The Cork Yarnspinners hope to be back doing in-person story, poem and song sessions by January. Photo: Philip O’Byrne Photography

It’s spin too long

There’s an experiment you can do where you add soundwaves to flowing water and it instantly transforms random chaos into something geometric and almost rigid.

The same can be said for storytelling. Throughout history we have been adding our own soundwaves to a world full of strange and random things in order to make some sense of it all, to give it some kind of order.

Telling stories is part of being human and it penetrates almost everything we do, but as an art form, it may be in danger of dying out altogether.

Thankfully, here on Leeside, there is a very special group of people tending this precious flame and they are far from letting it fade.

They are The Cork Yarnspinners, a devoted team of passionate storytellers, poets and musicians who meet once a month to practice and celebrate an ancient art that predates most others.

It all started in 1991 in a linen hall (hence the name Yarnspinners) in Belfast when Cork storyteller Paddy O’Brien’s wife Claire and her boss Liz Weir began a regular storytelling session for adults.

“I was doing a bit of storytelling anyway and we thought of the idea of starting it in Cork. We got a gang of seven or eight enthusiasts together in the Grand Parade Hotel and we founded the Cork Yarnspinners,” recalls Paddy.

Now considered one of the best tellers in Ireland, Paddy says the occupation can be very niche but that storytelling is something that runs deep in Irish blood.

“It ties up with the Irish culture in lots of ways. Sometimes, during casual sing songs at a party or a pub, people might do a story or recitation instead of singing, and if it's even middling well done, it will always be something that is well received. There’s something in the Irish psyche, a grá for words and that turn of phrase and wordplay,” he says.

Like so many other things that should be done in person, the Cork Yarnspinners were forced to go online in 2020 but group member and Anita Howard says the transition has closed some doors and opened others.

“One part of the experience is the international element, in that we've been online and made connections with storytellers from Newfoundland for example, where there’s a very vibrant and long-standing tradition of storytelling,” she explains.

In hearing stories from around the world, Anita says it was interesting to see the similarities in themes and morals and how they are differently handled in other cultures.

“What we do notice is that similar tropes happen again and again. We might hear similar legends coming up with different characters and slightly different figures but similar structures. There are a lot of similarities between the stories but they are all developed in an attempt to make sense of similar things in different communities over time,” Anita says.

Fellow teller Brendan O’Sullivan adds: “It shows that there are similar themes to stories all over the world. It's a bit like folklore. I think they call it a re-circling of motifs, where you find the same general stories from all over the world. All folklore and all history over many centuries has come down through word of mouth, people sitting around fires on long winters evenings. There seems to be a great appetite for storytelling all over the world at the moment and the Irish seem to be particularly good at it.”

Most would agree that humour is a crucial part of Irish storytelling, regardless of how awful or tragic the subject matter might be, and Paddy agrees that not only is comedy a way of lifting a sad story, but a great way to make a point as well.

Paddy says: “If you're telling something heavy, a bit of comedy here or there will leaven the loaf and make it not so serious, and, at times, comedy can be very sharp if you're making a political point. There's a tradition for hundreds of years of political satire and sticking the pin in the guy who's too self-inflated and letting him down a bit.

“I have noticed that storytellers from other countries, some of them, depending on where they’re from, have a much more lyrical or formal story, like a fairy-tale or a tale about kings and princes or a tale about ogres and giants, but there would be very little humour shot through it. In Ireland, even in the darkest times, something would come into your head and you’d almost have to say it, it's part of our DNA.”

Sadly, numbers can be difficult to attract to the monthly Yarnspinners sessions which, before the pandemic, took place on the third Thursday of each month at the Crawford&Co bar on Anglesea Street.

Teller Colm Nestor feels that, if not properly protected and nurtured, the art of traditional storytelling could die out. However, he says there are still many groups around the country keeping it alive and now encourages the younger generations to get involved.

“When we were doing it in the pub, we would usually have a guest artist for the night and then other nights we'd have an open night so anybody in the audience can come up with anything at all.

“That’s how I got started about 10 years ago when a man called Liam Cunningham put my name forward when we were in the Spailpín Fánach and I was introduced as a well-known storyteller and I had never got up in front of a crowd in my life. I was absolutely bricking it!

“I told a joke because I couldn't think of anything. My mind was blank and there was total silence. Nobody laughed and I remember putting my head down between my legs and Liam Cunningham was breaking his heart laughing because he didn't tell me that there was 25 Italian students sitting directly in front of me without a word of English,” laughs Colm.

The Cork Yarnspinners hope to be back on-site by January, but in the meantime you can check out their YouTube channel or email to learn more or even spin a yarn of your own. Other members of the group include tech wizard Lizzie Straszer, West Cork-based storyteller and artist Rae McKinlay, Mike Cohen of the Story Space Massachusetts, Donal Carroll, and award-winning Cork storyteller Maria Gillen, who is now storyteller-in-residence at Kerry Writers Museum.