@Sealevel: Telling a Good Story

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My grandmother cemented into my memory “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story” from our hours around the Sunday dinner table, swapping stories.  So, when a potty-mouthed retiree-turned-guide – and my dear friend – said the same thing while we hiked Fairhead in the Glens of Antrim of Northern Ireland, I knew I was home.

Brendan and Leah share lunch on Lurig Mountain

Storytelling is in my genes. My maternal side of the family comes from the South and Appalachia, areas historically rich in folklore. Down the road from my great-grandmother’s house, the International Storytelling Center of Jonesborough hosts one of the largest storytelling festivals in the world. My mother grew up on a diet rich in tales: from biblical lessons told with gusto by her 1950s evangelical Baptist missionary parents to the lore she heard in Japan. In turn, my mother shared her love of, and penchant for, a good story with me.

With this history, I took seven weeks to learn from professional storyteller Liz Weir, based in Cushendall, Northern Ireland. A fiery woman, with red hair and an intense personality, Liz dispenses wisdom and delight. She adventures all over Northern Ireland, Ireland, the UK, Europe and even sometimes America to share her craft. Liz tells stories at many venues with the hope of reconciliation and healing for her audiences.

Her home base is a hostel called Ballyaemon Barn, which is a repurposed and renovated barn. The building is idyllic, painted white with red doors and window frames, and overlooks Glenariff Forest. Relatively isolated on the side of a large hill, it’s quiet there; however, the bustling seaside town of Cushendall is just 10 minutes away by car. While Liz travels, she employs “barnminders,” sometimes several at one time, to look after her home, which is what I did.

Ballyaemon Barn

In exchange for room and board, barnminders are responsible for cleaning up after guests and maintaining the Barn. I worked with a German girl named Vicky who was finishing up her gap year. Now, we’re close friends: I even visited her in Germany this past June. Liz collects our stories to entertain future barnminders, taking great pride in the diversity of her once-and-future staff. She keeps us connected on social media long after our terms have ended.

Some barnminders go to pursue an art, such as storytelling, writing (like me) or music. Storytelling interns learn mostly by example, watching Liz at events in full regality, and through conversation with her. Other barnminders come for language immersion and cultural exposure. Others just want to experience the pastoral, breathtaking environment of the Glens of Antrim.

Glenariff, with Scotland across the water

During my seven-week tenure, I had the opportunity to write often, inspired by my resonance with the Northern Irish landscape. It felt eerily similar to my childhood in Appalachia, hiking the Smokies and Blue Ridge. My only completed story explains the Great Smoky Mountain’s “smoke.” It weaves together unrequited love, parents and a young fairy woman’s fierce dedication to justice and mercy. Liz worked with me on delivery and development, giving tailored feedback.

Besides a library in her mind, Liz keeps a large, vibrant community in the Glens. It is filled with artists, musicians, singers, entrepreneurs and hospitality masters. Like Liz, they have long memories of their place, many smiles lines and a deep hospitality. Brendan, the potty-mouth guide, and his wife Fern opened their home and nature to me. Another frequent presence was Raymond, a peace-driven sculptor who had served in the IRA during The Troubles. Now, he manages his local art collective and tends to his home. With him and his family, I heralded the Summer Solstice over a bonfire and fairy lights.

Nearly every Saturday, folks in Liz’s community gather at the barn’s studio for a “session:” an evening of song and story, filled with laughter and sometimes tears. Weekly, one could count on acapella ballads, soothing guitar and tearing, tender fiddle to accompany some of the sweetest voices in the world.

Barnminders aren’t required to participate, except to serve tea, but they usually do. Guests often join, bringing tales or tunes from their homes. I heard about the creation of New Zealand and an epic ditty from Yorkshire. A regular attendee shared a spooky recollection of a midsummer past where he saw a ghost. My personal favorite was about the dragon counselor… or maybe the one about the scarred heart.

Liz invites her barnminders back and many show up annually or every couple of years. Some even become permanent residents of the Glens, finding love or struggling to leave the magic behind. I haven’t returned yet, but I hope to go back someday.