In Limerick’s thriving literary community, there is one man who stands out from the crowd of poets and performers. John Carew’s flair for drama and connection to his Irish roots have brought him fans throughout the region, while his folksy style is also popular with tourists.
Some of his fans call him the Sage of Lough Gur and his close association with the lough and the local area has a strong influence on his stories and poetry. The lough has been the site of many important historical and supernatural events, something Carew uses to great effect.
Carew is never seen without his bata draíochta – the magic stick that forms a crucial part of his act. The stick has its own story that’s always popular with audiences. A present from the Queen of the Faeries herself, John usually chooses someone from the crowd to guard his bata draíochta while he performs. But, as he assures young audiences, he doesn’t do magic tricks – the stick only has power over the faeries, not mere mortals.
“When I was a young fella I had a huge interest in Lough Gur and faeries,” Carew says. “I had a teacher in national school who was a big influence. He introduced me to nature trails. I suppose from a young age I was always, without knowing it, telling little stories.”
Carew didn’t have much of a formal education beyond primary school, but he recalls the influence of the men he grew up with, especially his father and the men of his era.
“I was hearing pub yarns and so on,” Carew recalls. “My father was a big influence. People of his generation were natural storytellers. They had no radio or television. When the physical work was done, it was their lot to tell stories in the pub.” He says this traditional kind of Irish storytelling must have rubbed off on him.
“I liked national school but they told me I was stupid in secondary school,” he laughs. “I wanted to leave school as fast I could.” He left formal education, so his literary ambitions couldn’t be perturbed by short-sighted teachers.
Carew is well-known for reciting poems and stories from memory in a loud, resonant voice. He eschews microphones, preferring the intimate atmosphere of small crowds and channelling the old-world atmosphere of the Irish country pub.
“I usedn’t to write anything down,” he says, “I just seem to be able to remember my stories.” But a devastating event convinced him to put some of his verses on paper. The tragic death of his sister prompted him to write a poem that moved his wife to tears. She insisted he should write down his work.
He admits his Irish isn’t as strong as it could be, but his enthusiasm for ancient Irish myths and his willingness to try his hand at the cupla focal have endeared him to audiences, including tourists at Adare Manor, where Carew was a popular fixture before the manor’s temporary closure. His style is in the best tradition of the seanchaí.
Carew has enjoyed significant success and acclaim. In 2016, he was a finalist in the short script section of the Waterford Film Festival. He was seanchaí for the 2017 Kanturk Arts Festival and won 2nd place in the Gab storytelling competition, 1st place in the 2017 Limerick Fleadh Gheoil senior competition. His works, now written down, have been published many times. He’s a regular on the Limerick poetry scene, appearing both as a guest performer and at open mic events in the city and county.
Despite his many original poems and spirited retelling of traditional Irish tales, Carew’s favourite performance piece is the infamous speech by one of Ireland’s best-known villains, the Bull McCabe. McCabe’s monologue on his right to a field – from the John B. Keane play The Field – is seared in the memory of many school children. Carew gives his rendition in hat and coat, using his famous stick to thrust home the point. When Carew becomes the Bull, everyone pays attention.
John Carew is a storyteller in the great Irish tradition. His words conjure images of turf fires, hatted men smoking pipes after a hard day in the fields and faeries hiding in the corner of your eye. His larity is popularity is sure to grow.