Brenda Ní Shúilleabháin is a force of nature. She is a writer, filmmaker and producer, and storyteller par excellence. And, she is a dear friend and a kindred spirit. Brenda has enough joie de vivre for twelve people and her energy and passion for her projects and the stories and people she loves is a sight to behold. She has published books and directed and produced TV documentaries on subjects and stories close to her heart – stories of culture, heritage, customs, and the universal nature of the human experience.
When Brenda and I were discussing a year or more ago, about what she might do with my honors students while we were here, she immediately thought of engaging them, somehow, with the Bibeanna – wise and wonderful women from the Dingle gaeltacht who have witnessed great change in their lifetimes from childhood to the present day. Brenda produced and directed a series of TV documentaries on the Bibeanna a few years ago (two projects featured the stories of Bibeanna from the Dingle gaeltacht as well as from those that immigrated to American – including Maureen Kearney Oski, Martin Kearney’s younger sister) and she also published a companion book, Bibeanna: Memories from a Corner of Ireland. She suggested that students could meet the Bibeanna and perhaps have tea with them in her home – asking questions back and forth and helping students learn about a slice of culture and life with which they would otherwise have no contact. We saw that as a significant growth and learning opportunity for students and I suggested that we could screen the films, beforehand.
Brenda also produced several other beautiful documentaries over the last few years – Do Mhargadh Deanta (about the social custom of matchmaking), Treigint (about the travails of marriage and marital desertion), and Fearaibh Fionntrá (about the men of her home parish on the Dingle Peninsula, Ventry).
Yesterday, we had a magical, amazing day with eight of the Bibeanna and a few of the Ventry Men. After the wonderful documentary screenings (with the Bibeanna and the Ventry Men present) and a great Q&A with Brenda, we all traveled a short ways up the clasach to Brenda’s house for what she had said would be a simple tea with sandwiches and a few fairy cakes and sweets. When we arrived, the large table in Brenda’s sunroom was overflowing with fresh, handmade sandwiches (chicken, ham, fresh salmon), fairy cakes, a beautiful custard tart with fresh berries and a strawberry cheesecake – and a sparkling crystal bowl in the middle of the table filled with simple garden flowers, exquisite. There were fresh pots of hot tea and coffee, and we learned that one of Brenda’s friends and her daughter did all the cooking and baking. It was such a lovely, lovely gesture and we were all so appreciative.
Students were delighted and surprised – and they were so honored by these wise women and men and the opportunity to visit with them and hear some more of their stories and learn about loves across decades. A beautiful thing happened (Brenda is an expert MC, wicked smart communicator and generous hostess) – the Bibeanna shared their stories and the students shared theirs (and lovely, insightful questions were asked). Then, Brenda asked the Bibeanna to sing some sean-nós songs and tell the stories, which was a joy! The students also sang and told stories – one in French and one in Korean! It was a fabulous exchange and the men ended by telling some jokes and great stories! What a group – how honored we were to be able to experience this once-in-a-lifetime meeting and tea party! Thank you, Brenda – and we all have fallen in love with the Bibeanna and the Men of Ventry! Take a look at Brenda’s beautiful TG4 broadcast from 2011 about the Bibeanna, remembering Christmas as it used to be in Irish-speaking West Kerry long ago.