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A Ceilidh at Ballyeamon Barn

September 7, 2015
                                                                                    Ballyeamon Barn
It started out modestly enough. Four local musicians wandered into a big,comfortable room at Ballyeamon Barn, a small hostel run by internationally known storyteller, Liz Weir, near Cushendall in Northern Ireland.  There were John and his guitar, Jack and Beryl, husband(guitar)and wife(accordion), and Martin, who carves beautiful wood pieces, lays floors and plays the banjo. Jim –  quiet and slightly stooped – joined them. He’s  84 and regularly drives 30 miles to sing at this weekly “session”.  Tony was there, with his well-worn book of poetry.
The room is festooned with artwork – mostly by friends, including a stunning carved piece of bog wood estimated to be about 3000 years old. While Liz made the introductions and her assistant Christie made coffee and tea, people greeted  one another, chatted, and tuned up instruments. Several friends and  hostel guests dropped by. They all insisted they were just there to listen. That was just fine, said Liz smiling.
The evening began with some lively jigs and reels. As the music started, everyone quieted down: smiling, tapping their feet or hands, or just sitting quietly. Although most of these folks had played together for years and probably knew one anothers’ songs by heart, there was no talking – just respectful, appreciative listening.
Liz called on young John who played his guitar and sang his own song. When he faltered just a bit, she joined in; a gesture of support. Later she told me, “I know all their songs…love ’em all.” That attitude was echoed by every performer there.
Liz then turned to me and asked me to tell. All day I’d been wondering what to tell. A Native American story, perhaps…or a raucous folk tale… or a personal story…which? I decided to tell one about my grandmother, my Oma, a gifted storyteller who needed a delighted listener…me. It was fun to watch people nod and smile….
Gradually, others drifted in: Charlie, who brought his guitar and a wonderful song about what it means to be an Irish immigrant in an American city. With a little encouragement, 84 year old Jim told stories about growing up in Belfast in the late 20’s and 30″s. There were nine children in a three bedroom house: four girls in one room, four boys in another, and the baby with Da and Mum. Mattresses were flour sacks sewn together and stuffed with straw. Women were allowed in the pubs only during the day and after they left, the men would sing songs back and forth across the streets. Jim sang one of them. Beryl and Jack played a familiar song and everyone joined in on the chorus – even the listeners.
More people showed up: there was John # 2, who  always came late and brought mint biscuits and Alex who played the banjo and the mandolin. Guy, a tall thin young Israeli in town as an artist in residence joined the group and Bernadette, a lovely young stockbroker with black hair and a cameo complexion. Guy borrowed a guitar from someone and sang a song in Hebrew. Tony recited one of the poems in his book using Oscar Scott’s dialect. Liz told a selkie story, one of the many Celtic stories of seals – transformed into people. John # 2 sang a song : the first verse in Irish Gaelic and the last three in English. The evening was warming up; a tribute to the ease these old friends had with one another – and to the mistress of ceremonies. Being an MC takes real skill – even with people you know well. Liz made it look easy.
We took a short break for tea and biscuits. By this time, I was beginning to feel as if these people were old friends. As we re-convened, Liz asked Christie to sing a song. With a little coaxing, she launched into a rather melancholy ballad – in French – about an old soldier re-visiting a battle site where now young people gamboled and played. There was a lovely wistful quality to her voice. Jack and Beryl played and sang; she with a bold and sure alto voice used to singing the old songs. Others joined in – playing and singing together in a way that felt so familiar…. Next came Bernadette’s song. Her first notes brought back  a memory, sharp and clear -the voice of the young actress who played Polly Garter, in a production of Dylan Thomas’s poetic drama, “Under Milk  Wood”. Night after night I stood on the stage with her, mesmerized by that voice. But Bernadette’s song was not poetic. With a sly wit, she sang of a lovesick girl who discovers that the men she loves – both or them – are in reality – her brothers!
Then Raymond, the artist who did the bog art sculpture, told the legend that inspired his carving -and I discovered that he was also an author. Then, with the most wonderful deadpan face I have ever seen, Alex played and sang a drinking song that had us all laughing and clapping. A few more stories from Jim – and Liz turned to me…”have you one more wee bit of a story?” Sure… and I told a brief Chinese wisdom tale and Liz finished off the evening with a short Middle Eastern tale. None of us wanted it to end… but Liz flashed the lights…the time-honored method to empty a pub at night, and people began to depart. I drifted out into the night. A full moon loomed, ringed with ghostly clouds against the
black of the sky and the hills. This was a night I would long remember….
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