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The Importance of Story in Traditional Irish Music

Storyteller Des Mulkere playing banjo with the late Joe Cooley and Jack circa 1973

The purpose of this essay is to draw attention to verbal art performance that is practised in Irish traditional music. In particular, I would like to highlight a type of storytelling called a ‘Yarn’, oft heard in public houses many years ago, but seldom practiced in Ireland today. This type of storytelling exists within the ‘session’, where groups of Irish musicians gather to perform mainly dance tunes- mostly consisting of Jigs and Reels (Irish dance music played in 6/8 and 4/4 time respectively), and storytelling or songs are sometimes performed in between sets of these tunes.

I shall examine the impact that yarn storytelling has upon the Traditional Irish Music session, drawing from some recordings of yarns that I have made of musician, singer and storyteller Des Mulkere from Crusheen, County Clare. The purpose of including the yarns stems from the fact that their complexity, structure, and importance cannot be explained through the use of the written word alone.

*It is worth noting that the stories recorded that accompany this account have been taken out of their original context, at a public house. Nonetheless the two settings that I have chosen to record these stories reveal contrasting and comparable details on the performer in question. The first two yarns, namely Yarn1 and Yarn2, were recorded during a one-on-one interview with Des on the 22nd of December 2006. The third yarn, namely ‘BanjoSeminar’, was recorded during a Banjo Seminar at the University of Limerick on the 14th November 2006 in which Des was asked to attend. This seminar focused on the introduction of the Banjo (Des is an accomplished Banjo player) into Irish music. The yarn recorded in this seminar is the same story as ‘Yarn1’, so we can gather some insight into how Des performs the same yarn in a different context. I also recorded a song performed by Des in the same interview conducted with Yarn1 and Yarn2, the inclusion of this song will be a subject of discussion in relation to the yarns later on in my account.

I will also examine the view of the performer, of what these stories mean to him, and provide a significance of what the stories hold in the future for these rare stories within the changes we face in Irish music sessions today.

My discussion is divided into the following categories: Introduction, Structure, Complexity, Colloquialism, The truth or lies in a yarn, Myth as the trigger, Values of the people, Identity within the Irish traditional music session, Life Story, Threats to the existence of the yarn, Implications on Irish traditional music sessions, Conclusion.


I had once heard Yarns and stories being told by the local people in my father’s public house in County Wicklow. I had noticed from the moment I heard them the joy and laugher that followed by audiences of maybe just four or five people drinking and sharing these stories and chatting through the night.

It was through chatting with a good friend, Vince Keehan, in San Francisco that my attention was drawn to the characters, the stories, music and song in the area of east Galway. After visiting an Irish traditional music festival therein, I noticed the stories that were being told as the same yarns I had heard at home in Wicklow, and moreover, the enormous sense of community created in the Irish traditional music session through the addition of verbal art performance. One man, a close friend of Des’s, from the coastal village of Letterfrack in the west of Connemara, who had been visiting this festival for a number of years, told me that himself and Des were “The last of the last”, and that I should “Listen to the stories and song that myself and Des have to give.”

Des has come from a background of a family of musicians. In “Interview1”, he mentions his siblings and the instruments that they play. He also refers to his father’s playing and formation of the Aughrim Slopes Trio band, and the singing of his mother. This depth of music knowledge and history of music making makes Des a well respected figure in music circles. His physical presence of well over 6ft and strong voice enable his authoritive image among others at a session of Irish traditional music, but it is not just a strong presence and a good yarn that provide for a good performance and the attention of the public.


The structure of the Yarn, from beginning to end, draws on many different aspects of culture within the local community involved in the session.

For example, in Yarn1, historical and geographical facts are given by the performer as an introduction to the story being told. The geographical location of the people involved and also that of the performer is stated. Yarn1 for example, even tells us where the performer had once lived.

The values, thoughts, and characters of the ordinary people involved are described, drawing on their everyday experiences and their daily working lives. We get a glimpse of the life of these ordinary people; the performer uses some dialogue and the third person to illustrate their characters.

Towards the end of a yarn, there is a punch line, which is usually absurd or metaphorical and joking in nature. Most often, this is the structure that the story takes.

Complexity of the Performance

The art of storytelling requires many qualities for the performance to be successful. Des mentions himself of the need for ‘colour’, hinting that a good performance requires a well conceived yarn, he states in yarn2, “But when there’s a yarn goin’ on, especially if there’s a bit of colour to it they’ll listen then you see”.

To understand the complexity of the factors of storytelling that Des uses in his verbal art performance, we must not analyse the text of the story alone, but also a wide range of constraints involved and the nature of the performance.

Bauman outlined a “Range of possible interpretive frames within which communication may be couched”. Some of these “frames” (concepts that constitute a verbal art performance) that are cogs in the engine of storytelling are evident when Des is telling of a yarn. For example,

Imitation and Quotation- The performance of these yarns involves dialogue between the subjects involved in the story of which the performer imitates the subjects and also quotes what they say. We hear the quotations of these subjects at the end of the yarns, right up to the punch line. For instance, in Yarn2, the quotations are numerous as the yarn draws to a close, between both characters, the dialogue flows: “That’s the greatest news, he said, I ever heard. Are you sure? I am, she says. How do you know?, he said. I got a letter, she said, from my mother, she’s comin next week.”. This adds a sense of drama the performance, and gives the listener a picture of what these characters are like and how they converse.

Joking- With all yarns, a the end of the story there is an absurd punch line, in both Yarn1 and Yarn2 we can hear them in the last sentence. The joking aspect of yarns comes to a climax in the last sentence, and reflects back on the information that was given in the story.


The use of repetition is a tool used in the performance by the storyteller on a number of occasions, used in many different ways. For example, in yarn2, the passage that leads up to the punch line repeats and makes the punch line itself stand out: “I’m alright, and the land is alright she said, and the cattle is alright, and the peace and quiet is great here, she said, and I’m also feelin a new man…”.

In all three of the recorded yarns, Des uses the word ‘Anyway’ on a number of occasions which holds the attention of the audience present, but also presents the story in a way that portrays that he is not veering away from the point of the story. In ‘BanjoSeminar’, he uses the word to move on from one section of the story to another, “She was an awful bad cook and he was fed up to Christ, this awful, this awful cold morning… anyway”.

The performer’s ability to adapt to the audience present is another tool that adds complexity to the performance and the live aspect. In BanjoSeminar, Des is speaking to an audience about certain aspects of a woman’s life where he feels he should be courteous, and so before mentioning this aspect, he states, “with all respect to the lovely ladies present”. The complexity of performance here shows that Des considered his particular audience before he talks, in yarn1, he doesn’t add this sentence to the yarn when the male interviewer is the only audience that is present. Also the fact that he doesn’t reel off the story, adding what he calls “colour” to them, shows his ability to add to a story on different occasions in different contexts.


Many uses of colloquialism can be found in Des’s performance. The audiences’ attention is attained by frames, mentioned by Bauman, the performer speaks in their own accent, using colloquial language, being one of the people, part of the audience. The stories that Des tells are about the ordinary people and many of them are attributed to people that had lived in the locality. For example, in “Yarn1”, one can hear a description of where the subjects of the story come from.

The use of colloquial language is evident throughout, the language of the rural farming community is evident in the line “this awful cold morning after Christmas he was after feedin’ a few auld cattle, and she was getting the drop of tea and she was putting torque in him”. Colloquial language here gives us the viewpoint of the ordinary people, the focus is on their daily lives and this is what the audience has to relate to in order for the storytelling to gain full attention.