Patrick Ryan, Ph.D., FEA A stone thrown into a pond sets in motion concentric waves that spread out on the surface of the water, and their reverberation has an effect on the water lilies and reeds, the paper boat and the buoys of the fishermen at various distances. … In a short time countless events or micro-events occur one after another. Even if a person had the time and desire, I doubt whether all of this could be registered without missing some aspect of change. It is not much different with a word, thrown by chance into the mind, producing waves on the surface and in the depths. It provokes an infinite series of chain reactions and, as it falls, it evokes sounds and images, analogues and recollections, meanings and dreams, in a movement that touches experience and memory, the imagination and the unconscious, and it is complicated by the fact that the mind does not react passively, but intervenes continually to accept and reject these representations, to connect and censor them, construct and destroy them.
Gianni Rodari’s metaphor will, I hope, help trace the thought processes of a writer, processes mirroring the magical journeys taken by heroes and heroines in the wonder tales Benedict Kiely references. Although, as Rodari says, it’s impossible to register every ripple, the concept of a word dropped into the mind being like a stone dropped into a pond helps us map some of the more traceable thoughts of writers and readers when creating narratives. Reading and listening are active, and interactive, experiences where the reader or listener re-creates the story, even creating images different than those the narrator intended.
In ‘The Heroes of the Dark House’ Kiely references several storytellers and folktales; these stories have variants in other languages and cultures, and multiple versions in Irish folklore. Folklorists identify stories, compare and analyse them, and trace their development and migration by indexing the motifs common to several tales: details such as magic objects (like mirrors, rings, animals and swords), repetitive actions such as impossible tasks and journeys, and rhetorical devices providing common descriptions such as ‘hair black as ebony, lips red as blood, skin white as snow’ (Ashliman, Zimmerman, Leach). These instantly trigger mental activity, imagery for listeners or readers. These literary memes hint at thought processes taking place as the writer or teller spins his or her ‘yarn’. With topoi such as these, the narrator stimulates thought processes engaging readers and listeners so that they understand the story, but are also immersed within it and emotionally moved by it (Lodge, Zipes 2006 and 2009, Ryan).
The wonder tales mentioned in Kiely’s story share similar structures and motifs, and these are clues to his thinking, and to his intentions for readers’ responses. One prominent motif is water or a magic well, common motifs in folklore and mythology. It’s also a metaphor some cultures use when describing what stories and storytelling are, and what happens when listeners or readers engage with the art form.
The water metaphor is a powerful one. Without water we do not live, and the human body is mostly water, as is our planet. Where there is human interaction, there are stories. No society in human history has existed without narrative, suggesting narrative is as life enhancing as water. Stories cross over continents and between languages, fitting different contexts and purposes while uniting individuals through social exchanges. Like water, words and narratives flow from one place to another by the path of least resistance. Just as water easily fills any container, stories fit any purpose: for pleasure, education, consolation or inspiration. Narratives fit into different genre, media, and aesthetic styles. Intuitively this knowledge of how narrative works informs our thoughts, speech and literary art, as well as social interaction (Lodge).
This was recognised long ago. Kathá Sarit Ságara (The Ocean of the Streams of Story) is one of the great narratives of India, a frame story that is the Indian equivalent of The Arabian Nights. It influenced other Indian classics, like the Panchatantra and the Mahabharata. Indian stories also influenced story traditions in classical, medieval and modern periods, across Persia, China, Arabia, the Middle East, North Africa, the Mediterranean and Europe (Leach, Philip). These ancient tales continue to inspire. A recent manifestation of Kathá Sarit Ságara is Salmon Rushdie’s children’s novel Haroun and the Sea of Stories (Rushdie).
This idea that we exist in an ocean of stories, and that there are streams of stories flowing into one another and into and out of each of us, links us to the metaphor of the well at the end of the world and the water of life it gives. Kiely links these when describing Owen Roe Wade, one of Broderick’s informants, who ‘Paralysed in his garret he travelled as he talked to find life-giving water in the well at the world’s end.’ This is the place our stone drops and makes some ripples we can map. That Owen Roe is paralysed but uses stories and storytelling to live, to travel in his imagination, expresses concepts around Kathá Sarit Ságara.
When exploring Kiely’s use of folk tales, I’m not claiming that he always consciously used folklore elements, or that he necessarily interpreted them exactly as I do now. Nor am I making a Freudian analysis, where the folk elements found in his work hint at dark psychological meanings. Writing, and our comprehension of writing processes, is more complex than this. The writing process is a mixture of the author’s knowledge and experiences, with influences from other literary sources and art forms. Through conscious and subconscious mental activities, words chosen express the writer’s thoughts but also prompt readers’ thinking. Narrative becomes more than the sum of its parts.
For example, scholars love to emphasize Synge’s reliance on his collected folklore and dialect, and the influence of his sense of the medieval grotesque on his work, but as one academic warned: ‘Any study of Synge’s work concerning questions of source and literary influence is dogged by three major difficulties. First, life, not literature, was his primary source; second, his originality obscures direct links with the traditions within which he was writing; and finally, his intimacy with so many folk tales confounds attempts to identify possible influences from their literary analogues’ (Johnson). This is equally true with Kiely who, I believe, chose folk tale titles and storytelling informants’ names because these prompted certain thoughts, images, and memories as he created his narrative. These were drawn from local knowledge and life experience, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously. And equally, both consciously and subconsciously, his eye and ear told him which word evoked certain thought processes in his and his readers’ minds. Stories, as well as who tells them and the context in which they’re told, provide insights into how the mind constructs meaning when interacting with narration.
Consider the real Owen Roe Ward—Eoghan Ruadh Mc an Bhaird, born in 1550 to a family of hereditary Donegal poets, died around 1630, chief poet to Red Hugh O’Donnell who, after the Flight of the Earls, served Rory and then Niall Garbh O’Donnell (Ulster Historical Circle). It’s no coincidence that Kiely named this informant after the famous bard. It might be. It might be Kiely liked the sound of the name, or chose it because it’s common to the story’s locale and he knew someone by that name. A writer familiar with local legend chose the name deliberately, particularly as his early works included a significant study of William Carleton who reported on and incorporated local lore in his own writing. Any reader knowing of the bard Owen Row will experience a frisson of recognition, connecting history and myth with the contemporary fiction and real life, making a more complex response to this piece.
The reason for his paralysis tells us Kiely’s Owen Roe is not the O’Donnell’s bard, and simultaneously evokes more thoughts and stories. ‘Hewing trees for hire in a tangled plantation whose wood had once paid for the travels and other activities of D’Orsay and Lady Blessington, Owen brought down on his hapless spine a ton-weight of timber.’ The notorious Lady Blessington, an adventuress from Clonmel, married young to an army captain who soon died bankrupt, then four months after wed an Irish aristocrat seven years her senior, the first Earl of Blessington. They toured Europe living an expensive, wasteful lifestyle, befriending Lord Byron, and forming a ménage à trois with Count D’Orsay. After the Earl’s death D’Orsay and Lady Blessington continued their dissolute life (Cousin, Gardiner).
Again, those familiar with their notoriety will find that image juxtaposed with images of the overgrown timber plantation, ravaged inheritance, and a paralyzed Owen Roe in a garret. These references neatly indicate Brokerick’s age: Owen Roe, the informant, is connected with the notorious Regency couple, so the collector and informant possibly cover a span of 100 to 150 years between them. Even without detailed knowledge, this passage establishes in reader’s minds Broderick’s relationship to his folk studies and his community, providing insight to this main character.
So, what of Owen Roe’s story, the ‘King of Green Island’? There are many variations, one made famous by Jeremiah Curtin, an American anthropologist who learned Irish to gather folklore in the late 19th Century. For those knowing of Curtin, with their awareness of when Broderick most likely collected from Owen Roe, this title conjures up the Irish Literary Renaissance, as does the unnamed folktale with the magic well at the world’s end, an image central to this talk.
Multiple versions of ‘The Well at the World’s End’ exist in Ireland, notably one by Douglas Hyde and another by Seamus McManus, both closely associated with the Gaelic revival. Their versions closely resemble Grimms’ ‘The Water of Life’ and a Scottish tale from John Francis Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands. McManus, from Mount Charles, was another Ulsterman with Donegal stories from around the Blue Stacks and the Laggan. Folklorist, writer and poet, McManus popularized Irish legends in America as children’s literature. He began hanging around the fringes of the Celtic Twilight with James Stephens and Padraic Colum, who all followed Yeats, AE and that crowd, but like Colum, McManus made more of a name for himself in America. The Green Island and The Well O’ the World’s End’ are ‘fair-to-middlin’’ distant cousins, both telling of long impossible journeys made by a king’s son, with magic objects and helpers, a princess bride, and insurmountable tasks completed by hero and heroine.
Curtins’ story tells of a son of a king in Erin who loses a bet playing hurly when tricked by a stranger, who sets him on a journey to find Green Island. Helped by three giants, he flies there on a golden eagle and wins the love of the youngest daughter of the King of Green Island. Her father sets him three impossible tasks to win three magic objects. The princess does the work and she and the king’s son elope. Pursued by her family, they throw the magic objects that change into obstacles, allowing their escape. Once home, the king’s son forgets about his princess when he’s kissed by his dog, and she must work as a servant until getting the chance to prove her identity, so that the king’s son remembers her and they are wed.
McManus’s ‘Well O’ The End of the World’ tells of Conor, son of a King in Ireland, whose wicked stepmother tricks him into fetching three bottles of the magic water of life from the well at the end of the world. Hindered by two cowardly stepbrothers who are turned to stone, and helped by three magical old men who provide a magic horse; he gets to the well, in a fortress impossible to breach, guarded by warriors with flaming swords and fierce animals, and ruled by a beautiful queen. But every 700 years all within the fortress sleep for one hour, and Conor has arrived at naptime. He’s warned to get the water and not dally, but he goes exploring, takes magic objects from the castle for his own future use, and then kisses the beautiful queen, leaving a broken ring as love token shared between them. He escapes just in time to avoid death and rewards the old men with the magic objects, and they restore his stepbrothers to life. The stepmother is so furious at his success she drops dead, but his father is happy.
Meanwhile, the queen awakes and tells her ladies she dreamt of an Irish prince kissing her, leaving a broken ring as love token. Seeing the broken ring, and that the water has been stolen, and she realises it was true and pursues Conor to keep her honour. The three old men help her and on arriving in Ireland, the stepbrothers claim to be her prince, but can’t produce the love token. When Conor does so, they are wed.
Two folk tales with similar elements: magic objects; impossible tasks and journeys; elders challenged and usurped by the young; and, finally, interesting, active roles for women. The writer’s intent is to provide chances for readers to engage intellectually and emotionally, thus sharing the writer’s thoughts when relating the narrative. Even if readers know nothing of the tales, local history, or local characters, their mention provides enough description and musical language to establish images of green mountains, rocky sea shores, landscapes shrouded in mist and quaint old villages peopled with eccentrics, all in contrast to the newness and strangeness of the occupying forces and the young upstart. Kiely’s intention is that elements in the folktales underscore situations in the main narrative regarding Broderick and his manuscript, whose achievements are usurped by a younger upstart folklorist: this meeting of an old man and a young could lead to benefits or prove an obstacle; the tales’ impossible accomplishments mirror deeds of real warriors in both ’98 and World War Two; and the transformations in the folktales foreshadow those in the short story, with characters seeming to be one thing then appear in a different guise.
Over afternoon tea, Broderick relates contemporary news—the sudden, recent redeployment of American forces garrisoned nearby, gone to fight on mainline Europe. Then Broderick segues into the origins of his drawing-room table, made of a blacksmith’s bellows destroyed by British yeomanry fighting the rebels of 1798. He doesn’t exchange wonder tales or experiences in his folklore collection, as might be expected. Kiely knew his stuff; this is an accurate depiction of typical encounters when doing fieldwork. I remember every time I visited the late John Campbell, renowned storyteller from South Armagh: each visit started with a walk across Slieve Gullion and much discussion and admiration of John’s herd of rare sheep, and only then did we settle in the front parlour to exchange old wonder tales, all narratives framed by news of names, places and experiences we had in common. Many who romanticize storytelling activities forget that they are firmly embedded in everyday life, with exchanges of real local news and current events that link stories of the imagination to goings on in the world. Responses to such stories bring discussions back to the here and now of practical matters, like chores to do, or social courtesies such as cups of tea, or a pint or whiskey.
As in the fairy tales, Broderick doesn’t at first appear helpful to the young man. Yet discussing present and past armies introduces thoughts of real life warriors, linking them with mythological counterparts. Like their literary representations, the modern heroes travel across seas to dangerous kingdoms, facing impossible tasks and terrible monsters. Like the fictional heroes, their deeds transform them.
Kiely has chosen to reference folktales with women in active roles. His female informant, Maire John, the frisky old woman who enjoys hugging men as though she’s still twenty, has, like Owen Roe, an interesting connection and tells archetypal narratives1. By design or coincidence, Maire John’s name is reminiscent of John Le Maire, a French poet born in1473 whose most famous work is The Three Stories of Cupid and Fate. Maire John narrates the Hound of the White Mountain. This is a variant Cathleen and the Greyhound, a story made popular today by well-known teller Liz Weir, and all three of these, as Kiely points out, are versions of Apuleius’s Cupid and Psyche.
A king of Ireland has a magic wishing chair and three daughters. Forbidden access to the chair, the daughters disobey and use it to make wishes, the eldest two wanting handsome princely husbands, while the third sensibly decides a dog would be better company than a man. To her surprise, her wish is granted and she has a dog by day who turns to a handsome prince by night: the best of both worlds, perhaps. Soon they have three children, each stolen by magic forces immediately after birth, but the mother is never allowed to weep for their loss. On a visit home, her sisters trick her into revealing her husbands’ true form, causing the separation of the heroine and her canine husband. She pursues him, with the usual magic helpers and hospitality on the long journey, finally completing impossible tasks to break an evil witch’s spell, restoring her husband and children.
Owen Roe and Maire John’s heroines suffer, working hard and patiently while abused, their true worth unrecognised. They prefigure the incident Kiely relates when Broderick and the publican, Patrick, witness the gallantry of the American soldier towards a local girl of low reputation. When the cynical publican is shocked by the unmanly courtesy of the Yank in uniform towards a slattern, Broderick chides him.
But, Patrick, child, it’s idyllic. Deirdre in the hero tale couldn’t have been more nobly treated by the three Ulster brothers, the sons of Uisneach. Hitler and Hirohito had to bring the doughboys over here before one of the Banty Mullins was handled like a lady.
Through interaction with foreign warriors, a kind act transforms Miss Banty Mullins: just as the princess of the Green Island became a servant until finally remembered by the king’s son and was transformed by his love, and just as kindness and patience in the face of tortuous work restored the third sister’s handsome dog-husband and her status.
Another French connection comes from the tale by Peadar Haughey of Creggan Cross. Haughey’s Giant of Reibhlean, which is better known in France than Ireland, as it was collected and translated from Irish over a hundred years ago by Henri-George Dottin, French professor of Celtic Languages descended from an Irish family. His collection of Irish tales included Le Petit Garçon et le Grand Géant, which is Haughey’s tale.
Here a king of Erin has a daughter and three sons, who love each other dearly. The princess marries, and she, the three brothers and new husband all are affectionate to each other. The princess has a son. But when the husband, brothers and son are off hunting, the Giant steals away the wife because no man was there with her. The men return and then party for a year and a day before the husband notices his wife is missing. In turn, husband and then each brother, goes one at a time year after year to rescue the princess, encountering the giant’s henchmen, and then the giant, who always passes through fire and ash, roaring like another fairy tale giant:
Fee Fi Fo Fire,
I smell an Irish liar,
an Irish cheat,
in my yard and in my castle he’ll make my meat!
Each man is turned to stone. At last after 5 years of relatives disappearing one by one, the little boy finally notices his mother, father and uncles are gone and goes to search for them. Instead of doing as his elders did, treating the giant’s men politely and doing their bidding, the little boy chops off their heads. While the men hid, the boy confronts the giant when the monster roars his rhyme, fighting fiercely. In the end, the boy knocks off the giant’s head; the head tries to reattach to the neck but the boy beats it away. At last the head gives up, saying it was good he fought so hard for if the head and body rejoined then never would any man of Erin vanquish him. (This is a very common trope in Irish fairy tales). The lad frees his mother, brings his father and uncles back to life, and they take the giant’s fortune back to Ireland where they live happily until they die.
Finally, another important strategy Kiely uses, consciously or not, to link the mythical and real is to provide readers a sense of both real Irish places as well as an authentic feeling of the ‘once upon a time’ or ‘fado fado fado’ in Irish folklore. Kiely does this not by spouting generic, ‘Oirish-y’ clichés resulting in a stereotypical, sentimental and predictable stylised writing—which is often what results when less talented writers seek short cuts to express ‘Irishness’, as in American and British films set in Ireland. Rather, Kiely’s carefully, economically crafted observations establish an authenticity linking mythical and real to elucidate Broderick’s character, and both that character’s and the writer’s thoughts about the world.
With the informants Haughey and Pat Moses Gavigan, Kiely uses local geographic connections and family names to trigger local readers’ knowledge, and suggest mythological connections with real landscapes for general readers. The Haugheys were a large clan from townlands near Carrickmore, where one finds landmarks like the Creggan Cross, and Dun Ruadh, or Red Fort, near Sixmilecross: places, as locals know, holding standing stones and other ancient features. Kiely highlights the self-referential aspects in his writing by using Pat Moses Garigan, a character also in in ‘The White Wild Bronco’, the story preceding ‘Heroes of the Dark House.’ By doing so he communicates to readers that there is a connectedness between stories, and between the stories and Kiely’s own life and environment. Other associations between the universal and local that Kiely makes occur when he uses local family names or transfers a myth from one locale to another.
For example, Fionn McChumhail and the Salmon of Knowledge, attributed to Gavigan, is set it in the Camown River at Cranny, Omagh. This might really be a local legend, but most Salmon of Knowledge stories state the salmon is in the Boyne or the Suir, or in pools or rivers near Croagh Patrick. Transferring a myth to a local river avoids stereotype, making the universal specific. Garigan’s King of Antua (Antua being a river in Portugal) fought with Macan Mor (or Big McCann….leader of an ancient clan that ruled from Donegal to Dundalk). However, I can’t help but wonder if Kiely was thinking of, another Macan Mor: Frank McKenna, renowned Tyrone storyteller but a long time resident in Scotland (Ballard). Placing characters and locales and combining fact and fiction in more than one story, the author strengthens the idea that imagined characters and places are real.
Mixing mythology, fiction, and real history, Kiely engineers it so separate streams flow together, so sparking the mental journeys he desires for his readers. As Broderick’s friends, Kiely names real men, significant in Ulster’s recent history, that set Broderick on his mental journey: as his employer, Sir Horace Plunkett, politician and agricultural reformer; as his friend Thomas Andrews, builder of the Titanic; and the unnamed canon, a hero turned to stone, whose statue reminds Broderick of their own good deeds. These men provided Broderick’s living, gave him the discipline and methodology for his fieldwork, or provided a purposeful communal social life that supplied a rich network of informants, kinship ties, and local geography. These give meaning to Broderick’s life. Kiely stresses,‘Plain and mountain and river-valley, the places he knew were sombre with the sense of family, and folk-tales grew as naturally there as grass. Heroes, princesses, enchanters good and bad, he had marshalled them off right to left, made his roll-call, described them in that high-spined handwriting he had studied so laboriously in the old manuscripts. …. He called them his children.’
Broderick’s life has informed his understanding of the stories and their importance, while his desire to publish his folktale collection is an attempt to tell the world about his life, to confirm his sense of identity.
He sent them out to the ends of the earth, to magazine editors and publishing houses. They came back rejected to him…. Then one day in the smoky room under the power of squabbling enchanter jackdaws he had the bitterness of discovering that this children had betrayed him. In a Dublin newspaper he read the review of the young scholar’s book…
His stories will betray him twice, but neither time causes him to destroy his manuscript. Nor do these betrayals cause him to reject his community or way of life.
Mr. Broderick couldn’t blame the three princesses for leaving the wishing chair and making off with a younger man. That scholar, wise head on his young shoulders, could be Cupid, more beautiful than the sun and the moon; he might even be that enigmatic character, The White Hound of the Mountain.
He invites the young folklorist to see him, showing no bitterness. (Unless it’s achieved through passive/aggressive revenge, by keeping the lad in a smoky room that clearly discomforts him, and relating true war stories instead of the old wonder tales any folklorist prizes and expects. But this is typical for those wise old helpers of heroes, delaying journeys with opaque advice or obscure magic objects.) Broderick becomes the helper, not the monster king or giant or witch, through the manifestation of wonder, that is, the transformations in both stories and real world.
Jack Zipes, a world expert on fairy tales, claims that authentic wonder tales are expressions of utopia. Fairy tales are not escapism, but a way to experiment with reality, turning things upside down and trying out new ways of living, new societies where the underdog is empowered, where power and tyranny are challenged (Zipes 2006, 2009). Broderick’s transformation comes about through reminiscence, which finds expression in his own storytelling, hospitality and gift giving. Broderick gives his stories to the young usurper, he grants magic objects to the modern warriors. Carving bog oak souvenirs that the publican sells to visiting American soldiers, these talismans remind soldiers of their adventures in foreign lands as tokens of shared experiences and landscapes.
And these modern warriors even provide one last chance for Broderick’s wish to come true. A US army major offers to publish his folktales to cement cultural relations between the US troops and the Ulster locals. Intriguingly, Kiely has the officer claim that Broderick’s fairy stories are ‘real contemporary,’ and surely this is Kiely’s aim, to help modern readers see ancient tales remain relevant. The promised book never materializes. Broderick leaves the Major, taking the train home from Belfast, and that very night the troops depart, vanishing by morning, gone so quickly it was as though they were never there.
The heroes had gone, but the heroes would stay with him for ever. His children would stay with him for ever, but, in a way, it was a pity that he could never give his stories to all those fine young men.
In the end, Broderick welcomes his fellow folklorist, proud that a local youth has gone away and come back successful, like his beloved mythical heroes. Eventually, Broderick does notice the smoke, asking does the young fellow mind it. He opens the door so smoke bellows out, just as the stories flow out in to the world.
My poor stories. My poor heroes. They went away to the well at the world’s end but they always came back. Once they came very close to enlisting in the US army. That’s a story I must tell you sometime.
Like many Irish writers and poets, Kiely drew upon folklore and myth as easily and readily as one draws breath, or water. As many have already pointed out, consciously or subconsciously, inspired by his life and the lives of others, and relying on the landscape with its layers of history, legend, and remembered dreams, Kiely used these to guide both his writing and his readers responses to his work. He actively involves readers, who must not be passive, merely absorbing the musicality of the language and allowing the images words create to play across their minds. Readers must work: each iteration of a story title, place-name, character name, or historic fact triggers ideas, emotions, and images so that readers create the legends, myths and wonder tales anew. In their minds, the real and the imagined, the historic and the fantastic, the personal and the commonly shared, all mix together, just as do the many life-giving waters flowing from the well at the world’s end into the streams of the ocean of stories.
In ‘The Heroes of the Dark House’, Kiely tells us of the transformative power of stories when related to real experience, and acknowledges the universal and never-ending phenomenon of heroes who always must journey to seek life-giving water that just might bring about some better world. Kiely leaves his two folklorists sitting by the fireside, sharing old and new stories between them.
‘Around them in the smoke were the grey shadows of the heroic eighteenth-century men who, to fight tyranny, had forged steel pikes. And eastwards the heroes had swept that earth-shaking summer, over the treacherous mined sea, over the seven miles of spiked strand, over the seven and seventy miles of burning mountain.’
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1 After presenting this paper at the 10th Annual Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend, I was informed that Maire John was a real person and well known storyteller in Donegal, whom Kiely would have met and likely heard tell stories when on holidays as a boy. Seán ÓhEochaidh, a Donegal man who worked for the Irish Folk Lore Commission from 1934 to 1974 knew her and collected her stories.