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Sitting at the Feet of Giants: The Listowel International Storytelling and Folklore Festival

The Scottish Storytelling Forum (SSF) is a membership organisation, dedicated to keeping the art of live oral storytelling alive and growing in Scotland – a diverse network of storytellers and individuals supporting Scotland’s vibrant storytelling community.  It’s facilitated by Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland (TRACS) and based at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

The SSF blog series hopes to introduce you to the many different strands within the storytelling scene in Scotland and Beyond.

This month, we hear about Lizzie McDougall’s trip to the Inaugural Listowel International Storytelling and Folklore Festival in County Kerry.

‘To be honest (That’s a good way to start!), I was delighted, excited and just a bit overwhelmed to be asked to be the Highland Storyteller at the Inaugural International Storytelling Festival in Listowel, Co. Kerry.  This new festival was also commemorating the 140th birthday of the Kerry writer, Maurice Walsh.  Maurice wrote the story of the cult film The Quiet Man.  He also spent time in the Highlands as a Customs and Exciseman.  “Oh”, said I, “how funny, Neil Gunn was also an exciseman”.  Well it turns out they were the best of friends and so I think in some deep beyond time kind of way, their friendship is why I was invited.

‘I have often wondered why Neil Gunn was obsessed with the (Irish) Salmon of Wisdom story and where he heard it.  I know that almost every day in his later years, he would walk up the hill from his home at Brae just outside Dingwall in Ross-shire to enjoy the amazing view of Knockfarrel, where Finn and his fellow giants were reputed to have lived.  This story is part of our oral tradition which goes back centuries, and it also appears in books such as Hugh Miller’s Scenes and Legends of the Scottish Highlands.  However, I don’t think Neil Gunn ever referenced that story but young Finn and the Salmon swim through many of his books.

‘Anyway, off to Ireland on my own with my Gold & Silver Darlings Story Quilt I fly, landing in Co. Kerry.  I made my way to the Kerry Writers Museum, which is run by their inspired manager, Cara Trant.  She has developed this new storytelling festival to add to their already amazing annual programme. I rub my eyes, a little town celebrating its writers and storytellers, what magic is this!?

Festival Day One

10:15 Myself and Californian storyteller, Randel McGee, meet and plan our session for 60 school children.  Brilliant, he has a guitar and we will start and end with a song. He is from America and is going to tell Hans Christian Anderson stories and do paper cut illustrations while telling them (they are magical).  I decide to start with my Nessie story and some Finn stories, so all a bit international.

10:30 The children arrive, and it all works a treat.  Phew, we go for lunch…

‘My solo session is in the afternoon and I’m still pondering what stories to tell…

‘After lunch there is a session with local storytellers, jings they are funny and very good too.  Young Bryan Murphy has developed a strong Irish style and has a hat like Irish storytelling legend Eamon Kelly and the local audience love it.  He invites members of the audience to share in the craic, and an 80 year old farmer whose name I do not know gave a fabulous rendition of a long and funny poem.  I am gob smacked; how did he remember all these verses?  I was to discover that he was not the only local with this wonderful skill, let alone a way with words. What is in the water?

‘Then up got Godfrey Coppinger, another American with a lovely Southern drawl and wonderful way of evoking a long ago rural America.  As she is now local to Listowel, I felt reassured that not all stories had to end with a hilarious punch line. But no, the local tradition was not done with my nerves yet as step forth the mighty Frances Kennedy, a tour de force and a prize winner to boot.  She left everyone including me in a heap of laughter and pure astonishment.

‘Not long till my solo show and I was struggling with how to introduce the storytelling tradition I come from that is so different. I centred myself by introducing the Story Quilt and the Highland stories that I have gathered from the oral tradition that it illustrates. It was a grown up audience and so I started with Neil Gunn and his Salmon. Maybe he had heard the story originally from his friend Maurice, and a connection was made thanks to the old giants. I also told my story of our Duncan Williamson and how he collected stories all his days. It was lovely that the audience came on the journey with me.  Just as the session was finishing some art students arrived, late and colourful and full of excitement about the Quilt, so of course it turned into another session. They really understood that the Story Quilt is a work of conceptual art and I felt even more at home while all around the festival buzz kept growing.

‘There was then a screening of a film about Maurice Walsh that showed how the Highlands and his friendship with Neil Gunn were very important to him. The Highlands was also where he met his beautiful red haired wife who inspired his novel, The Key Above The Door.  

‘After a bite to eat, the next event was the book launch of Kerry Folk Tales collected by Luke Eastwood.  He told us some of the tales, this was a gift for me as I have a kind of aesthetic code that I gather stories not from books but from people. He told a little tale of the old Cailleach which seemed to be already illustrated on my Quilt that was hanging behind him. I find this happens, when I did the illustrations for the Quilt I didn’t want to be hemmed into telling a single story, so each image tells many stories and sometimes new stories get added.  So now a story from the most westerly tip of Kerry has come home with me.

‘After this we were all to go on to the pub, but it was late.  Randel and Godfrey were doing early morning children’s sessions the next day so had to go and get some sleep. I was the only storyteller left but I was promised that we would only stay half an hour but we must make an appearance.  Walking into the John B Keane Pub, my eyes glaze and heart melts at the memory.  I’m not going to describe the pub, just go there, it is the real deal.  John B’s son, Billy Keane, brought me tea and introduced me to some American visitors who had been waiting, so there were more stories told over in our wee corner. Then the magnificent Irish poet Gabriel Fitzmaurice took to the floor and read us one of his fantastic poems from his book, A Farewell to Poetry, followed by poems and tales from most of the pub’s congregation

‘I keep rubbing my eyes, is this place real, have I died and gone to heaven?  It was late after all.  Billy tells a wonderful tale of his mother being the bouncer in the pub until she was in her 80s. Then he comes over to me with more tea and says, very nicely, “You know you’re not getting out of here till you tell us a story.”  I explain that a lot of our stories from the Gaelic tradition are sad and he says, “No worries, I will set the scene.”  And he did.  Told the pub to listen, turned down the lights, gave me a chair in the centre of the floor and introduced me.  Only one thing for it, The Brahan Seer. They loved it.  Phew!  And jings, do I love them.

Festival Day Two

‘Began with a wonderful walk led by charming historian and newspaper man, Tom Dillon.  Listowel is a fascinating place, with interesting architecture and history.  It is said that Lord Kitchener was born in a barn nearby.  As the story goes, his parents had two grand houses and when his mother went into labour, she thought it would be good if he was born in the grandest, but they were in the smaller one at the time. So off they set, presumably in their horse and carriage, but her labour was going fast and they had to stop at a barn which is where she gave birth.  And loads more, not to mention poor Tom being drowned out by the honking and sirens, engines and exhausts of The Cannonball.   Don’t ask me, I don’t know, but loads of crazy cars including the Pope Mobile, were driving through Listowel.  We took refuge in the church which has beautiful mosaic work, I’m almost converted.

‘Then all into the bus and of we go to Lisselton. There was a wonderful gathering in the old Thatch Bar which might be unchanged since Maurice’s day. Maurice’s grandson was there, along with poets and singers, and we had a glorious afternoon around the peat fire. When asked for a story here it felt appropriate to tell of where Finn and his men are sleeping, not far from where I live in the Highlands.

‘The main evening event was hosted by the wonderful Gabriel, and first up to perform was Mickey McConnell, the man who wrote Only the Rivers Run Free.  He sang the song and then told us the story of how he came to write it.  For the youngsters who maybe don’t know, it was written in the 1960s before Catholics got the vote in Ireland and has been sung by those seeking freedom all over the world.  It’s a beautiful song and listening to this, I knew I was sitting at the feet of giants.

‘All festival guests did a turn in front of my Story Quilt.  Batt Burns, founder of the Sneem International Storytelling Festival (8-10 Nov), told one of the old Irish tales of Diarmuid.  I smiled inside as this is what I was hoping to hear.  The night was beautifully rounded off with Gabriel leading us all into Wild Mountain Thyme.  After the session, Frances Kennedy was looking at the Quilt and at one of the images in particular, The Light in the Window.  Standing there she shared with me a true story that it reminded her of another treasure.

Festival Day Three

‘Started with the monthly gathering at the Kerry Writers Museum of the humorous poetry group.  What a turn out, so many local people all writing and sharing their poems, there is definitely something in the water here!  The festival ended with what they call A Rambling House, I think it’s what we would call an old fashioned ceilidh in the Highlands, basically a house band and guests with a bit of everything – stories, songs, recitations, dancing and tunes…Heaven.

‘Reluctantly I had to leave the lovely Listowel to go Stornoway for a presentation of The Memory Blankets (but that’s a story for another day).  I am incredibly grateful to the power of stories which connect us, to Neil Gunn and Maurice Walsh, the ancient giants, and to Cara and everyone involved in this wonderful event for including me in this magical new storytelling festival.  I wish them many happy festivals to come.

‘If you ever go across the sea to Ireland, please do go to Listowel, Co. Kerry and visit the Kerry Writers Museum, it is a wonderful place. There is definitely something in the water and magic in the air.’

To see some photos and clips from the festival and to find out more about Lizzie’s Story Quilts, have a look at her Facebook page – The Highland Story Quilts.  

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