A Tradition and a Gift
Yvonne Healy ’75 keeps age-old Irish stories alive onstage
According to Irish legend, when visitors to Blarney Castle kiss a magical stone, they are endowed with the gift of gab—a special talent for storytelling and other verbal feats. Yvonne Healy ’75, a nationally recognized storyteller in the Irish tradition, may have kissed the Blarney Stone, but she credits her family for her onstage abilities. For her, it all goes back to those special nights in her small western Pennsylvania hometown, when her father, a traveling salesman, would return home from a long trip. The family would celebrate, playing piano and dancing, and her father would tell stories.
Healy, who came to the United States from Ireland with her family as a baby, became the appointed heir of the family storytelling tradition. “My father taught me stories phrase by phrase and line by line,” Healy says. “I had to repeat them and pronounce them properly, because that’s how they’d been passed down in his family. We’ve always been talkers.”
In high school and college, however, Healy hid her Irish roots. “It was something I tended to keep quiet as a teen, because you don’t want to be singled out,” she explains. In fact, Healy doubts that many of her classmates at Swarthmore knew that she grew up speaking Irish at home.
At Swarthmore, Healy met Brendan Kennelly, the Irish poet and novelist, then a visiting professor. She befriended him and his wife, even babysat their daughter. It was a mentorship in cultural pride. “He actually made me feel glad to be from Ireland, which I hadn’t been before,” Healy says. “This was during the Troubles [in Northern Ireland]. Being at a Quaker school during the Vietnam War, I was very conflicted about identifying with Ireland.”
After graduation, Healy pursued an acting career in New York. She had a recurring role on the soap opera As the World Turns, playing a character called Nurse Spencer—no first name—as well as many roles off-off-Broadway and in political theatre. However, after 15 years as a professional actress, she retired to devote her time to raising a family, eventually moving to Michigan.
Healy never planned to launch a second career in traditional Irish storytelling. It just slowly began to happen. First she led workshops at her church, then at other churches, then with schools, synagogues, and other institutions. She began asking for money for gas, then requesting a professional fee. Eventually, word of her infectious onstage enthusiasm spread across Michigan and beyond. She has now performed in 24 states as well as Ireland, England, and Canada.
Healy is proud to be a part of what she sees as a resurgence of Irish-American interest in Irish history and culture. “It used to be it was pretty much just the dance and the music,” she says. “Now you’ve got people actually finding out about history after and before the famine.”
One of Healy’s favorite stories to tell is about Oisín in the Land of the Young: A young man leaves Ireland for a magical land in the West where the streets are paved with gold, not realizing that each year spent in this enchanted land equals 100 in his home country. When he tries to return, he finds that all his friends and family are long gone.
The story reminds Healy of her father and of her own attempts to reconnect to her ancestral history. “That story is the basis of a lot of the longing to go back that has been passed down among Irish-Americans. It’s not just nostalgia. It’s a deep, archetypical myth of the culture,” she says.
Last year, Healy was invited to the North American Gaeltacht for the Oireachtas Festival, a celebration of traditional Irish culture. There, she was presented with a medal and certificate for telling stories in Irish by Liam O Maolaodha, director of Ireland’s Oireachtas na Gaeilge. She gave the certificate to her father, who is now 91.
“He was of the constructive-criticism mode growing up,” Healy says of her father. “There was always something that could be improved on. A lot.” When he saw her award, he finally told her that she knew more about Irish storytelling than he did.
“He was very proud,” Healy says. “And he said it out loud, which meant a lot.”