By the light of oil lamps, crowds have been enjoying the unique atmosphere of Bygone Days Storytelling House for 16 years. Now a leaky roof poses a threat to the famous thatched cottage enterprise, writes Amy Lewis.
Untold tales, thoughtful rhymes and jovial melodies have been shared before the blazing fire at the Bygone Days Storytelling House for 16 years and with a bit of luck and generosity, locals are hoping that its story can continue. Nestled in the village of Oulart, the thatched cottage has been at the heart of the community for longer than any of its current residents can remember.
Built in the 1700s by the road on which horses and coaches once made the slow journey to Dublin, it served as a family home until the 1990s when it was bought by local man Jim Mythen. However, it was not until 2000 that local residents decided to thatch and refurbish the cottage and make it the storytelling hub that it is today.
Each month since then, crowds of 50 to 60 people duck under the half door of the cottage and huddle into the low-lit room in the centre of the cottage.
Visitors are immediately met by a sense of warmth, not only due to the blazing fire that heats the old-world room, but because of the welcoming atmosphere that the place exudes. This is a place where people can share their stories, sing a tune or just simply, sit and listen.
The festivities of the evenings have long been presided over by local man John Dempsey – who has served as Fear an Tí since the very beginning – along with his wife Eileen. Together with owner Jim and members of a committee of locals, the pair have kept the fire burning in the storytelling house for 16 years.
‘We were involved with the local panto for years and when the house was vacant, we decided to try a storytelling night. The first one was on 20 June, 2000, and the crowds have been growing since then,’ explained Eileen.
‘Since then, we have run it on the first Monday of every month. There have only been four nights that we missed due to things such as bereavements and snow.’
Although the house has no electricity or running water, the group manage to cater for huge crowds regularly with the help of old oil lamps converted with bulbs and a a power source brought in from Jim Mythen’s home.
The huge old-style open fire is also a source of light in itself, and with its crane and fanners, it is as much an attraction as the festivities.
The monthly sessions aren’t advertised but according to Eileen, the audience continues to grow.
Since it was established, the house has welcomed storytellers, musicians and visitors from across the globe, including Cork-born storyteller Jack Lynch and various other well-known voices from destinations as far away as Australia.
Under the dim lighting of converted oil lamps, they have ignited the imaginations of many with tales of love, loss and everything in between.
However, the house is not only a place for seasoned performers to find a platform.
‘Our motto is leave your feeling on the gate post coming in,’ said Eileen.
‘There is a fantastic atmosphere here. It is a place where everyone is able to relax and people just seem to sit and talk to one another. People don’t have to perform. There is no pressure put on anyone.’
Along with sharing stories, everyone who visits the cottage also is offered the chance to share some homemade food and refreshments. It always serves as welcome fuel for the guests, particularly the performers, who often keep the stories and music going well into the early hours of the morning.
At certain times of the year, Eileen and co also dish up some local specialities, such as bacon and cabbage in June and colcannon in November. January always proves to be a big favourite as 11,000 locally-caught herring are cooked up for the masses, while at Christmas, each and every guest goes home with a present.
In a world that is governed by the internet and modern technologies, Bygone Days is a place where old traditions remain strong. However, these traditions could soon become a distant memory. The future of Bygone Days Storytelling House has become precarious due to a leak in the roof and if it is not fixed soon, the story of Oulart’s famous thatched cottage could come to a sad end.
‘The leak is really bad. Last December we had rain coming in on the people sitting there. We have covered it with a sheet but it needs to be fixed. We can’t have water pouring in here on people,’ said Eileen.
‘We are looking into getting funding but we don’t know if we will receive it.’
In an effort to save their local haunt, members of the committee will soon host a fundraiser night in the Riverside House Hotel to brew up some much-needed funds.
It will be the first of many such evenings and the first step towards raising the €22,000 that will be needed to provide a new roof.
Performers from days gone by will gather in the hotel on September 25 to share a little piece of the Bygone’s magic with the public. A night of music, stories and dancing will ensue, with plenty of craic and nostalgia sprinkled in with it.
Tickets will soon be on sale from the hotel and from members of the Bygone Days Storytelling House committee for €10 each. Eileen is calling on people from across the county to offer their support so that the cottage can remain standing.
‘The building itself is very historical, having been there since before 1798. It would be a shame to see it go as we have already lost so many similar places around the country,’ said Eileen.
‘It would be a big loss to the many people who come here if it couldn’t continue. It serves as an outlet for many people, particularly those who don’t go to the pub as it is a place that they can go to meet people and share their stories.’
Eileen and co are hoping to attract a large crowd to their fundraiser in September and hope that their involvement in an episode of Epic Days on RTE at the weekend will have stirred up some more interest.
‘Without our nights here the house would have been long gone. We have managed to keep it up and alive and if we manage to re-thatch the roof, we hope to enjoy more years of laughter, music, song, stories and craic for possibly another 16 years,’ said Eileen.
(First published in the Gorey Guardian newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.independent.ie/regionals/newrossstandard/localnotes/house-of-storytelling-ignites-the-imagination-34969293.html)