Before electricity arrived in Ireland’s remote corners in the far west, the nights were long, cold, and dark. People would gather around the peat fire in their humble cottages; families with countless children, neighbours, cousins. Together they would spend endless hours telling each other stories, brightening the darkness with their vivid imagination.
There is a rich tradition of storytelling in Ireland. And even though electricity has finally arrived even to the darkest corners of the country, songs, stories, music, dance, and crafts are experiencing a renaissance of some sort.
Until I was sat in front of a fragrant peat fire myself, I never realised who important stories are if you want to fully experience a country. But Ireland has taught me to ask questions and to listen to the answer.
Ballybunion, town of fairies and pirates
I recently visited Ballybunion in County Kerry, a small seaside hamlet of no more than 1,400 inhabitants in the off-season. People like to visit Ballybunion for its excellent golfing infrastructure. They cherish the wild surf of the Atlantic Ocean, the picturesque landscape of cliffs and beaches, caves, arches, and coves.
The land here is rough and raw. The Atlantic crashes against the shore with such ferocity that it sends big fluffs of seafoam 30 metres up the cliff. Like snowflakes, the foam will fly above your head until it settles on the tips of grass all around you. It’s beautiful to witness.
Ballybunion is one of the focal points along the Wild Atlantic Way, a 2,500km long road along some of the finest coastal landscapes in Europe. And amongst all of these things of extraordinary natural beauty, it is also a centre of storytelling. Storytelling that lives through its people, their warmth, and their generosity.
The Story of the Nine Daughters
Take a walk along the dramatic cliffs of Ballybunion with Danny, the local Ecotrek Ballybunion Guide, and you will see the Wild Atlantic Coast in a whole new light. People have lived in this area for thousands of years. To them, each stone, each bushel of grass, each grain of sand tells a story.
For instance, on our walk with Danny, we came past a blowhole, a deep green abyss right by the water, with long patches of grass looking like it’s being sucked in like a big black hole.
With our naked faces bracing the violent winds, Danny explained to us the significance of this place. The local story of the Nine Daughter’s Hole goes back to the 9th century when Vikings were raiding the Irish shores. According to legend, local chieftain O’Connor had nine daughters, all of whom were to be robbed by or were planning to elope with (depending on which version you want to believe) nine Viking warriors. Their father, rather than having his daughters taken away from him, decided to trick them into looking for a precious neck-band. As the girls were looking for the valuable item, he pushed them over the edge. Then he beheaded the nine Viking warriors and pushed them down the chasm as well.
Only Our Rivers Run Free
After your invigorating cliff walk find your way back to Ballybunion. Shake off that coldness of the salty ocean breeze at McMunns on Sandhill Road. Order a lovely Irish coffee, that iconic drink that combines the best of both worlds: coffee and Irish whiskey. Who knows, you might get lucky and also meet here singer/songwriter Mickey McConnell, another extraordinary local storyteller.
In front of the crackling peat fire, Mickey shared with us stories of his life, and stories of Ireland.
As a young lad, he told us, he took part with his father in the Northern Ireland riots. It was during one of these riots when the two of them found shelter from the violence in a pub. Here, little Mickey looked his father in his eyes but what he saw broke his heart. As he told us in the warm atmosphere of McMumms, all he saw was one thing: Defeat.
This is what inspired him to write one of the most iconic songs of the international freedom movement, “Only Our Rivers Run Free”. See him perform the song on YouTube.
The Playwright’s Pub
From here you may also want to find your way to nearby Listowel. There is a small pub here, John B. Keane’s Pub, a business that was started by the world renown playwright and Hollywood screenwriter of the same name. 60 years ago Keane decided to buy this humble pub in the centre of Listowel.
Today, it is still in the hands of his family, with his son Billy – a well-respected writer himself – standing behind the bar on most nights. The pub is very much part of the Listowel community, and the late Keane, a diligent observer on the small lives of the Irish people, spent many days in the upstairs room sketching the stories of people around him.
You never know. Billy may be in the mood to share some of these stories with you while he serves you a pint of perfectly poured Guinness. Or maybe you will find yourself in this pub next to a Hollywood star or a famous writer. You may get lucky as there might be a spontaneous music session, or a brand-new poem will find its audience in the pub crowd for the very first time.
Ireland’s stories are worth listening to
Ireland has many stories to tell, you just need to listen.
Be courageous and take the first step. Speak to the people around you. Strike up a conversation in a pub, on the street, in a shop. You will find that many of the people you will meet will willingly engage in a quick chat, share something of their lives with you, help you understand this country a little bit better. If you are lucky, they may even surprise with an impromptu song or traditional music performance.
Give it a try. You will see that it will make your trip to Ireland so much richer.