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Posts about storytelling, landscape and culture with a focus on Welsh material and places. Mostly by me but also featuring plenty of guest posts and interviews.

Cape Clear Storytelling Festival

I count myself very lucky to have performed four times at the Cape Clear International Storytelling Festival and each time has been an important staging post in my storytelling and creative journey. The first time I was there was back in in 1996 and was in the days before cheap international air travel so I chugged my way over the Irish Sea on the now defunct Swansea-Cork ferry - a ship that had once seen better days in the Aegean and still had faded signs in Greek as a memory of warmer seas.

It was a night crossing but I got almost no sleep on the way across so was dying for my bed by the time I got to the island. Ireland was different in the pre-boom and bust days and on the bus from the airport going west to Skibereen I remember seeing haystacks in the fields, something I hadn’t seen since I was a kid in Scotland. I eventually got to the house where we were staying around eleven at night after the first 'Meet the Tellers' performance and a pint or two of Murphy's and as I brushed my teeth I knew that soon I would flop gratefully into my bed - or so I thought. When I opened the bathroom door there was John Campbell standing in front of me with a glint in his eye, a bottle of Jamieson’s in one hand and two glasses in the other.

About three hours later and with John’s words spinning in my head (I hadn’t the chance to say much of anything during our encounter) I finally made it to bed and the tone of the weekend was well and truly set.

The following Monday, replete with stories and good company, I was back on the ferry for a daytime crossing to Wales in bright September sunshine. Two extraordinary things happened on the way home - one was a family of dolphins swimming alongside the ferry leaping and diving as they went and the other was a very clear instruction from a voice inside my head saying "Never do that again”.

This made no sense at all. I was an emerging storyteller who had got his first international gig and was gagging for more. What did it mean? Actually there was no ambiguity at all about what it meant - the real question was what was I going to do about it? Hold fire seemed the best thing for the time being but I knew the voice would not go away.

Not long after getting home I had a phone call from Rhondda Cynon Taff community arts asking me to work in four primary schools north of Cardiff on a tree dressing project where I would work with 4-10 year olds creating stories from local legends and then telling them with the kids to their parents and others in the school grounds. The school that had the biggest impact on me was the smallest and is in the small South Wales Valleys town of Nantgarw which is now dwarfed by a huge industrial estate. The school itself is a victorian village school in the shadow of an old pottery complete with bottle kiln and the Garth Mountain glowering beyond and as the pupils, the staff, the ceramacist Catrin Howell and myself worked together the penny slowly began to drop.

My background was in alternative theatre and up until that moment my approach to the stories that derive from our oral heritages was to look for material that I could tell well and then package them for performance and I think this was what the voice in my head had been objecting to. By dint of creatively dwelling with people large and small in a specific environment a converation with our landscape started to take place and the story, the art and the event we made grew from that and these elements could not meaningfully be separated. There is still great value in taking the stage and telling a story with skill and verve for people you don't know but our feet are in the creative soil of community and co-creation and if we wander too far our work loses resonance and meaning.

This year's festival on Cape Clear was a much more mellow affair. Well, time has passed and maybe I am a bit more mellow too but who am I to judge? The weekend was blessed with September sun, the sea was still and languid and the gorse and heather tried to outdo each other in a blaze of purple and yellow.

I was very lucky to be performing in the company of some great storytellers and singers, namely Birgit LehnerClare Murphy, Colum Sands and Dovie Thomason. The festival directors Gerry Clancy and Daphne Babington did a sterling job, ably assisted by a team of tireless volunteers and mc's not forgetting Mary and Ferdia who drive the island mini-buses and make sure we end up where we are supposed to be when we are supposed to be there. It was also a real treat to see Chuck and Nell Kruger again, whose idea the festival was in the first place.

My time on Cape Clear this year was again bookended by dolphins - one on my first morning walk when I strolled up to the old lighthouses and saw one close to the shore gently arcing his way through the water, the air still enough for me to hear the water rippling as he slid out of view. Maybe he prompted me to tell the story about how dolphins brought us stories in a lovely gentle set with Birget in Tir na N’og, a community room down by South Harbour named after the Celtic other world of the ever-young. I first heard the story many years ago in Bristol from a South African storyteller who shared the bill with, guess who? John Campbell!

This year I felt there was a combination of much laughter and a heartfelt sinking into story in many of the sessions that takes us deeper and beyond the words and the moment of listening and telling. During a lull in one of the evening shows while people sipped the free wine (well, the wine was free but the plastic cup was 3 euro) and spoiled themselves with goat ice cream I got chatting to Clare and she popped a story into the conversation. The Fianna were arguing about which was the best music in the world and all the great Irish heroes fell to arguing - the song of the blackbird! The wire strung clarsach! The splashing of a river in the forest! The argument was getting to the point where a fight might just break when these great heroes realised Fionn, their leader, had not spoken so they turned to him to decide who was right. The greatest music, he replied, is the music of what is happening now.

Unfortunately I had to leave straight after the final performance on Sunday and miss the celebration meal. On the boat on my way back to the mainland our conversation fell silent and all on board gazed fifty yards out to sea to watch a family of dolphins swimming in parallel with us, their backs shiny black in the dusk.

I had to leave earlier than the others because I was going to work as an outside eye on the amazing show Fire in the North Sky so there were compensations. That and the company of Aideen McBride and her father who gave me a lift back to Cork and a non-stop far-ranging conversation about stories, myth and culture that shortened the road.

No sooner had I waved goodbye and walked into the handiest airport hotel than I found myself in another world. Immensely high ceilings, spotlights glinting off the shiny accessories and lulling muzak floating around. The staff were professional and personable but distant and appeared to be thinking of other things and looking around me I could have been anywhere in the world. In the restaurant a few islands of people sat at tables and the muzak competed with the commentary of two huge screens of football. The chaos that throws us together was kept at bay and the music of what was happening was drowned out.


This post was origanally published on another site on September 23, 2015