New chapter for storyteller Liz with launch of Armstrong Storytelling Bursary

Storytelling isn't just for children, says Liz Weir, who sees increasing numbers of attentive adults attending her popular sessions in Ireland and beyond. She tells Gail Bell how her new project with a Belfast-born record producer will help keep the tradition alive

Award-winning Ballymena storyteller Liz Weir Picture: Mal McCann
Gail Bell

IT'S an unlikely tale, but as professional storyteller Liz Weir will tell you, the truest ones always are.

Unusually for Liz (67), a former children's librarian for Belfast who has been bewitching children, mothers and babies, adults and pensioners with tall tales for over 40 years, she has become a central character in this particular real life story.

The award-winning Ballymena storyteller and Belfast-born record producer Roger Armstrong (co-founder of the Ace Record label in London) have linked up to create the new Armstrong Storytelling Bursary.

A glitzy launch event with musicians and storytellers will take place at Belfast's Grand Central Hotel, with the aim of expanding the reach of storytelling by training more raconteurs and increasing the number of sessions available to fans of all ages.

This particular story first began in the 1980s when music mogul Roger's parents met Liz at one of her adult Yarn Spinners storytelling groups, prompting them to form their own group at Tullycarnet Library in Belfast.

Two and-a-half years ago, Armstrong set up a storytelling residency with Libraries NI in honour of his late parents: to date,15,251 people have listened to stories told by 32 different people, with a further 437 receiving storytelling training.

"I was the recipient of the first bursary, tasked with training other storytellers, as well as engaging experienced ones from home and abroad," Liz says.

"We held several training workshops and three of our tellers have now completed the first Open College Network accredited storytelling course to be held here.

"This latest initiative is fantastic and will expand the reach of storytelling still further, with important support from the business community. Everyone has a story to tell, it’s just a question of providing the skills and opportunity to tell it."

It comes at a perfect time, she says, as the business sector in Belfast begins to catch up with the concept of 'corporate storytelling' – something that is becoming increasingly popular in other countries – and industry chiefs learn how to better communicate with their own organisations.

This all makes for good reading for the storytelling maestro, who is used to spinning yarns about other people for her legion of listeners throughout Ireland and beyond.

As well as talking for a living, the mother-of-one (grown-up) daughter, Clare, also runs the Ballyeamon Barn hostel near Cushendall which, with its cosy fires and rustic good looks, has proved an atmospheric setting for her popular storytelling groups and workshops.

Surprisingly, Liz says she was a "very shy little girl" and it wasn't until after she had left school, trained as a librarian and read her first story to a group of children that she found her voice and career niche.

"It was part of my job to read to children and I was very nervous at the time," she recalls.

"I remember my first book was The Three Billy Goats Gruff and it is still one of my best-loved stories today. Children can be a good audience, though, as they generally want to come along with you on the imaginative journey.

"In this age, where everyone is staring at screens all day, it is important to keep alive the tradition of reading and sharing a book together. Storytelling is a vivid, powerful thing that can awaken strong emotions whatever age the listener.

"It helps adults with learning difficulties and patients with Alzheimer's disease, because listening to stories gathers fragments of memories. I see people in a group with their head bent down looking disinterested and suddenly a word or phrase will awaken something deep within them and they become re-connected."

Children's books aside, most of her stories are of her own making and are of the traditional variety, spoken from memory.

"There is a strong, oral narrative tradition in Ireland and I travel all over the country, so I am always gathering stories," Liz says.

"I'm a bit like a magpie on my travels, lifting things from here and there. I visualise pictures in my head and that is how I remember them all.

"I would get fed up listening to myself though, so I enhance the repetitions so I don't get bored with my own stories. I have to keep them fresh for myself as well as my listeners."

Famed children's author Roald Dahl is one famous name among those avid listeners: In 1988, Dahl was in the audience to hear Liz narrate one of his stories in Dublin; he was so impressed that he gave her a signed copy of Matilda afterwards.

But her most treasured tale is a true one as told by her late mother, Nell Martin, who lived through two world wars and was recorded for the BBC's Your Place and Mine when she was 90.

"My mum was on a ship on the way home from India in 1939 when war was declared," Liz recounts.

"When she realised there were no life jackets on board, she made her own – out of cork and terry towelling nappies – for my baby brother and a friend's baby.

"Tragically, on an onward journey her friend was on a different ship and it was torpedoed by a German U-boats and sank. Miraculously, the baby, in my mother's home-made life jacket, was rescued and survived.

"She is now Mrs Olive James and living in England."

Not every true story can be as heartwarming, but honest accounts still have the power to heal, according to Liz, who has has written 15 books for the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, including one titled When Dad Was Away which addresses the feelings of children who have a parent in prison.

"When I started the storytelling groups, the Troubles were at their height and somebody would get up and tell a story about an Orange Lodge dinner, then somebody else would tell a story about going to Mass," she says.

"The fact was, we were all listening to each other's stories and respecting each other's stories and I think that is important. We all need to be better listeners. Stories can be life-changing."

:: The Armstrong Bursary will be launched at the Grand Central Hotel, Belfast, on September 19.

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