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James Delargy and the Storymen of North Clare by Michael MacMahon


Stiofáin Ó hEalaoire (1858-1944)

Delargy spent a month – August-September 1929 - at Luogh on his first visit, but he was back there again on the 20 December and remained over Christmas. It was during this second visit, and almost by chance, that he first met Stiofán Ó hEalaoire, a gifted storyteller in the traditional mode, but about whom nobody had said a word. Delargy gives a vivid account of the occasion:

‘In the evening Johnny Carey, junr. and I went to Paitsín Ó Flannagáin, and then all three of us walked down the hill to Anthony Moloney's house which was ablaze with light… Anthony had arranged for us to gather in order to give me an opportunity of getting acquainted with some of the old people whom he had specially selected as being likely informants and of service to me in my work. I paid for a bucketful of porter fetched from a local pub, there was a good fire blazing on the hearth, the night was cold, the sky covered with frosty stars and the faint murmur of the sea seeping in through a door. A memorable night of storytelling followed, each old man giving of his best… Anthony kept order, but the people themselves were so interested that they listened with great attention and in complete silence to the songs and stories which lasted for five hours! This was the first time I had met Stiofán Ó hEalaoire, who proved to be the best Irish speaker and storyteller I was to meet in Clare, and he was the lion of the evening!’[16]

Stiofán Ó hEalaoire and Johnny Carey
Stiofán Ó hEalaoire (left) and Johnny Carey.
Photo courtesy Dept of Irish Folklore, UCD

At that time Stiofán Ó hEalaoire, or Stiofán “Cháit Dheanachair” as he was known to his neighbours, was a man of 72 years. He had never married and was living alone ‘with a cat and a few hens’, near the castle of Donogore, in the small thatched cottage in which he had been born. Though rather ramshackle in itself, the house commanded a memorable view from the Cliffs of Moher across Galway Bay to Connemara with the Aran Islands in between. Stiofán himself was a quiet, self-effacing man who enjoyed the company of the one or two neighbours who dropped in to see him at night. As they approached the house they would often hear him talking aloud to himself inside. He once told Delargy that in his boyhood he loved listening to stories and that he would re-tell them to himself as he worked on the land; in that way he had kept them in his memory.

Delargy was captivated by Stiofán’s wealth of stories, and particularly pleased that he himself had been the first to discover the old man’s hidden talents:

‘I was the first stranger to appreciate his stories and to listen enthralled to his inexhaustible flow of rich untrammelled Irish that up till then no pen had recorded. He was one of the silent people to whom no one had listened and who had so much to say…’ [17]

Within a week of their first meeting at Moloney’s, another memorable night of storytelling was arranged, this time at Carey’s. It would seem that the main purpose of this session was to provide a theatre for another star performance from Stiofán, for Delargy tells us that earlier that evening he set out himself ‘trudging through the snow’, to the old man’s cottage in order to make certain that he would attend:

‘This was a cold day. North wind, sleet, snow on the ground. Across the sea from us the Connemara hills white with snow... Johnny Carey and I trudged through the snow to Stiofán Ó hEalaoire. His house is a good way in from the road. He was in, for we could hear him moving about and talking to himself! He agreed readily to come, “raked” the fire, put out the hens and the cat, put on his coat and came along with us back to Careys. The night was full of stars, but out to sea we could see the storm clouds massing over Aran, and the wind was hard and keen in our faces as we walked the snowy road which brought us home. Johnny Maloney, a friend of Stiofán, came with us. When we arrived we found Paitsín Ó Flannagáin and some others. Tonight was a really exciting one – story following story – and I was kept busy with my note-book and with the ediphone.’[18]

Over the following days Delargy spent hour after hour with Stiofán recording his stories and other traditions. Fourteen years later, having in the meantime engaged with some of the best Irish speakers and storytellers in the land, he would still count Stiofán among the best he had heard:

‘Bhí Stiofán ar an gcainteoir Gaeilge is fearr a chasadh riamh liom in aon áit in Éirinn. Is mór go léir an chailliúint do léann na Nua-Ghaeilge nár dheaghaidh aoinne chuige chun staidéar chruinn a dhéanamh ar an saibhreas iongantach ráiteachas agus focal a bhi aige. Do bhí na céata agus na céata focal agus sean-nathanna cainte aige ná raibh le fáil ó aoinne eile sa Mhumhain.’[19]

[‘Stiofán was the best Irish speaker that I met anywhere in Ireland. It is a great loss to modern Irish scholarship that no Irish linguistic expert ever made a study of his marvellous expressions and his equally rich vocabulary. He had hundreds upon hundreds of words and turns of phrase that were not found anywhere else in Munster.’]

And on another occasion he wrote:

‘Especially do I regret that two Irishmen had not met – Professor Tomás Ó Rathaille of Dublin and Stiofán Ó hEalaoire of Duibhlinn. What a magnificent Irish speaker Stiofán is, and how much valuable material would Tomás have got from him, and how glad Stiofán would be if only they could meet.’[20]

One of Delargy’s most memorable encounters with Stiofán took place on 15 August, 1930, when the old man recited for him a version of a well-known folktale called ‘Conall Gulban’. The story, a long multi-episodic tale, took almost two hours to tell. Máire MacNeill afterwards described Stiofán’s version of the story as outstanding, and twenty-five years later Delargy considered it ‘the finest tale I have ever heard before or since’. [21]

During his subsequent visits to Doolin Delargy spent much of his time in the company of the old man whose storehouse of tradition never seemed to run dry. Stephen’s command of Irish and his artistry in story-telling - ‘one of the oldest one-man shows on earth’ - never failed to amaze his visitor. In his diary under the date 11 September, 1932 Delargy wrote:

‘As I write here beside the fire on Stephen Helery’s table there is a braon anuas [a ‘drip down’] from the roof which is dripping on this book. In the house with Stiofán and myself are: Paitsín Ó Flannagáin, Johnny Carey, Seamus Maloney of Doonagore and an ex-soldier, Johnny Maloney, who comes nearly every night to visit Stiofán… Stiofán is one of the finest Irish speakers I have ever known. It will never be possible to bring back the language the way he speaks it. And how little attention is now being paid to these fine old Irish speakers…. Stephen Hillery’s cat sees this book on the table and comes over to sniff at it, not having seen such a queer-looking object before.’ [22]

Going through his diary some thirty-five years later, Delargy could still trace the marks of the cat’s paws on the page. The incident transported him back in time to the Doolin firesides of long ago, and the old friends that he had been privileged to meet there:

‘Across the page are the marks of Stiofán Ó hEalaoire’s cat, a half-wild animal of uncertain lineage whose curiosity induced it to come nearer than usual to inspect the curious white object – my note-book – which was lying open to my left hand on the table while my back was turned as I listened to Stiofán telling stories and looked with wonder on the maide an tsimné, [the chimney beam] covered with soot which drifted in from a strange world by the waters of the Gulf Stream to be bought for 8d. at Doolin shore by Stiofán 35 years before. These muddy paws on my notebook bring back memories of that night, 35 years ago, of three old men telling tales beside the fire, Stiofán Ó Healaoire, Johnny Carey, and Paitsín Ó Flannagáin, all now dead….the house of our assembly is gone also, and the scene of our midnight gathering has vanished like the passing of a cloud.’[23]

After 1932 we hear nothing much about Stiofán until November 1937 when Delargy paid another visit to Doolin.[24] He had brought with him on this occasion a transcript of some of the earlier recordings as there were certain passages that he wished to go over with the storytellers. By this time Stiofán Ó hEalaoire had almost completely lost his sight and had moved in with his cousins, the Davorens, near the quarry at Doonagore. Delargy describes this visit in his diary:

‘The scenes familiar to me in 1929-32 are repeated. The old friends gather at Careys and elsewhere to chat, tell tales and sing the songs I have heard so often but like to hear again. Paitsín Ó Flannagáin is there, now 75 and looking much older than formerly. Johnny Carey now 80 but still full of energy – unchanged as they all are really. Míchéal Ó Tiarnaigh with his stick and storm lantern and his moon-face full of smiles and alight with good-humour. Seán MacMathúna, a mere lad of 60, is there too…The fire is as big as ever the cailleach giúise [block of bog-deal] just as it used to be…I feel that I am privileged in knowing these Clare people, these last Irish speakers of Corca Morua. In a few years they will be gone and the old world will have gone with them.’[25]

Delargy spent a week painstakingly going over the transcripts with the storytellers and putting the finishing touches to the material he had collected in Doolin over the years:

‘Day after day from breakfast to dinner and from that to late at night I checked the manuscript with the speakers, and especially with Stiofán. I visited him every day, Carey Snr. coming with me in the car. I found it useless to employ the ediphone records, and having read passages before the part of the text where the missing words or lines were, the old man would give me what was required. It was a slow job, and a very tiring one, but I stuck at it until I was finished…and well pleased I was with my trip, with the worry long on my mind about the Clare collection at long last dispelled and done with.’[26]

Delargy was not to see Doolin again until January 1943 when he returned for a brief visit. He spent a night with Stiofán, again going over earlier recordings he had made, and even managing to get one or two more stories from him. This was to be the last time that these two friends would see each other. Stiofán died on 4 May in the following year at the age of 86. He was buried on the following day near the old parish church of Killilagh in an unmarked grave which, sadly, is now no longer remembered.[27] Writing some twenty years after his death, Delargy remarked:

‘How much would I give now if I had a library of tape-recordings not only of the tales and seanchas but of his ordinary conversation and that of his friends who entertained me on many a night. But there were no tape recorders then, and I never succeeded in getting any Irish scholar to study an unknown palimpsest of tradition – Stiofán Ó hEalaoire. He had much more for the student of Irish than most of the modern Irish manuscripts of our great libraries… His grave has no tombstone, but his monument is the tales of Tuath Clae that he told as no one else did. He was the master story-teller of Corcomroe.’ [28]


Delargy and Co. Clare


Tomás Ó hÚir