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Hooray for National Celtic Festival 2016!

Huge thanks to all the good folk who make the National Celtic Festival Australia Official happen every year – crew, volunteers, sponsors, artists, the good people of Portarlington – all lead by the visionary, hard-working, passionate Una McAlinden.

This year’s festival was just brilliant. Artists from all around the world brought their very best to enthusiastic crowds, who sang, listened, laughed, ate, drank, workshopped and danced their way through the weekend. The town – as always turned on the very warmest hospitality, opening its doors for the happy crowd who descended from all over. It was a celebration of Celtic culture, community, family, tradition and the power that music, song and story have to connect us all as a human family and transcend all divisions.

I was lucky to be treated to some of the fine work on offer, but this year I was so busy with my own gigs that I didn’t get to see as much as I would have liked. Despite this, I was delighted to meet many of the artists, make new friends and dream of new collaborations. Meeting fellow storyteller, Irish Joe Lynch, was definitely a highlight, as was being fortuitously billeted with the fabulous singer-songwriter, Teri Young. We had a sing over breakfast and she midwifed one of my half-baked songs into reality. We sang songs at the top of our voices all the way back up the highway to Melbourne in the car. I met the lovely Bernadette Morris, who has got me writing another song, about my ancestor, Kitty McCann, who comes from a place not far from the shores of Lough Neagh, where Bernadette lives. It turns out her own husband is a McCann. The joys of an international festival!

A big thank you especially to Una, for giving me the opportunity to be the ‘woman of the house’ – the ‘bean an ti’ – for the inaugural festival Rambling House. Having experienced Irish rambling houses on my recent trip, I was keen to get one going at the festival and it was warmly received. Thanks to all who brought a story, a poem or a song to share, or spontaneously got caught in the spirit of the gathering and gave us one – especially Jim, Keith, Teri Young, Kathryn Clements and Eric Purdie. I hope the Rambling House becomes a regular event at this festival long into the future.

Thanks to Jim Lawson for your support and encouragement and congratulations on your ever expanding Theatre Program which adds such richness to the festival. It was great to be present at an open rehearsal of Michael Kenny’s new play “The Messenger”, directed by Philip Hardy, of Barnstorm Theatre, Kilkenny. Festival goers enthusiastically took up the opportunity to offer feedback and respond to this powerful new work, which will present a story of the 1916 Uprising for a young audience. They were treated to performances by top Melbourne actors Sarah Kinsella, Russell Fletcher, Christine Keogh, Ben Adams and Jim Lawson.

It was disappointing to be unwell on Sunday and feeling a little under-par for my telling of ‘Cuchulainn’s Boyhood Deeds’, which usually goes off like a cracker, but I was very grateful for the generous understanding of my audience and the care offered by Jane and Mary and the volunteers at St. Andrew’s Ambulance, which helped me through.

After a wobbly night of feeling unwell, I was afraid I might have to withdraw from performing my new work, winding together the story of Cuchulainn’s meeting with the Morrigan and ultimately, his tale of his death. But, the show must go on! It was great to do this story in a big performance space like the Wine Bar and to feel the whole marquis of listeners hush and lean in to the story. I was moved to tears afterward by a man who came and beat his chest in a gesture of respect and offered me his heartfelt thanks for my rendition. Irish born, Michael said my version rang true and commented on what a difficult legend it is to read, but what a joy it is to listen to. Another audience member told me it was “spellbinding” and sent shivers up her spine. She said she’d look for my name first on next year’s program and give it an asterisk. It was a high risk to offer a new work for the first time in this context, but the feedback tells me it was worth effort.

Sometimes ‘the magic’ happens when I am telling a story and it takes over and it feels like I am just a conduit, a watcher at the gate, seeing the story unfold itself, as much as any audience member. It doesn’t always happen, but on Monday it did. Perhaps it was because in my wobbly state I said to my ancestors, “If you want me to tell this story, you better give me a hand.” And so they did.

Heartiest congratulations to all involved in making the festival happen and deepest gratitude for the opportunity to breathe my breath into the words of my ancestors, among such fine and joyous company.

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Countrywide tales!

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Recently, my friend Di Schulze asked me if I would go down and do a House Concert, in Bambra, in her wonderful home, at Countrywide Cottages. When I said yes, Di immediately applied her amazing entrepreneurial spirit to organizing the event and rallying the local community.

What had been one afternoon of storytelling quickly became two afternoons, September 5th and 6th and then shows at two local primary schools were added. In addition, Di had local businesses donate wonderful prizes of local olives, wines, jams and massages for a raffle. By the end of the weekend we had raised close to $2000, in support of my upcoming trip to Ireland, where I will be performing and undertaking research for my storytelling practice. What a result!

Having grown up around Geelong and spent many weekends in Deans Marsh, as a teenager, I really enjoyed returning to this beautiful, green part of the world.

I arrived to a warm welcome, which was extended across my stay. Soon there were cuppas, in the warmth of the fire and final planning for a big weekend of storytelling.

Di had some calico and suggested we paint a sign saying ‘Stories’ to hang on the fence. I volunteered jumping on a sewing machine and ‘whipping up something’ that would endure all weathers, thinking that this would take no time at all. I began on the Thursday night, but of course, it took more than one session to get it done. Do you ever imagine you will ‘just whip something up’ and then remember when you are well into it that things take time?

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On Friday morning, it was off to Birregurra Primary School for a show for the whole school. Principal Sue Dodds welcomed me warmly and the children were a delightful audience, very willing to contribute sound effects when necessary and full of questions when I was finished. It is the first time I have performed with a cow in the room. I love cows and was very impressed by this life sized cow that had been artfully painted by the students.

 

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After a quick bite of lunch in Birre, I drove across to Deans Marsh Primary School to set up for the afternoon show. Two delightful young students proudly took me on a tour, showing me the best climbing tree, their chickens and lush vegetable garden, the brick pile that would one day make a shed and the special animal carvings at the front of the school. The cow at Deans Marsh was unfortunately in the hallway, so she missed the show, but I did say hello to her afterwards. After their lunch, the children all came in and the show began. They were also a wonderful audience and made an incredible flock of seagulls for me, in one of the stories. There were questions after the show and then the Principal, Murray Surkitt, gave out awards to students who had been working very hard and achieving great personal results. Their school captain, Will, shook my hand firmly and thanked me for coming on behalf of the students. He is an impressive young leader.

On the morning of my first show at Countrywide Cottages, a lamb was born right across from the house, before breakfast. It was lovely to watch the ewe, a first time mother, tend to her lamb and bond with it. I took this as a great blessing on the day!

There was a lot of setting up to be done and Di and Stu got on a roll bright and early. Stu and I hung flags along the drive, to mark the gate from the road and make a festive avenue for the audience to arrive through, topping it off with my ‘Stories’ banner. Di had spent hours making festive bunting that we hung around the stage and the afternoon tea outside. Our mutual friends, Joan and John, arrived from Melbourne and gave a great help with final preparations. While I was limbering up, everyone else was flat out with the final set up.

The house was warm and welcoming, there was food and wine aplenty, the guests arrived and settled in for an afternoon of stories. The next day, we did it all again. In one of the question times it was great to hear one of the locals, Andrew, a natural storyteller, recount the tale of the “Bambra Lights.” One of the great perks of storytelling is that people share their stories with you – and this one was a ripper – super spooky!

By the end of these events I was full of admiration for this community, their welcome, their strong networks and all the lively things that they have going on. House Concerts are a great way to share stories, because you really get to meet people and the intimacy of the event has a powerful effect on the stories, the listeners and also me, as the teller.

 

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I would like to thank the following people for their generous donations:

Haidee Benning, Moksha Project, Winchelsea

Brett and Christine Smith, Otway Escapes

Dinny Goonan, Dinny Goonan Wines, Bambra

Leanne, Gentle Annie Berry Gardens and Farmhouse, Pennyroyal

Mike and Katrine, Pennyroyal Raspberry Farm & Cidery, Murroon

Birregurra Arts Group

Judy and Andrew, Old Lorne Road Olives

Jan and Peter Grieg, Gosling Creek Winery

Amy, Otway Fields, Gerangamete

With all the treats on offer, good old fashioned hospitality and the beautiful countryside to enjoy, I highly recommend a Spring or Summer jaunt along the Otway Harvest Trail!

 

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My heartfelt thanks go to Di and Stu for the huge amount of time, thought, effort and creativity that went into making the weekend happen and for welcoming me so warmly into their home. It feels like the very best send-off for my trip to Ireland!

 

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Embodying Story Characters

One of the wonderful opportunities a storyteller has, is to explore getting ‘inside’ a vast array of characters and embodying them.

Becoming different characters is enormous fun, but also very instructive. In the creative process of discovering what any character might be like physically, vocally or imaginatively, you can’t help learning things about yourself and about humanity in general. Getting under the skin of characters offers the opportunity to find out how they tick, in a very intimate way. I admit I enjoy being ferocious monsters, wily crones and muscular warriors just as much as beautiful queens and wise kings. In a way, I am keeping alive a skill of imaginative play many people offload when the think they are too grown up for it.

Drawing is an important part of my creative process. I often sit down to draw without deciding what I want to draw and just scratch about until something emerges. It is a thing of wonder to be surprised by your own drawings! It’s always fascinating to discover what is lurking in my unconscious, especially since this is one time it happens when I am awake, rather than in my dreams.

These two lovely sisters showed up this morning and I am more than sure they have many stories to tell.

Since I was a teenager, I have wanted to write and illustrate books for children. Slowly I am inching my way down a path to the place where this dream will come true!

A Big Thank-You!

Warmest thanks to all who came out to Newport recently for my Storytelling House Concert.

As you know, the event was a fund-raiser, with ticket sales going toward my upcoming trip to Ireland. It was evident that you donated more than the set ticket price, which was very generous. I wanted to let you know that the funds raised from this event have just paid for a week’s accommodation in Dublin. I’m very grateful for your support! This will enable me to have a week in Dublin’s fair city at the end of my travels, to do some final research and some writing, before I return to Australia.

The trip planning began with an invitation to tell stories at Sneem Storytelling Festival, but there now seems to be an ever increasing list of opportunities for storytelling and story listening, which I will blog here, as I go.

Looking forward to sharing my adventure with you!

Slan go foill!

Niki

Investigating the Wise Women and Seanchaí of Ireland.

Peig Sayes - Irish seanachie.
Peig Sayes – Irish seanachie.

 

Being in Ireland will be a great opportunity to do some research on Irish stories and Irish storytellers – the seanchaí and wise women, keepers of the oral tradition.

I must look up Peig Sayer’s writing and folk stories, as I have only dipped into a few, in a collection I bought when I was last on the West Coast of Ireland, in 2008. Peig lived on the beautiful, rugged and challenging Blasket Islands, off the coast of Kerry, Ireland. She made a great contribution to Irish folklore, but did not write her stories down, as she was a keeper of the oral tradition.

These storytellers and their stories fascinate me. There are many stories I tell that I have never written down or recorded, but nothing like what these men and women would have committed to memory! So much culture, tradition, knowledge of place and people was kept for generations in these stories.

There is a great article about Peig Sayers here:

http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/in-praise-of-peig-sayers-by-sara-baume-1.2124500

The Countdown Is On!

Excitement is growing!

It’s only 40 days until I fly to Ireland to begin my storyteller’s tour.

There is so much to do before I take off and I have several lists on the go, trying to make sure that I have done all I need to do before take-off, as well as setting up my itinerary as much as I can, without shutting down the spirit of adventure!

All this began with a simple question, “Might you be in Ireland this November?” This was followed by an invitation to be a guest storyteller at Sneem Storytelling Festival. From this several other concerts have sprouted and many opportunities for study and research. Best of all there are so many wonderful people to meet, many of whom I have been talking to online from this side of the planet for several years. A couple of them have written books I have devoured. I can’t wait to meet them all in person!

I think the road to Sneem Storytelling Festival might just be lined with cups of tea and a few pints of Guinness.

Grand review for Epic Tales.

In 2014, Tremaine Pavlovski from Scotch College, Melbourne, commissioned me to write a show about my ancestors and their experience of migrating to Australia and how this had impacted my own story. The result was ‘Kissing the Blarney As It Flies’, which was performed initially for Tremaine’s Grade 5 class, who were exploring the histories of their own families and responding to them with dramatic works, centred on their own storytelling. Skilfully led by Tremaine, the boys’ work was highly successful; the images, 3-dimensional artworks and installations they created were spectacular.

Later that year I presented this first show about my Irish ancestors as part of the ‘Words On The Wind’ series of storytelling events, at the Library At The Docks, in Docklands, Melbourne. This was a wonderful series of storytelling events, curated by Storytelling Australia Victoria, which explored associations with the Docklands from many different perspectives. My ancestors Peter and Margaret Walsh sailed into Hobson’s Bay in the late 1800s, aboard ‘The Red Jacket’, having left Waterford, Ireland to make a new home here.

Dr. Frances Devlin-Glass, the Director of Bloomsday in Melbourne, saw the show at the Docks and we began discussing the possibility of a storytelling show at the Celtic Club, as a fund-raiser for Bloomsday in 2015. Frances said her audience would appreciate some humour, perhaps some material drawn from The Tain and to be sure I added lashings of hyperbole. I relished the challenge and the prompting to get some of the epic legends of the Irish Fenian and Ulster Cycles under my belt. Reading several different versions of the stories, including Thomas Kinsella’s translation of The Tain, I started to develop material that could be delivered as an oral storytelling performance. Deirdre Gillespie generously gave me some coaching on my Irish pronunciation of the names of characters, places and landmarks, for which I was very grateful. Throughout the process, I also researched more of the history of my own Irish ancestors and began to weave their stories around the legends and folklore, to bind them all together.

Out of this process of research, reflection and improvisation, grew ‘Dancing the Bones of Irish Myth and Legend’, which was presented initially at the Celtic Club, with great success.

Here is Frances’ review, in the Irish magazine, Tintean: http://tintean.org.au/2015/04/01/dancing-the-bones-of-archaic-irish-stories/

Coming Soon: House Concert @ Countrywide Cottages, Bambra

Countrywide Cottages, Bambra – HOUSE CONCERT

From the Birre Mail:

“A Magical afternoon of Storytelling”

Saturday September 5th, 1.30 – 4.30 pm for a 2 – 4 pm performance at Countrywide Cottages, 1205 Winchelsea Deans Marsh Rd, Bambra

Grab your diaries now and make sure you book soon to enjoy this amazing performance of stories, drawn from folklore, myth and legend. Tickets $25 per person.

Di and Stuart, of Countrywide Cottages are hosting an afternoon of storytelling by their friend, Niki na Meadhra. Niki has worked as a theatre practitioner, storyteller and community artist in a broad range of settings for over 30 years. She has told stories to audiences ranging from intimate garden parties to 3000 people at Dallas Brooks Hall.

This year Niki has been invited to tell stories in Ireland, at the Sneem International Storytelling Festival, in Kerry. This has grown into a tour, including concerts in Cork, and Waterford. When Niki was last in Ireland in 2008, she kissed the Blarney Stone and hasn’t been able to stop telling stories since! She has a passion to fan the flames of the oral tradition and would love to seed storytelling events and foster storytelling skills in communities wherever she travels!

There are limited tickets for this magical event. 100% of the proceeds will go to Niki to help her extend her storytelling tour of Ireland. Dinny Goonan will be selling his amazing wine; afternoon tea will be provided and there will be a raffle of some lovely local goods. If tickets are sold out when you try to book, please leave your details on the waiting list or be in touch with Di and Stuart, as they then plan to arrange a second gig the following afternoon.

To buy tickets: www.trybooking.com/151354

When: 1.30 – 4.30 pm, Sept 5 2015

Where: Di and Stuarts home, Countrywide Cottages, 1205 Winchelsea Deans Marsh Rd, Bambra

Contact us: Di and Stuart on 5288 7399 or stay@countrywidecottages.com.au

 Niki na Meadhra spinning a yarn.

Newport House Concert

Niki na Meadhra becoming the hound of Culainn, reading to attack the young Setanta.
Niki na Meadhra becoming the hound of Culainn, reading to attack the young Setanta.
Setanta spies the hound in the shadows.
Setanta spies the hound in the shadows.
The story takes over!
The story takes over!

It was a joy to tell stories of ancient Ireland and weave them together with stories of my own Irish ancestors, at my recent House Concert in Newport. First the audience was introduced to my grandfather, Tom Walsh, a man of great charm and a lover of literature, to whom the first story of Fionn MacCumhaill (Finn McCool) was dedicated. The second series of three shorter stories about the Cailleach, the Irish crone/goddess, were dedicated to my feisty great-grandmother, Florence.

After some chai and afternoon tea we regathered and I launched into the grand tale of the childhood deeds of Cú Chulainn. This story was dedicated to my great-great-great-great-grandmother, Kitty McCann, of Belfast, because she and Cú Chulainn both hailed from Ulster.

I suspect that I have a little of Kitty’s spirit in me, because one of my favourite things to do is become the warrior, Cú Chulainn, when he goes into ‘Warp Spasm’ – a frightening state that overcomes him, when he goes into battle. (Though Kitty never took up a sword, she faced major obstacles in her life with enormous courage, beginning with migrating from Ireland to Australia, aged 16, alone.) A ‘Warp Spasm’ is quite tiring and I really did enjoy that cup of tea when the stories ended.

Warmest thanks to my host, Jackie Kerin, for generously opening her home for this event and making everyone so welcome and comfortable. Jackie is a wonderful storyteller herself and the current president of Storytelling Australia Victoria. She is a great champion for storytelling and storytellers and has been a great supporter of my practice.

Thanks also for my wonderful audience, who came out for some stories and generously supported this fund-raiser, to help make my upcoming trip to Ireland possible. Thanks for joining me in the stories and all your feedback and suggestions afterwards.

A House Concert: A wonderful place to tell & hear stories.

Niki na Meadhra @ Newport House Concert, August, 2015.
Niki na Meadhra @ Newport House Concert, August, 2015.

In a few short weeks, I will again have the luxury of telling stories at a House Concert.

This time my hosts will be Di and Stuart from Countrywide Cottages, Bambra. They have been very busy letting the local community know that I will be heading down from the Big Smoke to tell a yarn or two. From all I have heard from Di, it sounds like I will be made very welcome by some generous country hospitality.

Telling stories at a House Concert is very intimate and makes me think of days gone by, before television and the internet, when people often gathered in pubs, or homes, around a fire to hear a story. For the audience, the cosy comfort of being in someone’s home adds to the magic unfolding, by giving them a relaxing environment to let go of the wider world and tune in to the world of the stories. For me, as a storyteller, it feels very personal and immediate to be able to see the face of each listener and to ask direct questions or simply engage them with a raised eyebrow. Everything is magnified in such close quarters. Something large and full of energy seems even larger, but at the same time the smallest, subtlest thing can be gently shared and still clearly seen.

This particular concert is a fund-raiser for my upcoming trip to tell stories in Ireland. So, the program will be bursting with ancient tales from Ireland, woven together with stories of my own Irish ancestors.

Having done several House Concerts now, I’m very much looking forward to this one! Do get in contact if you are interested in hosting one yourself.

Image: Niki na Meadhra telling stories with Clare Coburn, at Enchanted Evening, in the Bishop’s Parlour at Abbotsford Convent. Photo c. Charlie Sublet.