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Issue Date: April 2003 Issue


The Storytellers


Christopher Johnston

So, have you heard the one about the Irishman who walked into a bar to apply for a job and 10 years later walked out the owner? No, this isn't a joke. It's a story — a story about a storyteller. The Irishman is Brendan Ring, proprietor of Nighttown restaurant and bar. Top of Cedar Hill, Cleveland Heights. (This part of the arr-tickle is best read in da t'ickest Irish brogue yew can conjure in yer head, as if Himself were tellin' ya.)

Brendan Ring's Favorite Story

It was 1916, and for about nine months before the revolution in Ireland, my grandfather had been working as an undercover operator in the Marconi telegraph station. His father was the manager of the station, so no one suspected him.

About a year prior to the revolution, he sent out a message to a guy in Newfoundland that he was trying to sell a bicycle. See, the British had a censor in the station, where the transatlantic cable was, so my grandfather said, "Let me send out a really ludicrous message and see if they think it's code."

Well, no one grabbed it, so he started sending out messages about a Mrs. Moriarty who was pregnant. "Dear Joe, her pregnancy is progressing as expected." This was the code that had been passed on to a writer at The New York Times by Eamon De Valera, one of the leaders of the Irish Nationalist movement, on his trips to America.

Then the revolution erupted in Dublin on Easter Sunday, 1916. The British shut down all lines of communication out of Ireland. They didn't want the world to know that this was happening, because they were going to quell it in two days. So they had censors monitor all the cable stations. But here comes my grandfather's innocuous message, "Mrs. Moriarty successfully operated on today." The following morning The New York Times' headline was: "Revolution in Dublin. News comes from a fishing village in the West Coast of Ireland of Revolution in Dublin."

Well, the message could only come from one fishing village for starters, because that's where the cable was, so they came to the station, and my grandfather and his brother Tim were the operators that were on the night the message was sent. Because my grandfather had children, all they did was exile him to the mainland two miles away, where he stayed the rest of his life, for many years with an old British soldier guarding him outside his door. They sent Tim to a brutal prison camp in Wales called Frongoch, which in Irish terms is like saying "Auschwitz" to a Jewish person. He came back in 1919 a broken man and died about six months later.

When my grandfather died in 1984, because he was an old IRA man, the men carrying the coffin on their shoulders to the gravesite were accompanied by about 800 people and two undercover cops. They went in. Put the coffin down. The priest said his thing. Next thing, out from behind the fence come three guys in balaclavas and berets. They stand over the coffin, let off a volley of shots. The cops are trying to get through the crowd. The guys disappear over the fence, get in the car and they're gone. So it was theatrics right down to the end. And today, the National Museum of Broadcasting in Dublin has the actual Morse key on which my grandfather sent the message.

Anyway, this Ring fella is an honest-to-God shanachie, a teller of old tales, sort of, and he charms all who enter his saloon by leaning into a personal conversation with them at the bar, asking them, "What's your story?" Then listening. Everyone is rich with stories. The human experience is a great thing. Or he regales them with his own, drawn from a repertoire as vast as the Irish Sea, an oral anthology of colorful characters and their funny, crazy or dangerous exploits. Just ask his customers. Go ahead. Prowl the bar, like he does. All the regulars will tell you, "Oh yes, he can really spin them."

How could he not? Ring was born in a place called Cahersiveen, for godsakes. "The town of Siveen." Named for a Celtic princess whose 500-year-old — 500! — castle still stands outside of town. County Kerry. The West Country. Southwest tip of Ireland, a quaint coastal village with 2,500 people and 52 bars. Where it only rains twice a week: the first time for three days, the second time for four.

Where Ring's grandfather, Eugene, was one of the founders of the Irish Republican Army, whose punishment for his role in the Easter Rebellion of 1916 was banishment from the island in the harbor to the mainland, forever branding his family "The Exiles."

Where Ring's father, Owen, turned down a reporter job with The Daily Mirror in London to stay and care for his dying mother, working his way through various well-intended, ill-fated ventures — little things, milk run, coal delivery, this, that and the other thing. Regretful. Writing secretly in his office, where his son often stumbled onto great, unpublished prose.

Instead of a journalist, he became a storyteller. Point to any person, any shop in town, any rock in the bay, and he could spin you a yarn. Keep you enthralled, as he so often did at the kitchen table. Or on the street. Or at the bar. With kids in tow after football games.

Wait. Do you know how our boyo got his name? For a time in the '60s, his father's business was commercial fishing. Once, in 1963, while Owen ruminated on his wife, who was near delivering another baby, a fog came down. No compass could be found. The fishermen heard the surf pounding, but they couldn't see it. Like all Irish guys, what's there to do but drop to your knees and say a rosary to St. Brendan, the patron saint of navigators? "If Brendan delivers us from this predicament," Owen vowed, "I'll name my son Brendan." Of course, the fog lifted right there and then. Well, actually, it was six hours later. Has to be a good dose of blarney involved or it's not worth the tellin', you know. So for the sake of story, the sun burst through there and then, and the next Ring had a name.

"I think the storytelling started with my father," says Ring's sister Derdriu, an actress, who recently appeared in "Proof" at the Cleveland Play House. Herself named for a Celtic mythical figure, Derdriu of the Sorrows. "Brendan's just like him in that he tells a story with a strong beginning, middle and really good catch always at the end."

Ah, he was also born into a time when old people, like his grandda and grandma, were still respected and lived out their lives in their families' homes. There were no old-folks homes in Cahersiveen. Now, there are two.

Back then, stories, the oral tradition, were critical forms of entertainment. The banshees hadn't yet been chased off by electricity. There were no TVs. Well, there was the one the harnessmaker put in the middle of the street for everyone to watch the moon landing in 1969, while the old fellas argued it was a CIA plot. The harnessmaker is gone. Plasma TVs and the Internet thrive all over Ireland.

While growing up, Brendan was sent to engineering school, English school. Everything. Couldn't do any of it. But what he could do was talk to people. "The reason I could do it was because I'd been doing it since I was 4 or 5 years old," says he. "I'd be in the back of the milk truck with my dad in the morning. The old people would be coming out, talking about the weather, the fishing, the sky, this, that and the other thing. You'd listen to them, how they'd talk, then you could talk to anybody."

Of course, there was also the tailor, Michael Dan O'Shea, who'd call the kids into his shop for a cup o' tea and a chat as they walked home from school. He'd put on the old gramophone records that would spill forth with forbidden, jumping jazz. He'd sew clothes and weave stories at the same time. Sometimes breaking out his old Blue Shirt uniform from the '30s, representing the Irish equivalent of the Nazis. Sure, it was in the schoolbooks, but why not learn it firsthand? There's no degree for storytellers. No, ye met the scholars comin' home.

"The only t'ing I ever got an A in my life was history, because I liked that," Ring reveals. "A lot of the history, especially Irish history, was interspersed with truisms from these old people that you could always throw into your essays and whoever was marking them couldn't not love it. So there."

So little did he like school that he found a way out of finals his second year of college. But it wasn't entirely his fault. He's a troublesome youth out drinking late one December night who finds a motorcycle with a key in it. He takes it. Naturally. Once his arm heals from the crash, his father sends him to New York — St. Patrick's Day, 1984 — just for the summer, to make a man out of him. Brendan knows he'll never come back. How could he after taking the No. 1 train and emerging from the subway onto Fifth Avenue, the whole teeming sea of humanity worlds away from a little fishing village in Ireland?

He tends bar in Manhattan, adding chapters and chapters of stories to the ol' noggin. He even flirts with becoming a writer, with the encouragement of his teacher, Philip Roth, no less. But he doesn't have the discipline.

In 1992, his wife gets transferred to Cleveland, Ohio. "Cleveland?" his beloved barflies groan. The only thing to do there is drive a truck, Ring reckons. Till one day, our Irishman finds something to save his life when he walks into a bar. The interview doesn't go well, so he starts to walk out. The owner, John Barr, a maverick's maverick, asks him to stay. Ten years later, Barr asks his younger partner to buy him out. Now, Nighttown, named for the red-light district in Dublin as depicted in James Joyce's "Ulysses," is his.

Next thing you know, he trades tales — often into the wee small hours of the morning, with a bottle of whiskey to oil discussions — with the likes of Wynton Marsalis or the Three Irish Tenors or Terry Sullivan, GQ's food writer, who proclaimed Nighttown one of the two best restaurant bars in America.

Without a place to share stories every day, Ring says, he would die. So God gave him the great, sprawling serial novel that is Nighttown. Ask him about "The Case of the Abducted Bust" or "The 80-Year-Old Seductress." Joyce would be proud. Ask him about any of the myriad pieces of art hanging on the wall. Each a story. Especially the newer prints he's added of people hanging out in saloons. Ghostly portraits. Everyone in a bar is a ghost.

Still, in Ring's storied heart, often to the dismay of longtime staff who've memorized many of his yarns, Ireland reigns forever. "I was so lucky to grow up where I did, see the things I saw, hear the things I heard in that little town," Himself remarks. "We spent endless hours with old people as a kid, and it always seemed to me that the poorest people were the richest people in what they gave to me." So there.

Urban Griot

Barbara Eady is an urban griot. The griots were the poet laureates, the keepers of history, the storytellers back in the African villages. But Eady carries on their legacy in post-industrial Cleveland. Oh, she may have earned a living as a social worker since 1979, and she certainly has improved many people's lives doing so. But she's a storyteller, too.

From her work as a therapist, she learned not to tell people what to do, but to help them figure out for themselves how to do it. Similar to the impact of a good story told. Instead of telling listeners not to go into the dangerous woods, the griot brings a tale to life about why the woods are dangerous and what happens when you enter them unprepared.

Eady did not come to her role as storyteller unprepared. As a child in Cleveland's Glenville neighborhood during the 1960s and '70s, she was adept at being seen but not heard. She lived with the civil-rights movement, since her mother was secretary of the NAACP. She learned of the great migration north from roomers who stayed in her family's home until they could get settled. She came from a family of readers, but she became frustrated when she would recommend her favorite novels to friends and they wouldn't read them. She joined Toastmasters to challenge herself in public speaking competitions. She flourished, but realized her best speeches were stories.

She changed everything for herself in 1990, by reading a book about African-American storytellers called "Talk That Talk." She did just that. First, by calling one of the authors, Linda Goss, a founder of the National Association of Black Storytellers, at her home in Philadelphia. "It was the boldest thing I had ever done," Eady recalls. "It wasn't talking to her, but just making the call that changed my life."

She declared herself a storyteller to anyone who'd listen. Including that handsome librarian who checked out her books at Martin Luther King Library. The one who asked her to tell stories the next February for Black History Month. She said, "Yes," even though she had never seen anyone actually tell a story. She learned five stories and told four. "Can you tell another?" the enthused kids asked. "Certainly," the enthused Eady answered.

Five years later, she co-founded the Cleveland Association of Black Storytellers, an affiliate to the national organization. She remains president and continues to enchant audiences locally and at regional and national festivals.

Now, when she's telling a story, there's something regal about Barbara Eady's bearing and her soft, melodious voice. The textured wisdom etched in her face. She looks like an African queen, says her longtime friend and fellow storyteller Jocelyn Dabney. Perhaps that's why she can so elegantly channel the many tragic and triumphant characters who occupy the stories of the African, then African-American experience.

Many of her stories are about captivity. Africa as the Dark Continent has only grown darker over the centuries, marred by unspeakable human-rights transgressions, from slavery to imperialist theft of natural resources to apartheid. As the Africans say, "A story is like the wind. It comes from a far-off place and we feel it."

African Americans, of course, feel these stories from Mother Africa very deeply. More so since they've had the opportunity to freely learn and study them. Still, they bear their own haunted history in the land of the free, home of the brave. Those are the stories Eady prefers to mine, telling of the non-famous people whose acts of quiet heroism are as inspiring as the better- known achievements of a growing list of heroic figures, a George Washington Carver, say, or a Thurgood Marshall, a Rosa Parks, a Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Like the story of Tempie Durham's wedding, in Tempie's words as told through Eady. Tempie was a slave in North Carolina who was allowed to marry Exeter Durham, who belonged to Massa Snipes Durham. She portrays the whole wedding story beautifully, pulling out the humor of these decent, simple folk who find love in the most hateful environment imaginable. Even though they could only see each other once a week, they managed to propagate that love by having 11 children, "nine born before surrender, two born after we was set free. I was worth a whole heap to Massa George, 'cuz I had so many children," Tempie declares, in a show of black family strength and survival in times of greatest adversity.

Ultimately, as a griot, Eady carries an awesome responsibility to document the African-American experience. It cannot be left to others, who may omit these stories or not understand them or ignore the ones that make them uncomfortable but are profound to the black experience. "It is important that we know and feel good about who we really are," Eady asserts, "and not limit our self-image to an image that's given to us."

Finding the Village

Funny how some people, no matter how much has been taken from them, continue to give. That's Florence Toledo if you had to summarize her, which you couldn't possibly do in a sentence. But if you had to.

For many years, growing up in a city far from the reservation, further from the heritage that should have been hers as an American Indian, Toledo was unsure of her roots. Her father, whose mother was Cheyenne, had grown tired of farming and fishing in Alabama, so he moved here after World War I to find work as an auto mechanic. Many other Native Americans later came here as part of an elaborate federal plan in the 1950s and '60s to transplant them to a dozen cities, including Cleveland. Ostensibly, the goal was to help them find jobs. In reality, uprooting them merely cut them off from their cultural heritage, setting them adrift in unfamiliar urban settings and significantly diluting blood lines through intermarriage.

Florence, however, was fortunate to meet and marry a man, John Toledo, who had been relocated in the early '60s. He was a full-blooded Pueblo from New Mexico, who, despite relocation, remained closely in touch with his heritage. John inspired Florence to do the same. "I didn't have a lot of knowledge of my dad's background," she says. "But my husband got me more interested and involved in native people per se, and I ended up knowing more about his culture than my own."

Then John died in 1978. Toledo had to raise a daughter, Marie. So she found a way to earn by giving, though in many cases she was volunteering. She taught at schools. She taught at the American Indian Educational Center. In 1994, a Hispanic friend who did puppetry and storytelling in the community told her she'd make a great storyteller. She wasn't convinced. But she gave it a try. After all, it was another way to give.

"I didn't know squat about storytelling before I got into it," confesses the tell-it-like-it-is storyteller. For a 71-year-old, she's pretty darn cool, as evidenced by the fact that the owners and chef at Tastebuds restaurant on Superior Avenue, a frequent haunt of her daughter, all greet Toledo and press her for the latest update on the delivery status of her first grandchild. A boy, they learn.

But back to our story. A teacher friend took Toledo into the Old Brooklyn school system, where another teacher introduced her to a children's book called "Crow and Weasel" by Barry Lopez. She immediately fell in love with the tale of the two mythic Plains Indian characters in a time when animals could talk, who set out from their village on a series of hair-raising exploits and come back heroes who bring pride to their tribe. Her mission, then, was to find puppets she could use to enliven and illustrate her stories for the children.

So here she is giving again, and someone still wants to take away from her. Not who you might expect, however. "There's a lot of skepticism out there," Toledo sighs. "So, a lot of times, people question you: ‘Who gave you authority to do this storytelling?' "

Within the Native American culture, you see, purists believe many stories are only to be told to other Native Americans. For many years, they had to be kept secret for fear of punishment. Now, these purists hold, only modified versions should be shared with non-Natives, according to Ellen Baird, a Native American storyteller and development director of the Little Moccasin Feat Project in Norwich, Ohio.

Characteristically, Toledo responds with a laugh at this notion, this attempt to prevent her telling important stories that entertain and teach, stories that come from more than 500 tribes and often convey the same message in a hundred different ways: coming-of-age stories, adult stories, funny stories, tragic stories.

"I figure, hey, I'm 71," she says. "I earned the right to be a little bit independent." With that, she bundles herself against this winter's arctic embrace in a down vest and jacket and a purple hat she pulls down around her eyes, and walks down Superior Avenue on her way to visit her grandson. After all, there's one more person in the world now with whom she can share her stories.


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