The Art of Storytelling – Alive and Well

Photos by Mary O’KEEFE Montrose resident Bill Howard recently performed his storytelling show at the Irish Festival in Pomona. Above Howard does his rendition of the classic Celtic story, Finn MacCool.
Photos by Mary O’KEEFE
Montrose resident Bill Howard recently performed his storytelling show at the Irish Festival in Pomona. Above Howard does his rendition of the classic Celtic story, Finn MacCool.

By Mary O’KEEFE and Charly SHELTON

St. Patrick’s Day is Sunday. The celebration in America is a tradition that was carried on the ships that crossed the Atlantic filled with Irish immigrants. The first wave arrived during Colonial times; the second and largest group of Irish immigrants came primarily due to the Potato Blight in 1845. A fungus destroyed the crops and starvation killed about a million people in Ireland, which was under English rule. In the 1840s, nearly half of all immigrants in the U.S. were Irish, according to the Library of Congress.

The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day was a way to keep the Irish culture alive in their newly adopted land and remains a celebration today. Beyond the green beer and cartoon leprechauns, there are strong Irish traditions that remain a part of the celebration. Most restaurants, and many in Montrose and Crescenta Valley, will offer corned beef, cabbage and potato dinners.

Another tradition is that of the seanchaî, the storyteller.

Storytelling is a lost art form. It has gone the way of the dodo for the most part, with a handful of storytellers still trying to keep it alive, advocating to their audiences the importance of remembering stories and songs passed down through the ages from parent to child for generations.

Montrose resident Bill Howard is one of those valiant few who tours the Southland telling his stories to those who will listen – be they young or old.

“I will either hear a story from someone, but more likely than that is I will find it in a collection of folklore,” said Howard. “And I will read the story over a couple of times and then take some notes on it and get the gist of the story, just to get the shape of the story.  And then instead of memorizing it word for word, I will use the shape and put my own words to it. It’s a little bit like jazz.”

Howard has been telling stories for practically his whole life, coming from “a family of talkers” who loved to tell jokes and stories around the dinner table. So when he made the transition from a folk singer to storyteller, it seemed very natural.

After his introduction to storytelling at the L.A. County Fair, he fell into teaching other storytellers to perform at libraries or on their own anywhere else. He also trained teachers who would use storytelling in the classroom, as Howard himself does as an English teacher at Sylmar High School.

“I dusted off a few stories [for the fair] and I realized that up to that time I had been telling stories in class all the time. When I was teaching Antigone, I would tell the story of Oedipus with particularly ghoulish glee as he is pulling out his eyes and things like that.  So I had been telling a hell of a lot of stories up to that time, but I had never really thought of myself as a storyteller.”

After being a freelance storyteller for years, Howard is taking a break for a while. He still does the occasional storytelling event, specifically the Irish Fair in Pomona and the Riverside Dickens festival, but the library tours and such have been put on the back burner while he is a full-time English teacher of 40 years and a family man.

“But even at school there’s a bit of a problem,” continued Howard. “More and more what they want classroom teachers to do is to follow the rubric. To be a classroom storyteller means you have got to be an individual and they aren’t looking for individualism in teachers, they are looking to see how well you stay on track with the rest of the people in your department. And so taking a half a period to tell about Finn MacCool or about Oedipus Rex or Sir Galahad and the Lonely Lady doesn’t quite fit in anymore. So even giving teacher seminars, that kind of stuff is not what they want.”

Though he has been downplaying storytelling due either to lack of interest in his key demographic or the pressures to conform to the rubric in the classroom, Howard plans to return to storytelling after retiring from teaching.  However his message with each show remains the same – remember the stories. Write them down, record them or memorize them. These stories are passed from generation to generation.

Howard celebrated the art of storytelling at last weekend’s Irish Fair in Pomona. Held a week before St. Patrick’s Day, the fair was a way to kick off the Celtic celebration.  Bill Lomas, CEO of the Friends of the Irish, brought the fair to Pomona 11 years ago.

“My wife at the time was a Murphy and a Fitzpatrick,” he said. “We love the Irish.”

His wife has since passed away but the fair continues to be a popular pre-St. Patrick’s Day celebration. There are always many Irish bands, including Ken O’Malley and the Twilight Lords, and plenty of Irish food from corned beef to Irish bangers.

Lomas said one of the more popular exhibits at the fair is the Renaissance Village where medieval-type clothing was sold and ancient Celtic games were played.

Because of the popularity of this area, Lomas is working on expanding the village for next year.

“You don’t have to be Irish to enjoy the fair,” Lomas added.

Another tradition for St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration at pubs and restaurants but the L.A. County Sheriff’s Dept. urges motorists to not drink and drive, or have a designated driver plan. DUI Task Force will be set up throughout the county in an effort to keep the roads safe.