TALES OF COUNTY CORK – the art of Irish storytelling

Blarney Castle - place a kiss on the X, if you think it will help your storytelling.

Another week, another newspaper article sold and published, another story to release into cyberspace.

This is what I wrote about our adventures in Ireland, land of the story and the storytellers with the wonderful voices…

I’d seldom found a kiss so awkward and uncomfortable; this required the skills of a contortionist.

I was preparing for a visit to an Irish storytelling festival by kissing the Blarney Stone. The lump of rock which promises the gift of eloquence to all whose lips make contact with it is high on the ramparts of Blarney Castle, an attractive ruin in which only the gift shop is still in working order. The famous Stone is set in a wall half a body length out from any foothold, above an intimidating drop to the flagstones below.

Two gentlemen were assisting visitors. The kissing instructor gripped me by the shirtfront and lowered me backwards to arch over the chasm. The photographer took a snap as my face bumped against something cold and hard. Then they hauled me back to solid ground and squirted the Blarney Stone with disinfectant. ‘Next, please!’

I can’t yet say whether the unromantic experience worked its magic, though it did give me a tale to tell, and to be sure and certain I found Ireland’s County Cork was full of yarn-spinners with an obvious touch of the blarney.

‘Which way to Cobh?’ I called through my car window as I drew level with an elderly cyclist.

He pointed ahead. ‘It’s there I’m bound myself,’ he almost sang, ‘The mother is in the hospital this last month; ninety-eight she is and not doing so well, not at all. It started in her legs back in April…’ I wished the storyteller’s mother a speedy recovery and drove on into colourful little Cobh, where fishing boats bobbed in the harbour and the spires of St Colman’s towered above a busy café strip.

Cobh, a colourful town with a colourful past.

There I joined a ‘Titanic Trail’ tour, which promised tales of that ship’s last stop before the iceberg. The Titanic moored in Cobh Harbour in 1912, taking on 123 unfortunate passengers and disembarking seven extremely lucky ones. Historian Michael Martin apologised for his sore throat, though his husky, musical voice charmed us immediately. We would happily have listened to him recite the Titanic’s passenger list and I’d bet good money he knew those 123 names.

Titanic tales from Michael Martin.

The Titanic was in Cobh for just ninety minutes, little more than the time it took Michael to paint us a word picture of the scene – first class passengers taking tea in the guest room, steerage class passengers, carrying their own food for the voyage, on the dock outside. ‘No chance of Kate meeting Leonardo; in reality it was heaven forbid that first class and steerage should breathe the same air.’

The colourful stories of Irish life with its failed rebellions, lost loves, shipwrecks, famines, stoicism, alcoholism and grim humour continued in neighbouring Kinsale as raconteur Dermot Ryan led us around the village.

This was where the English crushed the Spanish invaders and Irish chieftains in 1601, where the Lusitania was sunk, and where from bay windows overlooking the streets respectable Kinsale ladies in dark hooded capes kept an eye on the moral behaviour of the youth, including young Dermot himself. ‘The Taliban of their day, those ladies were. If you broke a window your parents would know it before you got home. It’s a shame they’ve replaced the ladies with security cameras now.’

Kinsale has a colourful past too - much of it blood red.

Outside the Tap Tavern, Kinsale’s oldest pub, we heard about the gentleman recently booked for drunken driving while riding a horse. ‘He argued to the magistrate that indeed he may have enjoyed a pint, but the horse himself was stone cold sober.’

Dermot Ryan may not look so cheerful here, but most of the time he is, and great to listen to. The chap in the statue behind him is all ears.

They take stories seriously in Cork. It matters to people that stories and telling skills, like traditional music and the Gaelic language, should be kept alive simply for their own sake.

The storytelling festival on spectacular, windswept Cape Clear Island, Ireland’s most southerly point, has been held for seventeen of the past eighteen years; ironically it was once cancelled due to foot and mouth disease when ‘The Cape’ was under quarantine.

I arrived to find the little hall behind the Cape Clear Bar crammed with people listening reverently as energetic Irish teller Kate Corkery spun a yarn of legendary Irish heroes the Fianna and Scottish teller Sheila Stewart sang ballads of her travelling people. There were songs and stories in Irish and a stunning demonstration of banjo and washboard playing by David Holt from North Carolina.

It was an old-fashioned event, and that was its charm. If traditional tales sometimes fizzled out into lame punchlines (‘And once safely home, you can be sure he vowed never to walk that road at night again’), the infectious enthusiasm of the tellers compensated for any weakness in the material. The audience hung on their every word, joined in singing the choruses and applauded every performer long and loud.

And it was all wrapped in those marvellous voices with their lilting accents.

I hope to be able to talk like that myself some day. Now that I’ve kissed the Blarney Stone and studied the experts, perhaps I will.

Cape Clear colour.


1. Atlantic Sea Kayaking. Paddles under the bridges of Cork City or night time paddle out of Skibbereen, listening to stories along the way. 2.5 hour tour EUR45. atlanticseakayaking.com

2. Skibbereen Heritage Centre. The tragic history of the 1845 potato famine is evocatively told on video by local Cork resident Jeremy Irons and an excellent company of Irish actors. EUR6. skibbheritage.com

3. Cork City Gaol – The 19th century prison from which many inmates were transported to Australia is now a heritage centre telling the story. EUR8. corkcitygaol.com


Getting there: Regular bus services run from Cork to Cobh, Kinsale and Baltimore. The ferry from Baltimore to Cape Clear Island costs EUR16 return.

Staying there: The River Lee Hotel, Cork has double rooms from EUR108.

Further information: Blarney Castle entrance EUR10. See blarneycastle.ie Titanic Trail Tour, Cobh EUR9.50. See titanic.ie. Kinsale Walking Tour EUR5. kinsaleheritage.com Three-day ticket to Cape Clear Storytelling Festival (next held September 2012) EUR65. capeclearstorytelling.com For other activities in County Cork, see visitireland.com.au

The writer was the guest of Tourism Ireland.

First published, Sun-Herald, Sydney


Filed under Ireland

7 responses to “TALES OF COUNTY CORK – the art of Irish storytelling

  1. Caroline Whiteside

    I had a wonderful but all too short trip to Ireland many years ago. There is something rather infectious about the sense of rythym and humour (if you can understand them). I hitchhiked from Dublin to Belfast and then around NI. As few visitors made it up there, the folks were particularly friendly.

    • I have trouble spelling ‘rhythm’ too, Caroline, and sometimes there are problems with that Irish accent too!

      I always love going to Ireland and have been lucky enough to visit a number of times. The countryside is beautiful, the weather is usually appalling, but the people and the craik make up for it all.

      • Caroline Whiteside

        Bugger, I knew I’d stuff that up. It actually didn’t rain while I was there. I told Eric Bogle that once, but he said I must have been mistaken. It probably wasn’t Ireland.

  2. Angela Highstead

    Oh Richard, you touch my soul every time you speak of Ireland. I was on Cape Clear in May 1978. Stayed in the YHA and what a magical three days it was. A little back haired, blue eyed colleen seemed to step out of the mist and took my hand. She said, “I’ll take you to the lighthouse”. As we walked she named all of the wildflowers, sang to me in Gaelic, translated, told me the stories of the little people and the stories of the ghosts of the lighthouse. We lay in the soft sunshine high up on that grassy knoll until the setting sun painted a pink pattern on the water far below. Later I found out she was only eight years old and the YHA warden’s daughter. She would be in her forty’s now.
    A precious moment in time for me and never forgotten.

    • That sounds like pure Irish magic, Angela.

      My unforgettable time was spent thirty-something years ago in Doolin, County Clare, when the late great flute and whistle player Micho Russell took me under his wing and into his house, a ‘black cottage’ with earth floor and hob. But the music was marvellous for a young fiddle player of modest talents.

      Cape Clear is wonderful too!

      • Angela Highstead

        Is there anyone who doesn’t love Ireland? My maiden name was Casey so I have a feeling there is some soul connection. My dad was a great story teller and had a band – he fitted the Irish traditions and he wasn’t Irish but Englsh. However with a came like Casey…………………….?

  3. We have only visited Ireland (North and South) once, and had such a wonderful, magical time, that I cannot wait to return to see more of the country and listen to those beautiful musical voices once again. Thank you for reminding me of the magic and enchantment of that special place, Richard. 🙂

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