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James Delargy and the Storymen of North Clare by Michael MacMahon


Tomás Ó hÚir

During his time in Luogh Delargy visited some outlying areas as well, going wherever he thought a good story might be found. One of these trips was to Fanore to meet an old man named Thomas Húir (Howard), ‘an archive of tradition and a fine old man of stately manners and unaffected courtesy’. The visit took place on 6 January (‘Small Christmas Night’), 1930 which, as it happened, was a dreadful night of high wind and blinding rain. In preparation for his session with the old man Delargy had earlier sent the ediphone ahead to the Garda Station at Fanore. The sergeant there had promised that he would have it conveyed that evening by donkey and cart to the storyteller’s house in time for the recording session. Delargy himself, accompanied by a local guide, arrived at Howard’s at nightfall, ‘having had to push our way against a wall of wind, with our heads down’.

The house crouches for shelter among the sand dunes, and the roar of the sea and of the wind which drums at one’s ears outside is stilled when one gets inside and the doors are made fast. There was a huge fire on the hearth; an old man of patriarchal appearance with a well-cared white beard in a súgán chair beside the fire, wearing a frock-coat and billycock hat. That was old Thomas Húir, waiting eagerly together with his son, John, and John’s wife and son, and some neighbours, for the arrival of the ‘Ireeshian’ with the wonderful machine which was to take down all the stories…

‘I was anxious to get to work, but the machine was still to come from the Garda Siochána barracks at Fanore where I had left it with boxes of records. After a while Sergeant Meara stuck his head inside the door, and the wind behind him propelled him forward. He was wet but cheerful. He brought in the machine from the donkey cart outside.

“You managed to get the donkey so?” said I.

‘No’, said Sergeant Meara, ‘Pat MacCormack and I searched for him along the hillside above the barracks, but we couldn’t find him, so I did instead!’

He had pushed the cart, laden with machine and cylinders, across the sandhills of Fanore, against the storm down to the house. I shall always remember his good-humoured kindly face as he pushed back his uniform cap that he had wedged down behind his ears to save it from the gale, while the water dripped off his raincoat to the floor in front of the fire…’

At that point Delargy went through the usual ritual of introducing the storyteller to the ediphone:

‘The first thing to do is get the speaker to sing a verse of a song or the like, to ask him put the tube of the ediphone to his ear, and then to sit back and see what happens! In this case I asked Tomás to start with the sean-phaidreacha [the old prayers] which he says morning and evening. He did so. I asked him then to put the mouthpiece to his ear…he was amazed, and a bit startled, for this was the first time he had ever heard his own voice. He called out across the kitchen, and the others came eagerly but slowly forward and listened. From that on there was no difficulty. Tomás could not be kept back.…. I had to be careful not to overtax him, for he was old, and was subject to fits of weakness. I got drenched making my way back to my lodgings through the storm. Tonight was Oíche na dTrí Rí [The Night of the Three Kings] and three candles were lighting in the windows at Ó Húirs and in the houses at Fanore, seen fitfully through the rain, when the wind dropped from time to time and we could raise our heads to look ahead of us.’[29]

Delargy remained for some days at Fanore as a guest of the local school principal. Each evening he returned to Tomás Howard to record more of his stories and seanchas:

‘The old man was lonely, for the company was what he lacked, and the spotlight shining on him in the middle of the stage at the end of his days cheered his heart. One of the nights I went to see him, I found him alone in his súgán chair beside the fire. It happened after a while that both of us were silent, looking into the heart of the flames. Suddenly the old man moved towards me, put his right hand on my knee and said: “I think I know now what you are after! And it is only now that I understand. I was in the Fenians long ago in 1867. I remember that we were to march off from here and to join our comrades and to attack the barracks at Ennistymon. Well, the snow came, and there was a drift outside the door as high as the door itself, and we couldn’t go. We thought to do some good for Ireland. Maybe now at the end of my life these stories I’m giving you may help to do something for the country!’[30]


Stiofáin Ó hEalaoire


Seán MacMathúna