Stories for the Irish in us all

COURTESY PHOTO | Storyteller and singer Jim Hawkins with his bodhrán.

COURTESY PHOTO | Storyteller and singer Jim Hawkins with his bodhrán.

When March rolls around, lovers of all things Irish start making plans for corned beef dinners and Celtic inspired cultural programs to satisfy their annual need for the green.

Fortunately for Islanders, there will be a bit of both coming up in the days ahead.

On Friday, March 11, Shelter Island Library welcomes Jim Hawkins and his “Stories and Songs From the Irish Tradition.” His presentations offer different themes in Irish history, culture and tradition.

“And, very generally, I put a story and a song together,” he told the Reporter last week in a phone interview.

Some stories he shares are those he’s written himself while others come straight from Irish literature. The songs tend to be traditional Irish tunes that he often sings while playing the bodhrán and Mr. Hawkins describes his overall format as a “comeallya,” a melding of the phrase “come all of you.”

“Many years ago when people got together before the time of electricity, they came to socialize, sing, dance, tell stories,” Mr. Hawkins said. “People would get together on a regular basis.”

“The main point was for a social life and many times in farming communities, that’s where people would find out what was going on with the crops, who needed what done, how they could help,” he said. “They would also play music, sing and dance.”

The son of Irish immigrants, Mr. Hawkins was born in Queens, but he spent part of his youth in Ireland where he credits his Uncle Jack for sparking his interest in sharing stories.

“My Uncle Jack was not a trained storyteller, but he had this wonderful ability for telling them,” Mr. Hawkins said. “I’d be down at his house, which was 200 yards down the road from ours. I’m an only child so his sons and daughters were very much my brothers and sisters.”

“Uncle Jack was a night person, I’d be at the house and he’d tell stories about local events. I was fascinated,” he said. “He’d start with a general story and bring in other people from the community who were somehow involved. Then neighbors would tell about local events.

“Even as a kid I recognized there was something magical about it.”

At the age of 10, Mr. Hawkins and his family returned to the U.S. and settled in New York. Mr. Hawkins admits that going from rural life in Ireland to the concrete jungle of the Big Apple made for a rough transition. But he never forgot his uncle’s stories, and after graduating from college and becoming a teacher, storytelling became an integral part of his own life as well.

Among the tales he tells in his presentations these days are several historic ones — including a piece by Sean O’Casey about the Irish Rebellion of 1916.

“He’s one of Ireland’s great dramatists and he does two pieces on the rebellion of 1916,” explained Mr. Hawkins. “One is his observation of two elderly people watching what became known as the I.R.A., then the Irish Citizen Army, take over the post office.

“The other is a great eulogy, like the Gettysburg Address,” he said.

But it’s not all serious and Mr. Hawkins likes to liven up his presentations with stories by Eamon Kelly, whom he describes as looking at the world
“with great wisdom and humor.” He also throws an Irish poem into the mix from time to time.

“One I usually do that is humorous is set in Northern Ireland,” Mr. Hawkins said. “It’s about a Protestant going to heaven. When he gets there and looks around, he realizes it looks just like Belfast. He’s very happy with himself  —  then he notices everything is run by Catholics.”

“Jim Hawkins: Stories and Songs from the Irish Tradition” is Saturday, March 11 at 1 p.m. at the Shelter Island Library. For more information, call (631) 749-0042.

For the corned beef and cabbage, stop by Mitchell Post #281 of the American Legion on Friday, March 17 when the Legion and Our Lady of the Isle Parish co-host a traditional St. Patrick’s Day Dinner prepared by Fred Ogar and his assistants. Seatings will be at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. The cost is $20 and all proceeds go to the Shelter Island Food Pantry. Call the Legion at (631) 749-1180 and leave a message indicating your reservation request.