In My Fathers Time
by Mattie Lennon
It was 1959. The National Council for The Blind of Ireland gave my visually impaired mother a wireless.
It was our first radio. At the time my contemporaries were clued in to the highlights of Radio Luxemburg and the Light Programme. But, always one to live in the past, I had a preference for the folk programmes on Radio Eireann. My adrenalin was really let loose by the prologue to one in particular;
The rick is thatched
The fields are bare,
Long nights are here again.
The year was fine
But now 'tis time
To hear the ballad-
Boul in, boul in and take a chair
Admission here is free,
You're welcome to the Rambling House
To meet the Seanachi.
The Seanachi was, of course, Eamon Kelly.
I was to follow Eamon's stories, on the air, and later in Dublin theatres, through his one-
He was born in Rathmore, Co. Kerry, in March 1914. In his autobiographical work "The Apprentice" he tells of how the family moved when he was six months old. He was brought to Carrigeen on Maurice O'Connor's sidecar. (Of course when he'd be wearing his Seanachi's hat he'd tell you he remembered it). Eamon grew up in a Rambling House and in later life said:"........my ears were forever cocked for the sound that came on the breeze. It wasn't the Blarney Stone but my father's house which filled me with wonder".
He was only a child when this country gained independence but he had his Kerry ear cocked long before that to accumulate stories such as this: " 'Will I get in this time' the sitting MP said once to one of our neighbours, coming up to polling day. 'Of course you will' the neighbour told him. 'Didn't you say yourself that it was the poor put you in the last time and aren't there twice as many poor there new' ". Eamon didn't lick his storytelling ability off the ground. He said of his father that he was; ".....a friendly person, a good talker. Neighbours and travelers were attracted like moths around a naked flame into his and my mother's kitchen". Their kitchen had "....all the rude elements of the theatre; the storyteller was there with his comic or tragic tale, we had music, dance, song and costume".
When he left school Eamon became apprentice to his father who was a master carpenter and wheelwright. The young apprentice missed nothing; seventy years on he could mimic a verbose mason who described how to put a plumb-
He was soon to learn that Micheal O'Riada's interests were not confined to sawing and chiseling. He introduced his pupils to books, writers and the theatre. On the head of this Eamon went to see Louis Dalton's company, at the town hall, in "Juno and the Paycock". "It was my first time seeing actors on a stage and the humour, the agony and the tragedy of the play touched me to the quick". He was mesmerized by the actors and; "....their power to draw me away from the real world and almost unhinge my reason long after the curtain had come across". Micheal O'Riada was impressed with Eamon's reaction to the theatre. He discussed O'Casey, Synge and Lennox Robinson with the young carpenter and advised him if he ever went to Dublin to go to the Abbey Theatre. Mr. O'Riada also told him that if he kept making headway in his studies and passed the senior grade in the practical and theory papers he would enter him for a scholarship examination, to train as a manual instructor, in Dublin. Since Eamon had left school at fourteen he also had to do additional study in English, Irish and Maths. He passed his scholarship examination, and the interview in Dublin, with flying colours.
He trained and worked as a woodwork teacher for years until he became a full time actor. His first acting role was as Christy Mahon in "The Playboy of the Western World" along with the Listowel actress, Maura O'Sullivan. He would later marry, and spend the rest of his life, with Maura. They moved to Dublin and Eamon was employed by the Radio Eireann Repertory Players and later by the Abbey Theatre Company. He drew large audiences in villages during the '50s as he traveled around Ireland with his stories. He was to spend more than 40 years as a professional actor. Working with the top actors and leading producers of his day he performed in New York, London and Moscow.
As a storyteller his vivid and evocative descriptions are unsurpassed. Whether it was about an emigrant-
With little or no interest in money himself he was always on the side of the underdog and the marginalized. He was playing S.B. O' Donnell in "Philadelphia Here I Come" on Broadway, in January 1972, when he heard the tragic news of Bloody Sunday. There and then he decided to play his part in trying to rectify man's inhumanity; he became a vegetarian. Eamon was shy, by nature. And even in his eighties he would be, by far, the most nervous artist backstage. This was because he was a perfectionist. A year before he died I saw him in a hotel about to do a piece he had performed hundreds of times. With the utmost humility he asked a staff member about facilities to do a last minute rehearsal: "Do you have anywhere where I could talk to myself for a while?"
While the great storyteller won't ever again stand on a stage or sit by the fire of a rambling house, his voice lives on. Rego Irish Records have brought out a video "Stories of Ireland, as told by Eamon Kelly" and a cassette "Eamon Kelly, the Irish Storyteller". You'll find Rego Records at http://www.regorecords.com/ or
P.O. Box 1515
Kerryman, Brendan O'Shea (O'Sheas Tailoring, Lower Gardiner Street, Dublin) told me the following story:
At the end of September 2001 Eamon Kelly brought a suit in to Brendan for some alterations. The suit was fifteen years old. Prior to one of his trips to America, Eamon had it made by another Dublin tailor who left the jacket minus an inside pocket and the trousers without belt-
Yes, you've guessed it!
Did the man who wrote so lovingly of Con-
As his coffin left the church the Congregation gave a round of applause. The show was over and this time there was no encore. The final curtain had fallen on a One-
As he walked into that great Rambling House in the sky, can't you imagine the opening line?: "Ye're glad I came".