“I like to encourage other people to share their stories, even more than being a storyteller I like to provoke stories.”
Raconteur Liz Weir is an extraordinary woman with a vision to match. I had the pleasure of meeting up with her during one of her storytelling sessions in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum on a storytelling day for the Scouts.
Liz, who is the author of two very established children’s books, ‘Boom Chicka Boom’ and ‘Here, There and Everywhere’, introduced the children to her unique style of storytelling using rhythm and rhyme, alongside colourful language and interactive movement. The children and adults alike were completely enthralled as Liz took them on a magical journey climaxing with the title piece from ‘Boom Chicka Boom’.
Liz’s personal journey into storytelling started at a very young age, “I grew up in a family where everybody had to do something, sing, tell a story, play the piano, my dad was quite a good entertainer, my mum was a very good storyteller.”
After college Liz became a children’s librarian in Belfast and part of her job was to tell stories, it was during this time she discovered that adults were also interested in her storytelling, but it wasn’t until a meeting with an American Storyteller that Liz realised where her vision could take her, “in America you have associations for storytelling, and I thought, this is in Ireland, everyone has stories and we should be doing more. I set up the first Yarn Spinning storytelling group in Belfast in ’84. And I had a dream that there would be storytelling places all over Ireland, the next was the Derry Yarnspinners, then we had the Dublin Yarnspinners and the Cork Yarnspinners.” Liz also established the Ulster Storytelling Festival at the Ulster Folk and Transport museum, which is now in its 20th year.
“I went freelance as a storyteller seventeen years ago, people thought I was stark staring mad, I gave up a place, a very secure day job to do this, I see myself now as a woman entrepreneur, I believe you can be scared sometimes, but go for it.”
And go for it Liz did, since then she has travelled far and wide as a storyteller, winning the International Storybridge Award for “exemplary work in promoting storytelling between Ireland and other countries”, alongside publishing books, chairing the Storytellers of Ireland Association, she has also written five books for the Northern Ireland Curriculum called ‘Wise up and Think’. “It’s very exciting,” Liz enthuses, “they use Northern Irish vernacular, it is making learning fun and that’s the whole thing. Rhythm, participation, we need to emphasise how important it is to talk to children, to tell stories to them, stories from your own experience.”
Having established herself as one of the most influential forces in storytelling today, Liz set about creating a base for her storytelling, “I had this dream, where I had a place and I could bring people to me, I was driving to a school in Cushendall in 1999, on a cold bleak November day, and I saw a for sale sign out in the middle of nowhere, a wee single story cottage and old derelict barn, I just said to myself that’s where I want to live, I viewed it on Saturday the deal was done within a week.”
Within two years Liz had renovated the house and set up Ballyeamon Camping Barn, “I got a European Union grant to help me set up a fourteen bedded hostel, that opened in 2001, it is wonderful because people come and stay, it’s affordable accommodation, we are right in the middle of a great area for walking, traditional music and storytelling. The area is stunning, the Glens of Antrim are beautiful, I’m five miles from the sea, Glenariff Glen is like a magical wonderland.”
Building on the success of the hostel Liz received another European initiative grant in 2007 from Leader to open a centre, which has a forty-seater event room, alongside a space for an artist/writer-in-residence, “they can come and stay for a week and I will bring audiences to them.”
The centre is also going to host concerts, workshops, is available to hire and take storytelling courses, Liz explains, “the plan is, I will stay at home and write more books. I’m hoping to run residential workshops where visitors come on a Friday night, have their dinner together and talk, then I will talk to them about selecting stories, preparing stories, it’s all about confidence building, a lot of people who come don’t want to tell publicly, but they do want to tell their children or their grandchildren or something like that. The idea of this new centre is we get lots of people coming from all over Ireland and from abroad for storytelling workshops. People are interested in cultural tourism; they don’t want to stay in a hotel that looks like any other hotel in the world.”
An entrepreneur in the true sense of the word, Liz’s vision for storytelling in Northern Ireland and her deep passion for the Glens of Antrim are intoxicating, for further details on the events being run in Ballyeamon Camping Barn log onto http://www.ballyeamonbarn.com
As we conclude our conversation I ask Liz what advice would she give to a novice storyteller, “you have nothing, no costume, there is just you, what you see is what you get. Advise, ditch your ego, storytelling is an apprenticeship, you have to crawl before you can walk, it takes a long time, there’s not one day that goes past I don’t learn something. You learn that by listening, not by talking, I think being a good listener is more important than being a good talker, we have two ears and one mouth, I think listening is twice as important. Curtsey and respect are very important.”
Storyteller Liz Weir published in Homes & Lifestyle NI
Words by Tina O Rourke