A message from a former colleague expressed the wish that I was keeping healty and that the teaching was going well. It concluded with the sentence, “I miss your stories.”
It seemed an odd comment. I am one of the world’s worst storytellers, I get details confused or forget them altogether. I was once told in no uncertain terms that I “could bore from England.”
What I can do is remember the stories told by other people. Perhaps it was a skill built up by three decades of sitting at firesides and kitchen tables listening to recollections and reminiscences. It also owes much to encounters with people who were master storytellers.
One man I knew in Co Laois might have been a seanchaí in a former age, such was his capacity for recalling lineages and tales of deeds.
A man who loved history, he was regularly among the number of us who would visit the Western Front each summer.
Sitting at the dining room table at a hotel in Cambrai, he knew that the woman who sat opposite was from Ringsend. He would explain how he remembered.
Driving from his Co Laois farm one morning, he had noticed a swan lying in a field beside the river. Walking across a field to investigate, he discovered the bird had flown into the high tension cables that crossed the land.
It was a fine specimen of a bird and it would be a pity simply to leave it to rot, but he knew that the bird was the property of the State, to take the bird to a taxidermist would require a permit.
Gathering up the dead swan, he drove to the Garda barracks and explained that only the President’s office could give permission for him to keep the bird.
The sergeant was sceptical about the need for a permit, but made the necessary inquiries and the next day telephoned to say that the swan could be kept.
Finding a taxidermist proved to be a challenge. There was word of one in Castle Street in Dublin. He drove his truck to the city centre but a man who had lived in the area all his life had never heard of anyone there doing such work.
Returning to Laois, disappointed, he heard of there being a taxidermist in Co Clare.
The man in Clare did a wonderful job, the swan was mounted with its wings spread and its neck stretched forward. The return journey with the bird had been made with it on the passenger seat of the truck. Oncoming motorists were confronted with the sight of a swan that seemed to be flying towards them from inside the cab of a lorry.
“Anyway,” said the man, “I found out afterwards that there was a taxidermist I could have gone to down in Ringsend. That’s how I remembered you were from Ringsend yourself.”
There was loud laughter around the table.
A dead swan in Laois seemed an unlikely starting point for recalling that someone was from Ringsend.
It wasn’t quite clear what aspect of the story he associated with the woman, was it the swan? Was it the taxidermist? It did not seem wise to pursue the point, lest the inquiry prompt another excursus on another subject almost entirely unrelated to the question.
It had been a strangely reassuring moment. Ireland, for centuries, had a long history of story telling, a tradition that seems to be disappearing. At least one person remained who could weave a story from an unlikely start.