Stories have the power to transform lives - changing attitudes and encouraging people to be more empathetic - be it in written form, oral or musical. In the past few decades, a love of oral storytelling has seen a number of groups spring up in Northern Ireland where people can share their stories.
Known as the yarnspinners, these groups all stem from one woman - storyteller and writer Liz Weir – who established the original Yarnspinners storytelling group at the Linen Hall Library in the Eighties. Two members of this group – Peg and Jim Armstrong – were subsequently inspired to start their own yarnspinning group, and so began Tullycarnet Yarnspinners, which marks its 25th anniversary this year. To celebrate the occasion, Libraries NI has crowned Weir its first Storyteller in Residence, thanks to the Peg and Jim Armstrong Bursary, set up by Roger Armstrong as a tribute to his parents.
Having started her career within the library service, Weir is relishing her residency role, which will be officially announced at a special evening of stories and yarns at Tullycarnet Library on February 18. She’ll then spend the next year or more developing a new community of storytellers in the province.
“The aim is to give a younger generation the confidence to express themselves through stories they already have, to teach the art of storytelling across a wide cross-section of people, and put the results to good use by entertaining, informing and provoking a sense of shared communities through the common ground through which we all walk,” says Roger Armstrong.
The bursary will support Weir in training Libraries NI staff and local groups in the art of storytelling, as well as funding various events and workshops for the wider community.
“It’s a great honour for me to be the recipient of the Peg and Jim Armstrong Bursary,” says Weir. “I met both Jim and Peg more than 25 years ago and well remember their passion for a good story, well told. I was the first guest at Tullycarnet Yarnspinners, when I was working for the Library Service, and so I feel things have now come full circle.
“My aim is to promote the art of storytelling with all age groups throughout the Libraries NI network. Training younger storytellers to continue the tradition is a priority and the bursary will enable many more people to experience the joy of listening to stories. I relish the challenge of bringing storytelling to new audiences using both traditional means and modern technology.”
Growing up in a family where telling stories was normal practice, Weir started work in Central Library in August 1976. While completing her training, she discovered she would have to tell stories to children, somewhat intimidating for the “very shy” person she then was. Weir went ahead with it however, and soon saw the positive effects storytelling had, both with adults and children.
Telling stories during the Troubles, she also saw how they brought people together and facilitated peace-building. Her dream then, was to establish adult storytelling groups throughout the province – something she has since achieved.
“Storytelling is a tradition,” she says. “People talk before they read. It’s something anybody can do, regardless of age or ability, and Ireland is a place that’s famous for storytelling, though a lot of people ask what it is… With storytelling you need to be a good listener.”
With a personal love of telling stories about banshees and ghosts, Weir also shares stories of WW2, and tailors her sessions according to the people she’s with. Working with everyone from school children to prisoners, patients and people with Alzheimer’s disease, she says that stories have multiple benefits.
“Storytelling isn’t just for entertainment – it can be therapeutic too,” she says. “I do a lot of work with The Alzheimer’s Society. They have memory cafés and I go and facilitate these. I’m also currently working with Tullycarnet Primary School, trying to build up the children’s confidence. We’ll be doing digital storytelling as well, which is important to note, as storytelling isn’t something set in the past – it’s living and breathing.”
Chief Executive of Libraries NI, Irene Knox, says the Storyteller in Residence role is “a wonderful first for Libraries NI and a fantastic opportunity to promote the oral tradition across Northern Ireland.”
“Through fostering a love of storytelling, reading and words, the project will help keep alive our cultural heritage through creating new stories and a new generation to tell them,” she adds.
As a writer, Weir - originally from Ballymena - has authored 27 children’s books, which can be found in schools across the country. She also nurtures creativity at her home and hostel, Ballyeamon Barn in Cushendall, a hub for creatives and a hidden gem on the north coast which nevertheless attracts many global visitors.
“I love where I live in the Glens,” she says. “This area is still rich in folklore. I get a lot of American storytellers with me at the barn and every Saturday night we do music and stories, which is free.”
With studio space for events and art exhibitions, as well as the hostel area and a private apartment where people can stay, Ballyeamon Barn has something for everyone. Whether you wish to use it as an artists’ retreat, or come along to enjoy an evening of storytelling, it’s open to all, says Weir.
“The very act of sharing stories strengthens family and community links,” she says. “It respects those who have gone before, and puts a value on those we are lucky enough to still have with us. But new stories continue to be told.”
Invited to the Sydney International Storytelling Conference in May this year, which is about storytelling and peace-making, Weir is certainly in demand for her storytelling skills. She’s also involved in upcoming Women Aloud NI events and of course, her Storyteller in Residence events with Libraries NI.
“This role gives me the opportunity now to go in and support the excellent work that’s going on in Libraries NI,” she says. “It’s a legacy – it has to be sustainable.”
The launch for the Libraries NI Storyteller in Residence project will take place at Tullycarnet Library, Dundonald on Thursday, February 18 at 8pm with an evening of stories and yarns. Admission is free.
Liz Weir will run an introductory workshop to storytelling at Tullycarnet Library on Saturday, February 27 from 10.30am – 1pm. On Tuesday, March 8 from 6.30pm – 8pm, Liz will also host an evening of women’s stories, poetry and song at Banbridge Library as part of the Women Aloud NI event on International Women’s Day.
On Sunday, March 20 Liz will host a team storytelling session at the Lyric Theatre for World Storytelling Day, on the theme of ‘Strong Women.’