Desi's Diary

"Tales from a Clare Seanchai"

October 2001


About a year or so ago, a young man came into the shop looking for a gift for his father. After a few suggestions which didn't pass muster, I enquired as to whom his father might be. "Arrah, shure, you know him well", I was told, "Eddie Lenihan." No sooner said than the books were selected and, as I was packing them, our conversation continued. "You must have had a wonderful upbringing," I ventured, "all those stories." "That's right," the reply came, "there was no such thing as myth in our house, it was always going to happen. Many years ago, he told us a story of a giant that was going around the countryside kidnapping people from inside their own hall door. For years afterwards, I couldn't pass the hall door on my own for fear the claws might come in and grab me."

The subject of our conversation was one Edmund Lenihan, the unsung hero of Irish culture, the unchallenged champion of the Irish story or seanchai. Standing five foot nothing in his socks, this man's imagination rises above all others and is peopled with giants, goblins, druids, good people, healers, wise women, heroes, champions and, of course, the evil ones. His faith in these is so strong that he recently had the course of a public highway changed because its original path ran through a fairy fort.

For years and years, Eddie has been going into the byways and highways collecting and recording stories that would otherwise have been lost. He has literally climbed mountains, crossed rivers in flood to rescue a story before it was lost forever. One of his main sources was the country's mental homes where so many of our elderly population were incarcerated for no other reason than that they were in the way. This he did at his own expense and in the interest of a tradition that was dying and dying fast. His house in Crusheen, Co Clare is jam packed full of these tapes. They are everywhere, literally hanging out of the rafters.

Eddie, however, doesn't just hoard these stories. He re-invents, turns them around and, in the way of a true seanchai, he makes them accessible to a modern audience.

His remarkably energetic style of story telling has been delighting audiences for the last 20 or 30 odd years. It has always been something of a misnomer to bill him as a children's entertainer. I have seen his performances been enjoyed more by adults (despite themselves ... "Ah! we are just minding the young ones") than by the children. In older times, the seanchai sat by the fire and gave his story without moving. as he adopts all the characters roles almost to the point of caricature.

Not only has Eddie performed these stories he has also published them in book form and last month his 16th volume appeared. Entitled Rowdy Irish Tales for Children, it contains two stories relating to Fionn and the Fianna. It is somewhat of a pity that his publishers insist on the children's title as these can be read with pleasure and enjoyment by adults as well. The tenor of the stories is raw and exaggerated, but the narration and the rhythm is entertaining and lively and well worth the read. We follow the Asterix-like hero Fionn and his band as they set off on various adventures usually at the behest of the benevolent Druid, Taoscan. Here the imagination knows no bounds, but the stories are not without their little comments on modern society and its preoccupations. Certainly, the book is a wonderful gift for the child, but you could sneak a read for yourself first.

Another book to come from the same publisher and which is equally charming is Brid Mahon's The Spanish Sailor. This is a delightful tale set in the Dingle Peninsula and again the imagination knows no bounds. There are traces of Walter Macken, Patricia Lynch and Eilis Dillon in the book, but the narration has a fresh and a clear style that is the author's own. This is a book for the younger child and not unworthy either of a sneak preview by the adult.

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