Dara Vallely – Growing Stories and Connecting Communities Through Image, Word and Play

Not long until the Scottish International Storytelling Festival opens its doors for the 30th time, delivering a programme that wholeheartedly celebrates the love for stories both locally and internationally. This year’s SISF theme is ‘Growing Stories’, seeking to explore the future of storytelling in Scotland, nurturing local roots, reaching out globally, and honouring Celtic traditions shared by Scotland and Ireland.

Each year the festival invites an artist, who’ll showcase their work in the Storytelling Court, creating a visual backdrop to the festival’s theme and performances. This year’s featured visual artist is Irish-born Dara Vallely, who in 1978 founded the famous Armagh Rhymers, one of Ireland’s most celebrated music and theatre ensembles. He’s since been on a voyage to engage communities in the art of mumming, folk music and storytelling in Ireland and abroad.Dara’s exhibition ‘Laoch Na Laochra’, is a visual companion to the book by the same title, created in collaboration with Réamonn Ó Ciaráin, and illustrates the tale of Cuchulainn – Ulster’s greatest hero who continues to dominate Ireland’s mythological landscape. We’ve had a chance to speak to the artist about his work, the significance of this year’s festival theme and his experience of shared traditions between Scotland and Ireland.

Is this the first time that you’re involved in the SISF? What common ground do you see between your country and Scotland?

‘This is our first time at the festival, but The Rhymers have been touring Scotland for over 40 years. In the beginning we started working along the border on an outreach programme, organised by Gracelands Dumfries Arts, with Jenny Wilson in the 80s and 90s. Tours of the Highlands and Islands, as well as art and folk festivals followed including the Isle of Bute and the Edinburgh Fringe.

Ireland and Scotland both have the long-standing tradition of rhymers, mummers, wren boys, straw men and biddymen, as well as galoshins and guisers.’

Is there an event at this years’ festival that you’re especially excited about?

‘The festival itself has something for all ages and reaches out across Scotland, bringing the best from home and abroad to a wide audience.

I’m a bit biased having spent a lifetime trying to master the pipes and the art of storytelling, which is why I think everyone in Scotland should go and see ‘Ossian – The Pipes & The Story’ in the Great Hall at Stirling Castle.’

For many years the Armagh Rhymers engaged schools and children in Cross-Community Contact Programmes in the North of Ireland, gathering Protestant and Catholic children to provide a common cultural experience through folk drama or “mummers play” that has always been a vital part of Irish community life.

Where do you see the Rhymers place, importance and potential in the current political and cultural climate?

‘In Ireland we have been called the flagship of the Arts Council, pioneering traditional arts as a medium for bringing people together. This required a certain amount of sensitivity and above all courage from ourselves and others who employed us.

‘There’s still a lot of work to be done, not only in the arts but in sports and the workplace, in a society that has been damaged.

‘This month, before the festival begins, we are touring most Gaelic speaking schools with the help of Bòrd na Gàidhlig, all part of the Good Friday Agreement, to sustain links with speakers of the old Gaelic tongue.’

This year’s festival theme is “Growing Stories”. What does the theme mean to you?

‘We love the concept of Growing Stories. There is so much in this simple idea, because no two people tell the same story. A story they say improves with telling.

Irish Poet Paddy Kavanagh has said story, song and poem are all brothers and sisters and become the ”Gods of the imagination” for him.’ 

We’re delighted that your artworks will be on display in the Storytelling Court!  The full Laoch Na Laochra collection comprises over 100 paintings, how did you make your selection?

‘Bringing or showing art of any kind in Scotland must be done with a lot of respect given the fantastic artists Scotland has produced. To me it’s just like exhibiting in Florence or Paris. I knew John Bellany and my brother John Vallely studied with him at Edinburgh Art College.

‘I’ll be showing a dozen small oils from the book and one in a series of three written by Reamonn O Ciarain, to show the strong links in the shared Celtic roots between Ireland and Scotland, taking us back to the theme of ‘Growing Stories’.’

The exhibition opens in the afternoon of the 19th of October, marking the 30th Opening of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. For more information visit:

For more information on The Armagh Rhymers visit