March 08, 2001

The seanachie
Storyteller Sharon Kennedy reenacts
tales and trials of Irish through the years

Sharon Kennedy recently appeared at the Brighton Branch Library where she entertained guests for an hour and a half with her Mary Margaret persona.

photo: David Williams

In 1847, 15-year-old Mary Margaret O'Connell braved 13-hour workdays in the weaving room of a Lowell textile mill, using the $4-a-week she earned to put her older brother, one of the fortunate few Irish-Americans to receive a high school education in the New World, through school.

Mary Margaret's life was pockmarked by difficulty and loss, like the death of her popular and quick-witted younger sister to fever. But her days were also spotted with fun and opportunity, and she worked the weaving room with pride, grateful to be spending her waking hours with her best friend, Abbie, outside the confines of the home, and all but ecstatic to be earning almost as much money as her father, a canal digger, and twice as much as her mother, a maid.

In truth, the fictionalized character of Mary Margaret O'Connell never lost a sister or, for that matter, even walked the earth. Nevertheless, the events of her life were lifted directly from the histories of other Irish-Americans from the immigrant sector known as the Acre, and have been woven together seamlessly by actress and nationally recognized storyteller Sharon Kennedy.

Kennedy, a graduate of New York University and the Berghoff Studio in New York, has made a career of spinning characters out of the experiences of ordinary women throughout history. Last week at the Brighton Branch Library, she entertained guests for an hour and a half with her Mary Margaret persona, which the storyteller spent more than three months researching by wading through Lowell's historical archives.

As a modern-day seanachie, or Irish storyteller, Kennedy keeps the tradition of oral history alive by touring libraries, schools and theatres performing spoken-word pieces for audiences of all ages. Her characters span the centuries, from an ornery, 85-year-old Irish-American woman in the modern day, dueling with her prejudices toward her young Puerto Rican caretaker, to a 40-year-old colonist living in the Plymouth Plantation of the 1600s.

Kennedy hopes the performances transcend entertainment or even social history, and help audiences connect to immigrant experiences of today.

More than 100 years after Mary Margaret learned to dodge the pinch of spinning equipment in the weaving room of a Lowell mill, the Acre is still home to a large but struggling immigrant community, now composed of Laotians, Vietnamese and other groups from Southeast Asia, Kennedy reminded audiences after last week's performance.

The seamless thread of America's immigrant history may explain why, ten years after first meeting audiences, Mary Margaret and her mother's character, Kate, still enlighten. The pair tour performance spaces throughout Massachusetts telling heartfelt stories about the people who traded the parched lands of Ireland, then afflicted by the potato famine of the 1840s, for the hardship and opportunity of the hardscrabble Acre.

" One of the big eye-opening things for me was that when I first began to get performances, I got 10 shows in 10 different schools in Cambridge ... and the great majority of the students were definitely not Irish, " Kennedy remembers. " They were African-American, or Latino, all of these different things, and I was beginning to feel by the third or fourth performance that maybe I wasn't getting through. "

But it was around that time that a young Portuguese-American girl approached Kennedy after a piece and showed the performer that her words had struck a chord that is almost universally understood among poor immigrants trying to get their footing in foreign lands.

The girl's grandmother, said the child, still lived in a dirt floor hovel in Portugal, and her parents, like Mary Margaret's, had come to the United States seeking a better life.

" She was relating it to her own background, and she was relating it to people who are poor, " said Kennedy, who can her trace her own roots to an Irish midwife from County Cork who took up residency in the Berkshires.

Last week's performance inspired similar memories in older audience members. One longtime Allston resident recalled her experiences working at a silk factory during World War II, and another remembered the hardships her parents endured around the same time as Italians in America.

Kennedy admits Mary Margaret has taken on a life of her own since her debut in the '90s. These days, the character is even making demands of the storyteller, who had become accustomed to performing the wide-eyed innocent in the same wide-brimmed bonnet and flowery sundress.

" She's sick of it. She figures she's performed 100 or 200 times wearing the same thing, and she wants another dress to wear, " said Kennedy, whose alter-ego was fitted last week for a pinkish-brown sundress, apron and shawl.

" Maybe she can get a new bonnet, too, " said Kennedy, who is enjoying the process almost as much as Mary Margaret. " Maybe we'll splurge. "

Kennedy also entertains the younger set with children's folktales, a talent that earned her a Grammy nomination in 1998 for " The Patchwork Quilt, " a collection of children's stories from across the globe. Her children's stories, many of which are set to music, have won her two Parents' Choice Gold Awards, and helped to land Kennedy in Yankee Magazine's annual listing of 60 people who give New England its flavor.

For her latest CD, " More Irish Folktales for Children, " and a previous compilation, Kennedy traveled Ireland during the late 1980s, conducting months of first-person interviews with the last of the real life seanachies.

" I collected from the last generation of people who had learned the stories told by heart and handed down through the generations. A lot of them did not read, and they had heard the stories through their grandfather or through the village seanachie, " she said. " I have more [conversations on tape] than you can possibly imagine ... You just can't find that in the U.S. now. It's dead. And it's gone in Ireland, too. "

But characters like Finn McCool, a well-meaning Irish giant who outwitted his gory opponents with brain instead of brawn, are still alive in Kennedy's memory, and on her compilations. Kennedy plans to spend the next few weeks performing selections from " More Irish Folktales " at schools and libraries.

For her Finn McCool tales, as with her oral histories, Kennedy weaves her own original fables, but also takes care to preserve the flavor of the originals.

" I remember that I should make [the stories] a little bit gross, and I should make it a little bit scary, " she said. " I want to be sure that I do stuff that is true to the way I heard them in Ireland. "

— • • • • • • • —