Imagine an island that lies outside of time and reality – a place where women run faster than horses, animals speak, and tales can heal the dying. This is Nick Hennessey’s Ireland, a mythical world spun from the threads of stories and songs. His set The Ruined House of Skin, performed at the Story Museum last month, travels through this imagined Ireland, breathing life into its inhabitants through music and narrative. He appeared at the Story Museum after being voted the audience’s favourite act from last year, and it is not difficult to see why. Hennessey’s performances are uniquely compelling, exuding an intimate authority as he leads you from one storyscape to the next.
The stories that comprise The Ruined House of Skin are obviously of personal significance to Hennessey. He describes himself as “Irish without any sense of what that really means”, born to an Irish father who had never been to Ireland during his lifetime. His telling is subsequently steeped in a sense of misplaced nostalgia: not only yearning to be somewhere that you cannot be, but somewhere that you have only ever imagined to exist. This sense of chasing the impossible is reflected in the stories themselves. The King of Ireland lies dying, and tells his son that the only thing that can save him is the One True Tale. We follow the young man on his quest to find the Tale, an ineffable object which proves to be as elusive and intangible as Hennessey’s Ireland itself.
Some of the stories from The Ruined House of Skin are not quite as captivating as those from Where the Bear Sleeps, Hennessey’s selection of tales from the Finnish epic the Kalevala. There are a few hanging strands that are not woven into the larger narrative, such as the twins who never make an appearance after their traumatic separation at birth. However there is something cantankerously delightful about stories that refuse to conform to a listener’s expectations, and Hennessey’s performance more than compensated for any slight misgivings about some of the programme. He evoked the hag’s hut of skin with such a visceral physicality that I could almost smell the rotting flesh, feel the repugnant globules of fat adorning the door.
It almost becomes a cliché that at some point in a traditional tale, a poet with supernatural powers is likely to appear, speaking the world into existence or stopping time with their verses. And yet, sat in the dark listening to Hennessey’s words swirl around me, it is easy to see why storytellers have historically been accorded mythical, magical status. For a couple of hours in an empty room in Oxford, time pauses to hear kings, oceans, and spirits sung into creation on Irish shores.