Facts and Fictions storytelling magazine.
Pete meets interview.
Pete Meets is an occasional series of interviews with people from the storytelling world. Although most are storytellers they don’t necessarily have to be. Some happen as face to face chats, others are done via email. There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods: the face to face chat gets the interviewee’s immediate reaction and style of talk; the email interview, even though we try for spontaneity, is obviously more thought out, but it does save me a lot of transposing! Doing it by email also means we can talk to people who are more remote—as in this one with Irish storyteller Brendan Nolan.
PETE: I first came across you through The History Press’ Folk Tales books. If I had heard your name before it hadn’t clicked. Have you worked at all in England or the UK?
BRENDAN: I wrote the launch title for the History Press Folk Tales series in Ireland: that is Dublin Folk Tales. Then, I was asked to write Wexford and Wicklow county books. I stopped then, for there are 32 counties to be covered in Ireland and since three represented something close to ten per cent of the total, I thought I had compiled enough of those stories. Still, when the series is fully published in Ireland there will be something more than 1,000 stories freshly told by living storytellers. That’s a tremendous resource for storytellers anywhere. It could even be called “1001 Irish Stories by Living Irish Storytellers.”
I told stories at Swanwick Writers School in Derbyshire, (Just up the road from me!) some years age. Apart from that and a few loose stories told at the Society for Storytelling 2014 Gathering at Pilgrim Hall, I have not told many stories in Britain. I told the final story on the closing night of that Gathering, which brought the comment from Taffy Thomas that I am ‘an outrageous storyteller’, which was a nice compliment but one I could hardly use in publicity, since you would need to have heard my telling of the true story of the Headless Cortina of Chapelizod to know what he meant!
I would like to do more work in Britain and remind myself every so often that I am only a Ryanair hour away from a great many places where story is told. It’s getting around to letting bookers know that I am available for storytelling that slips through my days. I’m also a member of the Society for Storytelling, as it happens.
Apart from Britain and my now-you-see-me-and-now-you-don’t appearances, I have told in a number of other countries and have made the acquaintance of a great many storytellers from many lands through annual meetings of FEST.
P: You’re based in Dublin, I believe, where do you work over there?
B: At home here, I am based in Dublin, of which place I am a native. I’m a heritage expert on the Heritage in Schools Scheme which brings copious school bookings to my desk. My writing credentials (eight titles published so far) qualify me for inclusion on another state-funded programme for schools called Writers in Schools, all of which keeps me busy. And so I don’t go crazy telling to children only, I also tell stories to incoming tour groups who want to experience a Dublin storyteller in full flight.
Last year, a Colorado woman said she wanted to take me home with her. When I asked what she had in mind, exactly, she said they had a community centre near to where she lived and it would be nice if I was performing there whenever she wanted to pop in for a story. Grand so, as we say in Dublin.
Apartfrom that, I tell stories everywhere and anywhere to any one that will stop and listen and pay me. Sort of guerrilla storytelling. I’ve told stories on the street, in theatres, clubs, schools, community centres, homes, nursing homes, buses and a great many other places that I only remember in my dreams.
P: There are a lot of things which come out of those answers so next I’ll ask about the kinds of stories you tell; the Headless Cortina of Chapelizod sounds like the sort of tall tale one would expect from an ‘Irish storyteller’ but there are also straight traditional tales and bits of history, I gather? And tell us something about those two official schemes you are signed up to—the Heritage in Schools Scheme and Writers in Schools—how do they work? If they are what they sound like I’m envious as we don’t have anything like that in England. In fact it seems as though we have to work despite the authorities not with their help!
B: I tell stories selected from a wide repertoire; but prefer stories of and from Ireland, ancient, modern and all eras in between, though I’ll throw in the odd wonder tale from the storytelling canon when it suits the occasion, though not so much of that.
I told stories for a number of years on my own radio programme: Telling Tales on (unpaid) community radio. They were stories about real people I knew and met and who were slightly mad. They have a place in my treasure trove of story; and roil out when I am telling to a home audience that will recognise the milieu and references therein.
For other audiences whose knowledge of Ireland and the Irish may be a little limited I will tell stories drawn from one or other of the great cycles: The Fenian, Ulster or Mythological cycles.
I avoid retelling those handful of stories that have been told to death by those who buy a book and recite the content therein, almost verbatim, as their own story.
I also tell stories from my own books Dublin, Wicklow, Wexford Folk Tales which feature a great many stories collected by folklorists through the years, and which have not been told so much in recent times.
Both Writers in Schools and Heritage in Schools are State-supported programmes. Storytellers qualify for these schemes where a school engages the storyteller and pays a portion of the cost while the programme makes up the rest. Sadly, both schemes have suffered from funding cut-backs in recent years and are not currently open to new applications from storytellers wishing to join the panels.
P: Cut backs, limited funding… sounds very familiar! To expand on the above: How do you decide which stories to tell—both generally ie which stories go into your ‘wide repertoire’, and specifically for a particular event? Are you one of those who plan meticulously in advance what you’re going to do and stick to it or do you wing it? Do you ever find yourself telling a story which you haven’t learned with telling in mind?
B: While I like to give the impression when telling that it’s all just occurring to me now, I do spend time before an engagement assessing the likely audience and environment. There’s no use in trying to tell quiet, intimate, stories to listeners when I am beside a busy thoroughfare that is attracting attention away from the story. Equally, there is a time for introspective storytelling. So, I prepare twice as many stories as there will be time to tell.
Once on my feet, I study reaction to the opening stories and adapt my programme accordingly. If all else fails, I have a number of standard stories available which I can choose from that I know are sure-fire successes for me, and I freewheel home.
I don’t actually learn stories at all. I remember them, from others telling, research or personal observation. That way, I am rarely stuck for a story to tell and need never embark up a creek sans paddle ever fearful of a flowing tide sweeping me out to sea, speechless before my fading listeners.
When I was young, my father and his brothers used to have storytelling duels, though they never performed as professional storytellers. One would tell a story, the other would then attempt to trump it with a better story, in family and social settings.
Driving home one night aged, I suppose about 9 years of age, I pointed out to my father that he had told an oft-told story wrong this time. He asked me to tell him the correct version: when I did so, he agreed I was right and he was totally wrong, fool that he was. Ever after that he had me tell him a story each time we drove somewhere. It was comparatively recently that I realised he was teaching me how to tell story: fool that I am.
P: I’m a great believer that that sort of ‘apprenticeship’ is the best way of learning most things—much better than sitting in a desk with 30 others. What’s your background? Did you have a life before storytelling? Where does the writing fit in? When I read a couple of your books it struck me that you are ‘a writer’ – many storytellers aren’t…
B: For many years I was a very successful freelance news journalist writing story for the front pages, the sharp end of the paper. It honed my observation skills for what makes a good story. Many times I waited with the press pack for a story to break and while we waited we told stories to one another, each trying to best the next person in fun. All of which experience I brought to oral storytelling and to writing books when opportunity presented itself.
I tell stories and when I am not telling stories I write books about storytelling.
I tell to more than 5,000 schoolchildren every year in various schools.
Thus far, I have had seven books published, the eighth, Urban Legends of Dublin, will be published in May 2015 and was inspired by an article I read in Facts & Fiction after Carl Merry had recommended I take out a subscription.
P: Thank you Carl. Now one final thought… what are your interests outside storytelling? Your hobbies etc. How do you spend your ‘spare time’ (If you’re anything like me it’s thinking bout stories and related things’. There isn’t an ‘outside storytelling”.)
B: Storytelling in one form or another takes up most of my life. To remain, if not wealthy, then at least healthy and wise, I walk a lot. This used to be with my dog; but last year I lengthened my stride and distance somewhat and began to participate in the walking sections of various races. All of which led to my first ever participation in the Dublin City Marathon last October when I walked the 42 kilometre course with a long-time friend of mine, in a fairly decent time. Even then, the training and the race days led to meeting people upon the road with whom I fell into step. And somewhat inevitably stories began to be told and swapped and savoured on the way along, for nothing shortens a journey or makes it more enjoyable than story.
Already this year I have sauntered along in two 10 kilometre races and find myself looking forward to the summer of walking and talking and telling story in the great outdoors as life and scenery pass me by. And so the story goes on
P: Sounds good to me! Thank you very much.
He is author of: Phoenix Park a History and Guidebook, now on its second edition, The Irish Companion, Barking Mad: Tales of Liars, Lovers, Loonies and Layabouts, Dublin Folk Tales, Wexford Folk Tales, Wicklow Folk Tales, The Little Book of Dublin, and Urban Legends of Dublin.