I don't think there's anyone who doesn't love a good story. Stories are the mind's magic mirror: They invite you to see yourself in the lives of others, and teach you to hope what you never could have imagined alone.
In recent years, my wife, Leslie, and I have spent a month or so of every fall in a small house on the remote coast of West Cork in Ireland. One night last October, we made the long, dark, bumpy drive into the nearby village of Union Hall to hear a traditional storyteller, a seanchai, holding forth in a local pub.
Union Hall is a tiny place, one long street with a church at the west end and a fishermen's cooperative at the east. Between them, strung like beads on a pastel rosary, are row houses, a general store and five pubs.
It was to one of these, Nolan's, that we went. It's an old-fashioned place--a single room with the bar at one side, a fireplace at the other and upholstered benches around the walls.
The publican's family lives in the back, and the walk to the "facilities" takes you through their living room.
When we arrived, the place was--in the unfortunate local phrase--"so crowded there was no room to swing a cat." The seanchai, "a famous man from up to Dunmanway," already was in his place before the fire.
Some of his stories simply were pointed, comedic set pieces involving a pair of bachelor farmers named Con and Pat. For example, this one, designed to puncture the pretensions of the upwardly mobile:
"Con was a poor man and had his living from cutting turf (peat for fuel) and selling it door-to-door from the back of the donkey. And when he finished every night, didn't he take the beast and his old dog into the house with him to sleep?
"Well, the time passed and didn't God bless the work, and wasn't there extra money to be put aside? So, Con sold the donkey and with the money he got and the money he had, he bought a cart and a horse to pull it.
"But when he got home that night, he unhitched the horse and lead it to the door of the house. And Mary and Joseph, but wasn't that horse so tall that it wouldn't go through the door at all? So, Con goes and he gets his hammer and his chisel, and he sets to work banging at the stone over the door.
"Well, at that moment, who should come along but Pat? And he sees Con at the work and he says, 'Yerah, God, man, what are you at?'
" 'It's the horse,' says Con. 'He's too tall to go through the door.'
" 'I can see that,' says Pat, 'but since your house, like mine, has a floor of dirt, why don't you just dig down and make room for him?'
" 'You old idiot,' says Con, 'you'll be poor forever. Can you not see that the horse's feet fit fine? It's his head that won't go in!' "
Other parts of his performance were less burlesque. There were traditional songs and fine old poems, many of them in Irish--or Gaelic, as we say here. But some of the best moments came when he called on members of his audience to recite.
A fisherman with a face like hard times and a bucket of used-up sins raised his glass like a benediction and pronounced Flann O'Brien's famous blessing on beer, "the working man's friend":
When your money's tight and is hard to get
And your horse has also ran
When all you have is a heap of debt
A pint of plain is your only man.
An old woman, spare and spidery as a berry bush in December but with a girl's dark eyes, declaimed a long poem in flawless Irish, sending the respectable, red-faced matrons around her into gales of laughter. It was, a woman nearby informed me, "The Midnight Court," Brian Merriman's 18th-Century epic of a bachelor schoolmaster kidnaped by fairies and made to stand trial before their queen for the sins of men against women.
The verses that had convulsed the pub recounted the testimony of a young girl who had been tricked into marrying an old man. Despite her best and strenuous efforts, she emerged from her wedding night disappointed:
But she'd nothing to show for all her labor;
There wasn't a jump in the old deceiver.
To be in that crowded, fire-lit room on the wind-scoured coast of West Cork was to imbibe something headier than what the brewer's artful hand can fashion.
There are psychologists who believe that the desire to make and hear narrative tales is innate in our species--that we humans are not only tool-making but also story-making animals. There is a common-sensical appeal to that notion. For what, after all, is the human conscience but a desire to do justice by making sense of the world? And what is a story, but an attempt to make sense of events that often are frighteningly random?
This holiday season is one that brings most urgently to mind such stories, the ones we learned as children: stories of a God who cared so deeply for men and women willing to struggle against tyranny that he sent them a sign of unquenchable light; of a God so moved by human suffering that he offered his child as its redeemer; of the promise of renewal inherent in the turning of another year.
As we grow older, our apprehension of childhood's sacred stories becomes more distant, though no less consequential. More often than we like to admit, we are like the Galway woman, who was asked by an American anthropologist whether she believed in fairies.
"I do not, sir," she said, "but they're there anyway."