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Have You a Party Piece?

by Joyce McGreevy on November 14, 2016

Kiaran O'Donnell and Rick Chelew play guitar at a small gathering, carrying on the Irish tradition of the party piece, sharing songs, stories, and poems. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Sharing our gifts turns strangers into friends; Kiaran O’Donnell and Rick Chelew had just met.
© Joyce McGreevy

What an Irish Tradition
Can Teach Us Today

It was known as the party piece, a “bit of an auld song” or spoken word. Would we have called it an Irish tradition? Probably not. As students in Galway, sharing songs, stories, and poems was just something we did on Saturday nights.

But the tradition goes back centuries, notes Irish historian P.W. Joyce. Ancient Irish sagas depict hospitality to travelers as a social virtue, and guests reciprocated with music or spoken word. “Like the Homeric Greeks, the Irish were excessively fond of hearing tales and poetry recited  . . . Every intelligent person was expected to know a reasonable number.”

Thus it continued, into my “ancient” college days. Go on now, give us your party piece, friends would say as we lingered after one-burner suppers served on coffee tables. “Mountains of Mourne” was a favorite.

Musicians at a jam session in pub in Galway, Ireland reflect the Irish tradition of the party piece, sharing songs, stories, and poems. (Image by Damián Bakarcic)

If you visit Ireland, bring along a song or a story to share.
“Jam Session in Galway Pub, Ireland” by Damián Bakarcic, CC-BY-NC-4.0

A Poem

Reciting a poem went over well, too.  Back then, practically everyone I knew, student or not, had a few verses filed away in the old memory bank. Had I the heavens embroidered cloths . . .

It wasn’t like you hunkered down at a desk to memorize them, mind. You’d simply hear something and if it touched a chord, you’d hold onto it, the way a magpie works shiny foil into its bower.

Hikers on a scenic road in Ireland become a metaphor for the Irish tradition of sharing stories, songs, and poems. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Life’s rockiest road is navigable when we share it in stories, songs, and poems.
© Joyce McGreevy

A Story

Some party pieces were stories. The best were scraps of real experience that had been well embellished. Lace-edged in mystery. Beribboned with bright hyperbole. The beadwork of everyday dialogue polished into priceless gems with every retelling.

Oh, you could cut yourself on that wit, someone would say. It’s the way he tells ’em, someone would chime in.

Three women taking tea and trading stories at Glebe Gardens Café, Co. Cork, reflect the Irish tradition of the party piece, sharing stories, songs, and poems. (Image © Rick Chelew)

Sharing anecdotes and laughter at Glebe Gardens Café, Co. Cork.
© Rick Chelew

A Moment

Here’s what a party piece was not about: Narcissism.

Your moment would not go viral. The technology that transformed selves into selfies was still decades away. We didn’t take photos or make recordings.

As student renters, we didn’t even have landline telephones.

Yet we always knew where the gatherings were. The “sociable” network functioned by way of knocks at the door, the tea kettle kept at the ready for impromptu visits and invitations.

A decorative teapot in Galway, Ireland symbolizes the Irish tradition of the party piece, sharing songs, stories, and poems. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

A few cups of tea can flower into a gathering.
© Joyce McGreevy

A Welcome

Meanwhile, back at the party, a newcomer from the States might hesitate on being asked to sing.

Sure, it doesn’t matter if you’ve a voice like an old crow, someone would tell her. We’ll all join in, another might add encouragingly.

Oh, I see: Sharing a party piece wasn’t about competing to see who was the most talented. It was about willingness to participate, to add some ingredient of your own to the stone soup of the evening.

A "face in the crowd" in Dublin, Ireland and a gift-wrapped building evoke the need for the Irish tradition of the party piece, sharing songs, stories, and poems. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Sharing the gift of our experience creates connection.
© Joyce McGreevy

A Joy

So when someone began to sing “My Lagan Love” or “Bye, Bye, Blackbird,” it didn’t matter a whit if there was more rasp than lilt. The melody came through clearly via memories the singer stirred in us.

The greater joy was in being there together, none of us ready yet to call it a night.

A glowing fireplace in Dublin, Ireland sets the scene for the Irish tradition of the party piece, sharing songs, stories, and poems. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

A cozy fireplace in Dublin sets the scene for music and storytelling.
© Joyce McGreevy

Your Presence Is Requested

Today, even amid the multi-modal distractions that are as ubiquitous in Ireland as everywhere else on the planet, the Irish tradition of the party piece lives on.

A lot of the sharing now finds its way online. But at heart it’s still about presence—passing the tokens of our shared humanity from person to person.

Not fame. Not showing off. Not monetizing an experience. But about giving whatever you’ve got and showing up to honor what others give, too, be it heartfelt or hilarious, wise or whimsical.

A dog eyeing treats in a Dublin parlor evokes the Irish tradition of the party piece, sharing songs, stories, and poems, including shaggy dog stories. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

A shaggy dog story makes a great party piece.
© Joyce McGreevy

A Wish

So here is my wish for you: One evening may you find yourself in a home where musical instruments are as much a part of the furnishings as crockery and sofa cushions. May there be apple tart and good company.

A homemade apple tart in Galway goes well with the Irish tradition of the party piece, sharing songs, stories, and poems. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Our gifts are sweetest when they are shared.
© Joyce McGreevy

At some point, the piano or fiddle will sound, and the concertina and tin whistle will come out of their cases. But nobody’s forming a band, only forging a bond.

The tales begin telling themselves. The poems, memories, and songs emerge, like shy ponies crossing a field.

Two friendly Irish horses symbolize subtle aspects of the Irish tradition of the party piece, sharing songs, stories, and poems. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

They have come gladly out of the willows/To welcome my friend and me…
From James Wright’s poem “A Blessing”
© Joyce McGreevy

Somebody volunteers a song about love, by turns joyful and poignant.  When they falter—whether from forgetting the words, or remembering the past—a neighboring singer takes up the thread.

Kieran O'Donnell and Rick Chelew play guitar together, carrying on the Irish tradition of sharing songs, stories, and poems. (Image © Joyce McGreevy)

Our individual songs, stories, and poems share a common chord.
© Joyce McGreevy

A Gathering

The song goes around and around, until every voice has been gathered in. There’s room for everyone.

Call it an Irish tradition, though we were never so formal as all that. We were just doing our party pieces. Finding our human commonalities by sharing songs, stories, and poems. What party piece might you share when next you gather with family, friends, and friends-to-be?

Read the cited poems in their entirety here and here

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.


13 thoughts on “Have You a Party Piece?

  1. I’ve meant to comment on this post for awhile! You so easily capture the spirit of performing that matters to me – the sharing of gifts, love, and time with each other to lift each other up. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. I am instantly taken back to an evening at Morans on the Weir. It was rainy outside and so cozy in that pub! Everyone was talking and sharing stories. I felt so happy! (well before I could drink ;) a man started up with a song; our Uncle Tom singing “Oh Danny Boy”. Everyone listening, some looking at him, some away and lost in thought…our family blending into the others gathered there… I was sitting next to dad, his eyes misty, but that Wally grin… Ah, thank you for this article, Joyce, it brought back that magical night!

  3. I once had the good fortune to be invited to a strangers home for dinner while in Ireland. After the meal, our host and his wife each sang a song completely unannounced. They then looked at me expectantly. They wanted me to sing a song, too?? So I jumped in with an old silly song I knew. It was dumb, but they loved it! This article brought back a lovely old memory. Thank you!

    • “Go raibh maith agat” (thank you!) for sharing that delightful memory, Julie! Not taking oneself overly seriously, being willing to “jump in,” sharing the fun of the moment–that’s what it’s all about!

  4. All this time I had thought this was just how one in a large family grows up. If it isn’t, it should be.
    After dinner, Dad sets down the coffee cup, clears his throat, and shows that half-grin. Other mouths close as he looks up to the ceiling for a moment that seems to last longer.
    “Have I ever told you kids about the time my brothers tried to ship me to Erie?…” or some other intriguing opener, and off we go on an adventure with an ending unknown, possibly even to Dad.

  5. Judy and I woke up one morning not knowing what the day had in store. After we finised our breakfast, we drove down to a small village near the Cliffs of Moher. We parked our rental car and climbed onto a small ferry boat. Eventually, we arrived at our destination: the smallest Aran Island, Inisheer. We were greeted by a carriage driver and his dark horse. He told us to get on. We obeyed his order and climbed into the back of his carriage. Our carriage driver dropped us off at his B&B, a large house with its back to the sea and children playing in the yard and running through the house.

    After we were shown to our room and dropped off our bags, we followed a windy path between limestone rock wall fences, being used to pen in farm animals. Eventually, we arrived at a pub. After I had my pint of Guinness secured in my hand, my wife and I sat on bench with our backs to the window. As I sipped on my Guinness, we enjoyed the whimsical sound of traditional Irish music lore. Even children participated, as each person took their turn sharing an Irish ballad.

    It was completely unexpected.

  6. LOVE this idea of a “party piece”!
    I’ve got to come up with one or two for fast-approaching holiday parties! The thought that I could contribute to the merry-making and memories of a gathering makes me motivated. (that’s a lot of “m”s but I mean it?) Thanks for the awesome idea of a party piece, Joyce McGreevy!

  7. What a wonderful piece. It makes one want to hop a plane to Ireland. More than that, it makes one want to throw a little get-together right here, right this weekend with a little poem at the ready that begins

    The boatman rowed into
    That often-sung impasse.

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