Liz Weir is not only a storyteller, or seanchaí (pronounced shan-uh-kee, which is Irish for storyteller/historian) , but she also runs a hostel in Northern Ireland called Ballyeamon. I was lucky enough this summer to visit her hostel located on the Antrim coast near some of Ireland’s most stunning landmarks. Liz met me and my family with a warm smile, helped us get settled into her cozy “camping barn” and then took us to her favorite restaurant n the nearby village of Cushendall. Along the way she told us stories about the fairy trees, shared local legends, and told us about the famine cemeteries and crystal clear water of the Glens of Antrim. Liz’s love of the land, the people and their stories was apparent and her hostel is a direct reflection of that love. Ballyeamon is unique among the many hostels on the Emerald Isle in that there is a session room lined with books and musical instruments where locals and tourists meet regularly to share stories and music. Liz has created a place where people can come together to rest from their weariness and share their stories.
This gifted storyteller and author has been bringing people together since she landed her first job as Children’s Librarian for the City of Belfast in 1976. At that time “The Troubles” were at their height. “The Troubles” refers to the three decades of violence between elements of Northern Ireland’s Irish nationalist community (mainly self-identified as Irish and/or Roman Catholic) and its unionist community (mainly self-identified as British and/or Protestant). This conflict has had terrible consequences, with more than 3,500 deaths since it began. In a recent newspaper article Liz was quoted as saying her work as a librarian “was a great opportunity to work with people of all ages – not just children, but their parents, their carers, their teachers, and show them they could be children at a time when life was forcing them to grow up very quickly.”
“In 1985 I started an adult storytelling group at the Linenhall Library called The Yarn Spinners, and I had a dream that one day there would be story telling groups all over Ireland. That dream has sort of come true; there are now the Tullycarnet Yarn Spinners, the Dublin Yarn Spinners, the Cork Yarn Spinners, there’s a group in Castlerock now as well.”
“When we started off the Troubles were at their height, and somebody would get up and tell a story about an Orange Lodge dinner, and somebody else would tell a story about going to Mass. The fact was we were all listening to each other’s stories, and respecting each other’s stories, and I think that’s very important. If you listen to someone’s story, you’re giving the utmost respect.” The people of Northern Ireland have been trying to leave their troubles behind, so to speak. Peace has come in recent years through people finding common ground and setting aside their differences. Stories play an important role in healing and in finding peace. Liz has created a place where these stories can be shared and healing can continue.
Along with her work as a storyteller and hostel owner, Liz also works with a number of organizations, including The Early Years Organisation in which she conveys important messages to children, such as anti-bullying, racism, respect for the elderly, and more. She has written 15 books for use by the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, and her latest book, When Dad Was Away, addresses the feelings of children whose parent is in prison. She also works with The Alzheimers Society. In fact, her work with this group would be taking her to Derry the day after our visit, where she would tell stories to Alzheimers patients as they traveled by train. She told me that she loves this work and the opportunity it gives her to reach out and help.
Liz has seen her share of troubles, as many of us have, but she has found a way to leave them behind by creating a life in which she can bring people together through story. Her hostel, Ballyeamon, shares its name with a traditional Irish lullaby which begins, “Rest tired eyes a while. Sweet is thy baby’s smile. Angels are guarding and they watch o’er thee.” It is a place where a weary traveler can rest their tired eyes and find comfort and a shared humanity in stories and song. Liz is the Angel watching over them all.
(Some quotes taken from Belfast News Letter, May 13, 2013