A lot of people would see an enormous difference between acting and carpentry.
There is a relationship there in so far as in the business of working at a craft you have to do all the basic things. Like you have to have a script, you have to read it, you go in to rehearse and all the moves have to be worked out. The director and the actor, they discuss business, they invent business as they go along. Some things are accepted, some things are thrown out. And all that process goes into the making of a house. My father would often be in that sort of situation, in the renovation business, when he had to think of ways, on the spot, for doing it. And acting is very like that. I remember one time he had to move, you know, one of these large sheds made of poles. The farmer said it was too tall and he wanted it moved sixty feet down his field. So my father sat for ages thinking how he was going to do that. So then he came up with this plan. I don’t know where he got it. He cut the poles level with the ground, and when they would go down into the holes again that was sufficient for the farmer to lower the shed. Now he bolted planks along the sides of the poles, you see, and then he put planks on the ground as well.
He had fox wedges, they’re slender wedges, when you drive them one against the other they go from nothing up to three inches or so. It lifts a thing. If you drive in the narrow end from each side it lifts it up. So they're all lifted up a certain way. Then he got a number of handles, like handles for a shovel. These were rollers, And he put them underneath, you see. And all he had to do was to get a number of men and move it gently. And they moved it gently down along this track. It had to be braced, of course, just in case. Several people came along to see it and when it came over the new holes that were dug in the ground it was lowered down gradually, by taking the wedges out, until it sat in its place. Everyone thought that he would have to dismantle it, take out every nail, but he didn't. But the sequel to that was that one of the men watching, who wasn't a tradesman, didn't have any training really in this business, decided he could do it himself. And he set about all the things he had seen. The one thing he forgot to do was to brace the business and he moved it too quickly and the damn thing sat down. The crash of nails and corrrugated iron twisting.
And, of course, the world of pretence for the actors is a real world. If he weren't able to imagine to himself that that world is real, the world of pretence, I mean he'd have no business on the stage. Because if he's successful on the stage he makes it a real world for the audience down below. People so easily become involved in something on the stage, and they're lost to the world outside them while that is going on. First you have to believe yourself. There's no good in being a priest trying to convert a whole lot of Eskimos, if you don't believe in the thing you're selling them. You have to believe it explicitly yourself.
In many ways the whole discipline of the rehearsal and the doing of it, the business and the dialogue, it cuts a sort of groove in the brain and then, if you have the trust in the thing that is outside you, you must have absolute trust, you know, because a human being is so weak, he's really nothing in himself . . . And, strange enough, if you do have the trust, and let it go and relax that little bit, everything comes all right. The worried person, or the person who panics, is usually the person who makes the mistakes, who hasn't the faith. It's a question of faith once you're out there. And if you didn't have it rehearsed and if it wasn't there, each piece waiting to fall into the place after another one, you're going to make mistakes and you have to cover up and everyone will see it.
I was watching you pull the curtains which the designer used in 'A Winter's Tale' at the Peacock recently. Some of the people weren't quite sure what they should do with the curtains. You just marched up to them and pulled them out, as carefully and with as much concentration as you'd just played the scene.
You know, I would go to that curtain when everyone had gone, after we had rehearsed that day and say 'If I approach it a certain way, you know, I'm going to be bawise to it and it's going to look wrong'. So you would have to go several times to it, until you found out that there was a place that your hand would just go and catch it and it would come across. First you have to do it very mechancally and then you add the easy, sort of natural thing to it afterwards. But you have to go through the strict, mechanical sort of thing, defining exactly where it is. And sometimes, in business like that, if the business isn't wedded to the dialogue you'll either do the business very well and forget the lines, you know, or say the lines very well and mess the business. Both things will have to be wedded, they have to grow together, so that it looks as natural as the priest on the altar when he takes the chalice, you know, and genuflects and raises it up and brings it down again and genuflects again. Most priests do that in a most wonderful, graceful way. And then puts his hands out over the book. And it is his years, in older priests particularly, it is his years of practice in doing it which make it look so right.
It seems to me that that's the kind of conscientious approach which is fairly unusual in Irish theatre.
Frank O'Connor once told me that he would write and 'twas there, down on the page, it was about to go to the publishers and he would say 'I'll have one look through it again' and he would find that there were things in it that didn't strike him as exactly right. And he would re-write. And each time that he would do that he would find that it improved what he had written first. It's like the carpenter with the press. It has some sort of an awkwardness in the door or the place where the handle was put or something like that. Standing back and looking at it, he finds that by making these few extra adjustments to the thing that it is more pleasing to his own sense. People do depend a lot on 'It'll be allright', you know. That is all right, I think, in fiddle playing, you know. It's all right for musicians. I've discovered that as being a different world. One time, working with Seamus Ennis, who was in the audience down in Gorey, when he saw part of the rehearsal, he said, 'Eamon', he said, 'at that particular point, I'll play the pipes in the audience'. 'But', I said, 'I haven't rehearsed it, so you see, I can't do it'.
There's a contradiction there, though. You are both an actor, and doing your one-man shows, a seanchaí
A storyteller, yes, which is very much in the line of the traditional fiddler.
Because the storyteller in the kitchen, at the drop of a hat he'd tell a story. But actually, what has happened, and it happened unknown to me, is that I have to make it live for two hours in front of an audience and on a stage. I wasn't by a fireside anymore. And when you're in a plane you fly it, when you're in a car you drive it. I'm in a different place. So that it had to be changed. I had to get up off my ass, off the chair, and I had to move to other places, to make it interesting visually. It's very much like – not comparing somebody that's really wonderful with somebody like me – but it's very like what Sean O'Riada did with music. He took it out of that particular place, with the musicians sitting around, and they were no longer in the kitchen, they were on the public platform now, and he orchestrated it, he arranged it, he had the fiddle coming in here, he had the melodeon coming in there, and he got all his effects. You never had that before. In the ceilí band everyone thumped together at the same time, the whole lot of them went on together in a big blare of noise.
On radio, where I told the stories first, it didn't demand that. I was nearer to the fireside and it is still the best medium for a storyteller because, as he paints the verbal picture, the person who doesn't see can fill in the background for it wonderfully well. Then television was the second place where I did them and the camera could give the variety – different shots, you know, close-up and two-shot and all that kind of thing, and just maybe one or two small movements. But I found on the stage that I had to adapt the entire thing and have a number of stories. I would work the visual interest into the links between the stories. So the show is made up of a number of stories and a number of links which go from one story into another, which has to be done so well for the actual show itself that you're not quite certain where one ended . . . the seam in the weave shouldn't show. If it does then the pictures are going too slow, like in the old projectors.
The stories are not at all Irish in the sense of a self-conscious, pious, nationalistic Irishness. They're not at all puritan.
This is one of the things that very few people realise about Ireland. It's very like what I saw in France one time, and what the French have, where they are in the centre of the world and nothing else matters. Very often you will find that kind of feeling in places in Munster and in Connacht. And they were never actively engaged in the fight for a republic. As a matter of fact, they were part of a bigger, human sort of a thing. And that is why, in most of the stories, you will scarcely ever find a reference to the Fenians or whatever. I went to America and I was being interviewed by a fellow for radio and he said to me, he said, 'You are a seanchaí. Is it not right that the seancai was chased by the Redcoats and had to go higher and higher up the mountain until finally they dragged him down and shot him. . . ' He had all this business, you see, this was a national hero coming out to talk about Ireland's great fight for freedom.
It's all right to be talking about England and Ireland and that sort of thing, but they never regarded Ireland as something that was seperate, away from the world, you know. They talked about America most of the time, because the people went to America and they were coming back from America and they were bringing stories of America back. And you'd be talking about this man McKenna – well he went some place, Boston, Mass – they always put in the Mass or the Conneticut or whatever. So that you would hear 'I remember the last time I heard of him now, he told me he was in the Bowery, that he'd gone down a little bit.'
As if it was over the road.
As if it was over the road, yes. Strangely, in its seclusion, as it were, it was part of a bigger thing. And lots of the older stories, of course, they have to do with the fundamental things of life, like love and the chase and fighting and food and things of that kind. The things that you do hear about are landlords. But they don't talk about them in an English sense. They just talk about them as somebody who charged rent.
I remember a line in one of your stories, about a wedding, where the newly-married couple go off to their room. And the line goes something like: 'People had enough upbringing at the time not to remark on what was natural'.
You don't have this skittish thing about an open sexual relationship between a man and a woman. They went up and they put the box press against the door. Nobody commented. In some places there would be a certain amount of notice taken of it and people would forget their manners so much as to remark on it.
It seemed to suggest, in a broader sense, that so long as you did no one no harm, your business was your business.
There was something of that. If you didn't, as you say, impinge on other people, make them uncomfortable, make them suffer, well, that was your business then. Maybe they used to preach a little bit but not a great deal. They were, all those people, deprived people, really. They were people who really had it very hard to live and they were dispossessed in many ways, and things like that. And what saved them was the sense of humour, the sense of the ridiculous.
We're talking a lot in the past tense. The kind of Ireland that you're talking about in you stories, do you think that it's still there or will last?
No, it's not. And nobody, least of all me, would want it to last. Because life dies if it doesn't change. I think life abhors anything else. That is why I don't hold with people who say they want to keep Ireland this way or that way. But to say that we should have that sort of life back, like many of the things we want to keep, many of our traditions and beliefs and attitudes to life that we want to keep – that means stagnation.
Setting those stories in the past is a convention, as far as I'm concerned. And it also helps me to colour in all the things, because I'm drawing from the experiences of my own childhood. A great lot of the detail which I would fill into a story is very true. I can even hear voices, almost. Strange the things that stick in one's mind, you know. Possibly, very important things were just passing by, floating by and I didn't notice them at all. It selects, you see. It holds onto some things dearly, just holds on to them and other things it dismisses.
As a matter of fact, they say that as one gets older it's the earlier years one remembers. Whatever is the process whereby it sticks in the brain, that this is ever fresh. My father suffered a stroke before he died. His early childhood and maybe his teens and his twenties – he talked about those people all the time, he didn't remember anything about yesterday, he didn't remember the recent past at all. So maybe it is that things are stored when the blood was running red and fresh, when everything was young.
INTERVIEW BY DAVID McKENNA