Packy Jim: Folklore and Worldview on the Irish Border has just been published. Folklorist Ray Cashman recounts both his experience of meeting Packy Jim McGrath and how folklore can be used to critique today’s society.
In 1998 I was a novice fieldworker conducting ethnographic research in Aghyaran, Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland. I arrived in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement followed by the bombing of Omagh, a time of new hope tempered by familiar tragedy. What drew my attention was stories people told about themselves at wakes and ceilis (nighttime social visits), the kind of stories that appeal to a sense of shared local identity and history that undermines the divisive claims of sectarian affiliation. My preoccupations with politics and community aligned with many in Aghyaran who used storytelling to cope and comprehend after three decades of violence. But of course this was only one meaningful strand, only one perspective on the interestingly complicated borderlands between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
While conducting that research, having claimed to be a folklorist, I was continually told to visit one elderly or gregarious person after another. One in particular was recommended time and again: “You want real folklore? Packy Jim is your man.” My charge was never to turn down a lead, to cast my nets widely, so eventually I crossed the border and trekked into the mountains of Co. Donegal in search of Packy Jim.
The man I found was much as he had been described, living alone and self-sufficient in a rustic stone house without benefit of electricity, running water, or near neighbors. He reminded me powerfully of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden persona; his surroundings put one in mind of W. B. Yeats’s “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Whatever one’s reaction to introspective iconoclasts in bee-loud glades might be, Packy Jim undeniably has a quick wit, a formidable way with words, and an unmatched talent for glossing almost any thread of conversation with an appropriate story, song, or recitation. His store of memory is vast. Having grown up on a secluded smuggling route, he had heard the news, songs, and stories of several generations of men and women who stopped to pass the time until cover of darkness allowed the border’s unofficial economy to resume. Packy Jim says that in these early years he was all ears, but now it is his turn to talk.
It is exhilarating to find someone who embellishes everyday conversation with stories of ghosts and fairies, heroic outlaws, and hateful landlords—the stuff folklorists traditionally seek. And yet, although an older model of folklore collecting had brought me to him, over the years my interest in Packy Jim has matured through greater familiarity and friendship to focus less on the stuff, the lore, and more on the uses to which he puts it.
Over the years my interest in Packy Jim has matured through greater familiarity and friendship to focus less on the stuff, the lore, and more on the uses to which he puts it.
That is, I have come to better appreciate that—when conversation is two-way and free-flowing—Packy Jim uses narratives from a range of traditional genres to comprehend and critique his own society, while at the same time presenting a coherent moral self. Packy Jim is as much a storyteller working within a vernacular tradition of Irish narrative that we may wish to appreciate in its own right, as he is an individual using available narratives to compose a song of the self.
As Mikhail Bakhtin tells us, our mouths are full of the words of others, but such a formulation should not challenge our faith in individual agency or indeed genius: which words, and how spoken, matter. Packy Jim’s talent and dexterity with the inexhaustible potential of narrative guarantees that he is no more contained between his hat and boots than was Walt Whitman. Neither is Packy Jim shackled by tradition when he trades in handed-down words, images, and stories to order his complicated world of deep-seated mentalities and provocative change. To use Claude Levi-Strauss’s memorable term, Packy Jim is a bricoleur, a crafty recycler who constructs new possibilities out of available handed-down raw materials, meeting present needs.
Listen to Packy Jim recount the origin of the fairies in the following video. It’s a good story well told. It establishes a vision of the cosmos, how it came into being, what roles humans and spiritual beings are meant to play, and how it will all come to an end.
Cosmology, ontology, teleology, and eschatology are weighty matters perhaps best articulated and comprehended through narrative. But consider also that this story serves Packy Jim as a springboard for social commentary and as an index of his personal orientations. Packy Jim as bricoleur masters this story because he needs this story. The slings and arrows of this world—from fairy mischief to difficult neighbors—have a primal sacred origin. Tradition provides Packy Jim both an explanation for hardship and a charter for his own moral behavior, helping him comprehend injustice and have faith that, in the end, the deserving will triumph. You would not be able to adduce much of that from the text of this story alone. Understanding the broader significance of this story—and all the stories in his repertoire—requires paying attention to how Packy Jim uses stories, parable-like, as glosses in longer conversations. It requires appreciating how he tells one story to amplify another, how stories build contexts of meaning for each other. Such contextualization—paying attention to the interplay of text and context—requires patience, and it reveals a worldview that is both idiosyncratic and shared—a testament to individual intelligence and talent, and a window into Irish vernacular culture.
is an associate professor of folklore at Indiana University. He is the author of Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border, which won both the Chicago Folklore Prize of the American Folklore Society and the Donald Murphy Prize of the American Conference for Irish Studies. He is a coeditor of The Individual and Tradition: Folkloristic Perspectives.