then she was Peg Morrison, from Boston novelist Caryl Rivers's "Virgins," a '60s Irish-American teen hilariously confused as she tries to be a good girlfriend to her beau, who is lustful yet bent on the priesthood. Their steamy, halting sessions in the back seat of a car were antic and graphic, Kennedy's eyes bugging wide with mock innocence as the tale grew tawdrier.
She concluded with a rivetingly sensual turn as James Joyce's character Molly Bloom from the novel "Ulysses." In Joyce's waterfalls of image-rich stream-of-consciousness prose, the musical weaving of the seanachie echoed loudly as Bloom, trying to sleep, sits up to mingle fanciful imaginings of places she has never seen with passionate memories of the day she was betrothed. The repeated single word "yes" was used the same way the refrains were in the folk tales, crescendoing emotion and drama until Joyce's earthy recitation felt just like the ancient art of a master seanachie.