Richard Tulloch heads to County Cork where he finds a swag of expert yarn-spinners with an obvious touch of the blarney.
I'D SELDOM found a kiss so awkward and uncomfortable; this required the skills of a contortionist. I was preparing for a visit to an Irish storytelling festival by kissing the Blarney Stone. The lump of rock that promises the gift of eloquence to all whose lips make contact with it is high on the ramparts of Blarney Castle, an attractive ruin in which only the gift shop is still in working order. The famous stone is set in a wall half a body length out from any foothold, above an intimidating drop to the flagstones below.
Two gentlemen were assisting visitors. The kissing instructor gripped me by the shirtfront and lowered me backwards to arch over the chasm. The photographer took a snap as my face bumped against something cold and hard. Then they hauled me back to solid ground and squirted the Blarney Stone with disinfectant. "Next, please!"
I can't yet say whether the unromantic experience worked its magic, though it did give me a tale to tell and to be sure and certain I found Ireland's County Cork was full of yarn-spinners with an obvious touch of the blarney.
"Which way to Cobh?" I called through my car window as I drew level with an elderly cyclist.
He pointed ahead. "It's there I'm bound myself," he almost sang, "the mother is in the hospital this last month; 98 she is and not doing so well, not at all. It started in her legs back in April ..."
I wished the storyteller's mother a speedy recovery and drove on into colourful little Cobh, where fishing boats bobbed in the harbour and the spires of St Colman's towered above a busy cafe strip.
There I joined a "Titanic Trail" tour, promising tales of that ship's last stop before the iceberg. The Titanic moored in Cobh Harbour in 1912, taking on 123 unfortunate passengers and disembarking seven extremely lucky ones. Historian Michael Martin apologised for his sore throat, though his husky, musical voice charmed us immediately. We would happily have listened to him recite the Titanic's passenger list and I'd bet good money he knew those 123 names.
The Titanic was in Cobh for just 90 minutes, little more than the time it took Michael to paint us a word picture of the scene - first-class passengers taking tea in the guest room, steerage class passengers, carrying their own food for the voyage, on the dock outside.
"No chance of Kate meeting Leonardo; in reality it was heaven forbid that first class and steerage should breathe the same air."
The colourful stories of Irish life with its failed rebellions, lost loves, shipwrecks, famines, stoicism, alcoholism and grim humour continued in neighbouring Kinsale as raconteur Dermot Ryan led us around the village.
This was where the English crushed the Spanish invaders and Irish chieftains in 1601, where the Lusitania was sunk and where, from bay windows overlooking the streets, respectable Kinsale ladies in dark hooded capes kept an eye on the moral behaviour of the youth, including young Dermot himself.
"The Taliban of their day, those ladies were. If you broke a window your parents would know it before you got home. It's a shame they've replaced the ladies with security cameras now."
Outside the Tap Tavern, Kinsale's oldest pub, we heard about the gentleman recently booked for drunken driving while riding a horse. "He argued to the magistrate that indeed he may have enjoyed a pint but the horse himself was stone cold sober."
They take stories seriously in Cork. It matters to people that stories and telling skills, like traditional music and the Gaelic language, should be kept alive simply for their own sake.
The storytelling festival on spectacular, windswept Cape Clear Island, Ireland's most southerly point, has been held for 17 of the past 18 years; ironically it was once cancelled due to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease when the cape was under quarantine.
I arrived to find the little hall behind the Cape Clear Bar crammed with people listening reverently as energetic Irish teller Kate Corkery spun a yarn of legendary Irish heroes the Fianna and Scottish teller Sheila Stewart sang ballads of her travelling people. There were songs and stories in Irish and a stunning demonstration of banjo and washboard-playing by David Holt from North Carolina.
It was an old-fashioned event and that was its charm. If traditional tales sometimes fizzled out into lame punchlines ("And once safely home, you can be sure he vowed never to walk that road at night again"), the infectious enthusiasm of the tellers compensated for any weakness in the material. The audience hung on their every word, joined in singing the choruses and applauded every performer long
and loud. And it was all wrapped in those marvellous voices with their lilting accents.
I hope to be able to talk like that myself some day. Now that I've kissed the Blarney Stone and studied the experts, perhaps I will.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Ireland.
Qantas flies from Sydney to Cork via London.
Regular bus services run from Cork to Cobh, Kinsale and Baltimore. The ferry from Baltimore to Cape Clear Island costs €16 ($20) return.
The River Lee Hotel, Cork, has double rooms from €89, +353 21 425 2700.
See + do
Blarney Castle, entrance €12, blarneycastle.ie.
Titanic Trail Tour, Cobh, €9.50, titanic.ie.
Kinsale Walking Tour, €5, kinsaleheritage.com.
Three-day ticket to Cape Clear Storytelling Festival (next held in September), €65, capeclearstorytelling.com.
Three other things to do in County Cork
1 Atlantic Sea Kayaking Paddle under the bridges of Cork City or at night out of Skibbereen, listening to stories along the way. 2½-hour tour, €45 ($55). atlanticseakayaking.com.
2 Skibbereen Heritage Centre The tragic history of the 1845 potato famine is evocatively told on video by Cork resident Jeremy Irons and an excellent company of Irish actors, €6. skibbheritage.com.
3 Cork City Gaol The 19th-century prison from which many inmates were sent to Australia is now a heritage centre telling the story, €8. corkcitygaol.com.