- Packy Jim: Folklore and Worldview on the Irish Border by Ray Cashman
Brew yourself a nice strong mug of tea, settle into a favorite chair, and get comfortable. Thanks to Ray Cashman’s more than 15 years of conversation, recording, and analysis, we have the opportunity to hear Packy Jim McGrath tell a “brave lock” of stories, and you’re going to want to listen for quite a while. Cashman’s goal is to emphasize “how folklore, including personal narrative, illuminates a life” (p. 7), more than the reverse, while recognizing [End Page 230] that the two are interwoven. Thus, while he introduces us first to the teller and then organizes Packy Jim’s oral narratives primarily by genre, this is not simply the study of a repertoire with the speaker’s biography treated as context. Over the course of eight chapters and a wealth of notes and appendices, Cashman builds a respectful and engaging portrait of the man he has come to know, probes the role and meaning of tradition, and reveals how materials well documented in the Irish tradition do and do not prove useful to a particular individual on the Irish border in the early twenty-first century.
While he was doing research for his dissertation and first book, Storytelling on the Northern Irish Border: Characters and Community (Indiana University Press, 2008), Cashman’s neighbors in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, kept insisting that if he wanted “real folklore,” he must visit Patrick James McGrath just a few miles away in the mountains of County Donegal, Republic of Ireland. Cashman turns at the end of Packy Jim to the question of what “real folklore” means to Packy Jim and to folklorists, but at the time, he simply followed his neighbors’ advice, and Packy Jim welcomed him.
Cashman takes his time introducing readers to Packy Jim’s life and world, beginning by taking us along on the short trek over the unmarked international border, down narrower and narrower paths, to Packy Jim’s whitewashed stone cottage. Cashman shares photos and drawings of the house, discussing its history, relation to traditional type, and situation on an old smuggling route; he provides a glossary of key terms to familiarize us with “English as it is spoken on the Donegal-Tyrone-Fermanagh border” (p. xxi); and he provides a history of Packy Jim’s family and of the border region. The investment of time is crucial. By the time we engage deeply with Packy Jim’s stories, we’re comfortable with his choice to continue to live in the house where he was raised, without running water or electricity; with his desire to stay close to home; and with his way of talking. He is an elderly bachelor, conscious that others deride him as old-fashioned and see him as less worthy of respect than a “family man” with responsibility to dependents, but Cashman invites and equips us to try to see the world from his perspective and to explore the subtleties of how he is both similar to his neighbors and unique. “I suppose,” says Packy Jim in a remark Cashman productively quotes more than once, “I must be a person that, in some fashion or another, I’m very much like the thousands around me, and in other ways I must be very different” (p. 3).
One of the challenges of a project like this is to do justice to everything a consultant has shared with the ethnographer. Cashman amassed 70 hours of audio and video recordings of Packy Jim, but he handles the quantity gracefully, providing a sense of comprehensive coverage without excessive weight or repetition. When Cashman compiles a story out of segments from several tellings or inserts the transcript of a later recording of a story into his description of an earlier interaction, he...