Liz Weir harnesses the power of storytelling for Libraries NI
ON THURSDAY Liz Weir assumes the unique mantle of Storyteller In Residence at Tullycarnet Library in the Knock area of Belfast and she's excited: “A great night of local tellers and it's free but booking is advised – 028 9048 5079.”
Hers is a story in the round as she began her career in the traditional library system and now returns as a patron of the arts with the revamped Libraries NI, a far cry from those early days, now there are e-books, online facilities, a vast range of subjects and services to call on – and storytelling.
“I feel as if I've come full circle as I started my storytelling when working for the library way back in the 1970s. The word legacy is sometimes overused but it's important to leave one and my aim is to train young people to tell stories and so keep our wonderful tradition alive.”
Certainly Libraries NI are delighted with the new post. Chief executive Irene Knox emphasised the importance of the oral tradition being part of our culture and gathering stories about our heritage is vital before the older generation is no longer around to share their childhood experiences.
“Our job is to encourage a love of reading but also to promote listening.”
Liz's interest, however, is not only in young people. One of her first projects at Tullycarnet is a workshop on February 27, from 10.30am until 1pm on practical tips on improving your storytelling skills – something we could all benefit from, especially grandparents with time on their hands to talk to their grandchildren.
Although Tullycarnett will be her base, she will radiate out round the north. Last week it was Dungannon at the Hill of the O'Neill where she was stimulating the minds of primary school children using the rich history around the area where the Great Earl Hugh O'Neill had his castle and played out his skirmishes.
“I've been very impressed,” she told me. “Some of their stories and poems are amazing and will end up in a book.”
Is this just a great way of taking time out from class work?
“No,” said Liz without hesitation. “Storytelling in any situation furthers sharing and a passion for words, opening up to others and encouraging the art of listening and that's vital in this day and age of tablets and smart phones.”
Children are very important to this exceptional woman and on March 6 she will be leading three storytelling sessions during the Young At Art Children's Festival being held at the Lyric Theatre.
Before that, on her debut as Libraries NI Storyteller in Residence, she will be hosting a workshop to give practical tips on how to improve your storytelling skills at 10.30am on Saturday February 27 in the Tullycarnet Library. And that's not all. On the afternoon of March 20, World Storytelling Day, the theme at the Lyric will be ‘Strong Women' with Liz and other members of All Ireland Storytellers Ireland/Aos Scéal Éireann and on March 28 in the cafe bar of the same theatre she will hold another afternoon session, just walk in have a cup of tea and enjoy the stories.
The interaction between Liz and her audience, both young and mature, can often be emotional and intimate and there are organisations and charities that host special sessions just to allow people to talk and listen under her skilled guidance offering appropriate follow-up support.
An important date in her diary is with the Alzheimer's Society, visiting homes to encourage socialisation through fragments of memories and so stimulate conversation. Although she points out she is not a psychologist, she is full of wisdom and good sense.
Since she was a little girl Liz has loved hearing stories and telling stories. She was the first children's librarian for the city of Belfast, now she travels the world, off to Sydney in a few days to talk on storytelling and peace making, encouraging people to listen to each other's experiences and so understand each other's points of view.
She has worked extensively in schools and prisons and her book When Dad Was Away is aimed at children with a parent in prison, exploring this topic in a sensitive, constructive way. Fulfilling the old Irish saying, 'Two people shorten the journey', she has told stories on board Seacat, and some time ago headed up Tails on the Rails – a group of four telling stories on board trains; she's thinking of revisiting this venture. Where this whirlwind gets the time is another thing!
Apart from all her outreach work, Liz runs the Ballyeamon Camping Barn, a spic and span hostel looking out over Glenarriff Forest Park where the red squirrels made their home in the eco friendly grounds.
This old whitewashed farmhouse with red doors and windowsills is her Cushendall home and she throws it open to people from all round the world. There's always music, craic and stories and everyone joins in.
I visited Ballyeamon for a storytelling workshop and learned how to express myself, to make eye contact with my audience, to use facial expressions, to use my voice, to improve my timing, to hold people's attention and, above all, to sub-edit my story so it didn't become longwinded and boring. Tips valuable to everyone of every age, school children, businessmen – how about politicians?
Talking to Liz Weir is like peeling an onion – she's bursting with energy and adventure; with her ready smile and her expressive voice, there's never a dull minute in her life.
Books and CDs, DVDs and radio programmes, travelling the world, accepting awards and once even telling the ace storyteller Roald Dahl one of his own stories during his visit to Dublin. A tall tail? No, the truth and a great memory for a woman dedicated to her art.
:: More details from firstname.lastname@example.org, Lyric Theatre at
lyrictheatre.co.uk and lizweir.net.