"There is a
hunger for stories. For children, stories take them into another world.
For adults, stories bring back memories, and give people the opportunity
to reflect on and feel things their lives haven't allowed them to focus
Boston-based storyteller (or in Irish: Seanachie, pronounced shawn-a-key) Sharon Kennedy performs stories from around the world, but is best known for those drawn from the Irish oral tradition: tales of the "little people" and the fairy world, of shapeshifting seals known as "selchies" who can assume human form, of giants and wizards, and of magical encounters between ordinary people and extraordinary worlds. She is also known for a one-woman dramatic monologue called "Mary Margaret O'Connell: Lowell Mill Girl," in which she assumes the persona of a teenaged immigrant from County Cork, Ireland, describing her journey and the circumstances of her family's life in 19th century Massachusetts.
Kennedy performs primarily in New England, at schools, libraries, storytelling festivals and venues such as the Charlestown Working Theater. "New England keeps me busy," says Kennedy. Among the large population of Irish-Americans in the region, "there is a hunger for stories. For children, stories take them into another world. For adults, stories bring back memories, and gives people the opportunity to reflect on and feel things their hectic lives haven't allowed them to focus on."
Some of Kennedy's programs are designed for children, others for adults, still others for families. She has recorded a tape of children's stories from around the world called, "The Turtle Who Wanted to Fly" (available from Sharon Kennedy at 781/393-7566). The tape is so beloved by children that Kennedy frequently gets repeat orders from parents whose children have "worn it out from listening to it over and over again."
Kennedy has also recorded an award-winning (the 1996 GOLD AWARD from Parents' Choice magazine) CD titled, "Irish Folk Tales for Children." Released by Rounder Records of Cambridge, MA in February of 1996, Kennedy's tales of leprechauns and wizards are accompanied by the music of harpist Barbara Russell, fiddler Johnny Cunningham, accordionist Evan Harlan, and bodhran (a traditional Irish percussion instrument) player Grant Smith. The Boston Globe said of Kennedy's CD that it "captures the mystical magic of those ancient Irish tales, full of Druids and little people and ancient lore -- she can turn a word into a thousand pictures." ("Irish Folktales for Children" is available in major record stores throughout the United States.)
Kennedy has discovered that audience response is particularly intense to the story of first-generation immigrant Mary Margaret O'Connell. Kennedy conducted research in Lowell, Massachusetts, and based O'Connell's story on the experiences of dozens of different people. "I've seen the kind of house she would have lived in, and read detailed descriptions of the harsh living circumstances--dirt floors, no toilets. Cholera epidemics. Horrible accidents. She is a fictional character, but the circumstances she narrates are the real thing."
For children, Kennedy finds, O'Connell's story is so compelling they often believe that Kennedy is, in fact, the immigrant girl. "They're surprised when I return to my own accent at the end of the show. It takes them awhile to understand what happened."
For adults, O'Connell's story "takes people back to hard times their own families may have endured as immigrants one to three generations ago. Audience members sometimes cry, but in a good, cathartic way. And it isn't just Irish-Americans who respond this way. People from all ethnic backgrounds do, too. Each group has its own immigration story. Sometimes, people will come up to me after a performance and tell me their own families' stories. Or they are prompted to go ask older relatives to tell their family history."
In the graduate courses on storytelling Kennedy teaches at Lesley College in Cambridge, MA, and at Salem State College in Salem, MA, she assigns students the task of gathering a family story. "For some," Kennedy reports, "telling their family history becomes the most powerful part of the course. It motivates them to pursue the story trail. Some have started taping their relatives and have become their families' historians."
Kennedy gathered many of her stories during a two-month trip to Ireland in 1987. Before setting out to find traditional seanachies, she was advised by experts in the U.S. that her trip would be fruitless. "They told me storytelling was dead," Kennedy remembers. But she discovered that it wasn't the storytellers themselves who were dead, it was simply their audiences' interest. Riding her bicycle from village to village, equipped with a handful of names--each of whom suggested further names--Kennedy ultimately tracked down 24 traditional seanachies.
"Some of them had received the stories from an oral tradition dating back ten generations or more," Kennedy recounts. "They remembered the stories. But no one had asked them to tell them in a very long time." But Kennedy did ask them, and tape recorded their stories, which have become a resource "library" from which she draws her material.
"They were open and generous, and the stories were gems," she says. Kennedy dedicated "Irish Folktales for Children" to the 24 storytellers, aged 55 to 89, from whom she gathered stories. Fortunately, Kennedy reports, Ireland has been experiencing a revival of interest in traditional storytelling for the last five years.
Kennedy started out her career as an actress. "But I found I was restricted to the materials others had selected to produce, and to parts that I auditioned for and was cast in. Often, it wasn't material I cared about. Also, it was difficult to make a living as an actress. So I became an elementary school teacher. I think I probably always had the idea of a one-woman show somewhere in the back of my mind. After I started telling my students stories and discovered the children were mesmerized, I decided to develop a career as a storyteller--and it has enabled me to utilize other talents: singing, acting, playing the guitar, and my natural feel for children."
Stories from oral traditions around the world have "more similarities than differences," says Kennedy. "Right now, in Haiti and in villages in Africa, the oral tradition is pretty much the same as it was in Ireland 100 years ago. People pass down their traditions and history through stories. They aren't just for fun, stories impart culture. Stories from around the world have the same themes and types of characters -- everyone, for example, has stories of the badly treated girl, such as Cinderella, whose life is eventually transformed."
Irish stories, however, are unique in one way, Kennedy says, in their emphasis on "escaping into fantasy. Many of the stories don't really teach a significant moral lesson about life in the real world. Instead, they take you into the story space, offer up a different, mystical reality, and suspend you there for its own enjoyment." The appeal of tales of the fairy folk and their alternate world are, Kennedy suggests, in part the result of the need for escape from life "under the thumb of British oppression."
Fairy stories, however, date further back in Irish history to the time of the introduction of Christianity in the 5th century. "Christianity co-opted the earlier pagan beliefs," Kennedy explains. "For example, pagan wells would be renamed with a saint's name. The old religion went underground, just as the fairies are said to live under mounds near wells. The old religious beliefs lingered as stories of the fairy folk."
To find Irish stories with epic or moral themes, Kennedy explains, means looking to ancient myths and legends of heroic figures such as the wandering warrior, Finn McCool or the heroine Deirdre. Analogous to the Iliad or the Odyssey, such stories would "take a month to tell," says Kennedy.
Kennedy's own favorite stories are those of the fairy folk. "I'm happy with the fantasy. I like stories about everyday people encountering another world and another reality. I'm a fairly down to earth person, but I go in one second completely into the world of the story.
"The fairy world is also atmospheric in the way Ireland is itself, all fog and mist, reflecting a closeness to nature, a propensity for mysticism, and a value on spirituality and poetry. These qualities reflect an attitude prominent until recently in Ireland, that these aspects of life are as important as practical things such as making money. In the past, storytelling and poetry were held in high esteem, and those who practiced them were very well respected."
In the past, Kennedy says, "if somebody played the fiddle well or told a story well, it was believed that they must have spent time with the fairy folk. Such talents are seen as too wonderful to have come from just yourself, they have to have come from a higher power." The story of the legendary fiddler, Raftery, whose story Kennedy sometimes includes in performances, is an example of a musician whose beautiful music was said to have been inspired by the time he spent among the fairy folk.
I forgot to ask Sharon Kennedy, seanachie, whether her own storytelling gifts had been inspired by visits among the fairy folk. I'll just guess. But for anyone interested in coming to their own conclusions, Kennedy is available for performances for children or adults, at schools, libraries, or festivals. For information, please call her at 781/393-7566.
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