The practise of storytelling is as old as mankind. The way we tell our stories now, in this time of mass communication, may have changed. However, the art of good storytelling is still as vital as ever.
Len Graham is a storyteller and a singer in the Ulster tradition. With more than half a century of experience to call on he has served his apprenticeship and has now attained the status of sárscéalaí or master storyteller. Along the way he has picked up a Traditional Singer of the Year Award and been awarded the prestigious Gradam na mBard CCÉ. To listen to him tell and sing the stories and songs he has gleaned from his travels is to be taken on an intimate journey into a hidden side of our lived heritage. And just as a story is in the telling, his distinctive “rich, grainy voice and fluid, unhurried style” make him the perfect storyteller.
Len was at Wexford Library on February 14, St Valentines Night, to present an unscripted presentation entitled ‘Tall Tales and Musical Stories’. Over the space of a fleeting hour and a half he regaled a full house with a selection of songs, anecdotes and poetry.
As if to demonstrate the organic power of the song to tell a story he opened with a many-versed witty offering, one to which the great and the good of Irish traditional singing continue to add as the notion takes them. One can almost see a couple of ould lads before a smoking turf fire supping porter and building their own ridiculous and hilarious tower of song!
Len sang Pádraigín Ní hÚllacháin’s translation of the hauntingly beautiful and timeless An Bonnán Buí, written in the bitterly cold Winter of 1673 by the Cavan poet Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna.
He went on to sing the Belfast song, albeit one now more associated with Dublin, ‘Spanish Lady’; a 1798 song from Ulster ‘The Rights of Man’; Paddy’s Return, a song which features in Patrick Kavanagh’s autobiographical The Green Fool; and The Rambling Boys of Pleasure, a song which influenced the WB Yeats favourite Down By the Sally Garden.
And there were poems. Len recited Heaney’s Requiem for the Croppies, Kavanagh’s The Epic and The Song of Wandering Aengus by Yeats.
Len talked of his friendship with the poets Paul Muldoon and Seamus Heaney and of the time the latter came to Enniscorthy to soak up the spirit of ’98. He told an hilarious yarn from the early 1700s of a farmer driven by the iron frost and a hungry family to try his hand at hunting – he literally lost his head! We learned of the time that Ronnie Drew first met the Patrick Kavanagh and the resulting not-so-glowing review which set Drew’s music career on its way. We also heard how, even as a farmer and a ploughman in his native Inniskeen, Kavanagh had a reputation as an intellectual – in this case he helped a very young neighbour with a well-embroidered contribution to an essay on Brian Boru in which the latter’s errant big toes played a major part! The last of the evening’s stories, entitled ‘You’re A Liar’, told of the meeting between an ambitious and risk-taking young Fionn Mac Cumhaill and a no-nonsense Donegal king.
The Mule Song by Packie Manus Byrne brought the curtain down on a great evening of storytelling and song.