The Wizard Earl of Kildare, the Pooka Horse at Rathcoffey, the Devil at Castletown House and the Kildare Lurikeen.
Those names don’t trip off the tongue of Kildare people as easily as the characters in Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones.
But Rathcoffey storyteller and author Steve Lally is on a mission to change all that. He has researched and written a new book called ‘Kildare Folk Tales’ which will e launched at Kilcullen Heritage Centre next Saturday.
The book contains tales from folklore and the supernatural, as well as accounts of historical figures including St Brigid, witch and wise woman Moll Anthony, boxer Dan Donnelly and the Curragh Wrens, the poor women who followed the soldiers of the Curragh Camp who inspired the ‘Curragh of Kildare’ ballad.
Lally finds it frustrating that people look further afield for popular culture stories of ghosts, heroes, villains and the supernatural, when all these are available on their own doorsteps. The aforementioned Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones and even Star Wars are all based on elements of Celtic mythology, he says.
Some of the tales included in the book were new to this native Kildare reader, including the story of the Pooka horse of Rathcoffey, who haunts Ireland looking for lazy workers, or the Race of the Black Pig across the planes of the Curragh.
Some of the other tales reinforce the hardships experienced by Kildare people in times past.
“The story of the Curragh Wrens fascinated me. They were women who followed their soldier husbands and lovers, and they were dumped because the men did not want to deal with the children. Society did not want them so they ended up building ‘Wren’s Nests’ in the furze bushes of the Curragh to live in. Charles Dickens was horrified about this. He sent a reporter, James Greenwood, for his paper the Pall Mall Gazette, to investigate,” said Lally. Legend has it that Prince Albert of England, son of Queen Victoria, fell in love of one of the Wrens, Nelly Clifden.
Lally started research in earnest on the book in February 2013, although he had, in fact, been gathering the folk tales in his head since growing up as a boy in Rathcoffey.
Lally was always an ‘outsider’ growing up, in that he moved to Kildare from Lucan with his family at the age of 6. “I came down to the countryside with my head full of Star Wars and comic books. I was always into monster stories, anything with Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff,” he said. “I was a bit of an outsider. I used to play in the fields and I used to create stories of my own, I had a charged imagination.”
A spell at artcollege in Limerick and a tough few years working as an artist led him to a fine art course a the University of Ulster, after which he made his home in County Down.
Lally has worked as an artist and storyteller for over 15 years. He has been involved in several storytelling projects on subjects including peace building and mental health.
Already interested in the art of storytelling since his college days - he focused a degree project on artworks inspired by folklore - he furthered his interest while working as an arts officer in Portadown. He used to make up stories while giving children guided tours of art exhibitions, and found that they had a great reaction to the tales he concocted.
Last year Lally released a book about County Down folk tales, before turning his attention to his native county.
“When I got my teeth into Kildare, I found the county has a rich, rich history of folklore, it’s on a par with the brothers Grimm,” he said.
He credits Mario Corrigan of Kildare County Council’s library service and local historian Seamus Cullen as two of the main sources for the tales. He also consulted the National Folklore Collection, held at University College Dublin, as well as many local Kildare people, for their memories of the county’s stories.
It was difficult, at times, to narrow down just one version of a story, he says. “I’d speak to three different people and I could get three different versions of the story. I would try to get the names, dates and places absolutely right, and I would take the best bits of the folk tales.”
Irish people, he believes, don’t pay too much attention to their folk tales because familiarity breeds a certain contempt. “When Americans come over, they know much more about Ireland than we do. When you are surrounded by something you don’t pay it much heed. This book is trying to rekindle our love of folklore and let people know what is in front of them.”
Lally believes that people have become lazy about guarding their own folk tales because television and the internet has made every story ubiquitous.
One of the reasons folk tales evolved was to keep people, especially youngsters away from danger - for example, a ghost or evil spirit would be invented to keep them away from a dangerous bog or riverbank. Storytelling also has a modern application, he believes, in helping people fight their own fears and see that there is light at the end of any dark tunnel.
Lally is also conscious of the fact that, despite the work of the folklore commission, many great Irish tales have been lost.
The Irish Folklore Commission was set up in the 1930s to gather tales of the countryside. Much of the valuable work was done by schoolchildren, however, so by their nature the tales collected would be of the less gory or salacious variety.
As part of his mission to spread folk tales through storytelling and song, Lally has teamed up with fellow Kildareman Ray Dunne, a singer/songwriter and performer from Athy.
Together, the bard and the storyteller are developing a show as ‘The Quiet Men, with which they hope to tour schools and theatres, spreading a taste of local songs, stories, poems and Celtic Mythology.
‘The Quiet Men’ will perform at the launch of ‘Kildare Folk Tales’ in Kilcullen next Saturday. (see panel left).
Lally cites many storytelling inspirations, which range from storytellers Eddie Lenihan and Liz Weir to comedians Dave Allen, Billy Connolly and Tommy Tiernan.
Next on his ‘to do’ list is is a book of children’s stories, inspired by his three-year-old daughter Isabella Grace. “I want to write a book for her, she is a great inspiration and a muse,” he said.