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August 23, 2015

Emerald Isle

As I try to flush my mind of all the stereotypes of the Emerald Isle, I am left with some pretty strong images and memories: listening to harpist/storyteller, Patrick Ball, playing haunting songs from ancient days –  and telling gritty, raucous stories of today. I see pictures of my Irish-American grandfather. I never really knew him, but he knew me. In a faded photo is a bright-eyed toddler in the arms of a man, smiling as his huge frame almost touches the door-sill. There is another – of the same man, but younger , in an old fashioned football uniform, standing proudly with his team: Edgar Toll Glass, captain, Yale 1919. When I leave tomorrow for Ireland and Northern Ireland, I will travel to Shankill Parish in Lurgan, Armagh County, to visit the church where his great (four times) grandfather was born in 1737. I remember the time I portrayed an Irish nun from County Mayo. The accent seemed to come so easily; I was puzzled. Then my mother reminded me of my grandfather’s heritage – and, for the first time, I felt close to him.

As I read the guidebooks, I am reminded again and again of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s turbulent history – from ancient times to the present. I think of the struggles of the immigrant ancestors of our fifty million Irish-Americans  and their hard-scrabble lives in the urban slums of the East or their back-breaking labor on the railroads, etc. I look to find some of that grittiness, that resilence in the people I meet.

As a storyteller, I am eagerly looking forward to exploring Celtic traditions: ancient and contemporary. I remember Ruth Sawyer, in her book, “The Way of the Storyteller” ( a seminal book for tellers) describing her Irish nanny:

“No fairy godmother could have hung over my cradle with richer gifts than, Johanna, my Irish nurse. She had the art by nature and inheritance. The blood of the old seanachies ran in her veins; and there are no peoples with a richer folk-inheritance than the Gaels. I can hear Johanna saying: ‘Tales or tunes, ye’ll find none better anywhere than what we have in Ireland.”

Let the search begin.

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