From Mayfield to Morocco... Cork woman set to feature at prestigious festival

A Mayfield woman has landed a prestigious invitation to a storytelling festival in Morocco next year. She tells NOEL SWEENEY how the pandemic has elevated her craft
From Mayfield to Morocco... Cork woman set to feature at prestigious festival

FLYING FLAG FOR CORK: Maria Gillen is taking part in the first Marrakech international storytelling festival, in Morocco next year.

CORK storyteller Maria Gillen has been invited to take part in the first Marrakech international storytelling festival, set to take place in Morocco next year.

Planned as a physical event in February, 2022, the festival is set to coincide with the opening of the International Storytelling Café, a soon to be completed building, which will be an international hub for storytellers.

Gillen, who cut her teeth through the Cork Yarnspinners and The Gab storytellers and is now involved in the Facebook page Story Seeds, says she is privileged to be invited to perform at the event.

She received her invitation last month, but it didn’t just come out of the blue. For years, she has honed her craft at every storytelling event going.

“I’ve been listening to and telling stories all my life because my mom was a fairly handy storyteller,” the Mayfield native explains.

“I’ve been involved in playback theatre and improvisation and I’m also a drama therapist. All these things come together and inform my storytelling.”

For Maria, the magic in storytelling was realised after she was sent to train in ‘emotional intelligence’ while working in the corporate world. The objective was to put the personal stories of the company’s staff and clients at the centre of everything. Within a short space of time, the turnover of staff decreased to almost zero.

“Listening is as important as doing,” says Maria. 

“We stopped everything on a Friday evening and asked each other how we were doing; it was all really simple stuff."

The event next February will see storytellers from across the globe bunk up together in the Saharan city. Performances will be held at the purpose-built International Storytelling Café with localised events throughout wider Marrakech.

The tellers are connecting through Zoom in preparation for the upcoming event, and for many, it will be the first time they meet in person.

“We’re really looking forward to meeting one another in the flesh” Maria says, “during the year we all tried out new things, so we’ll be looking to bring them to Morocco, but we’re also hoping to collect, through story, the story of Marrakech and bring that back”.

Maria channels her mixed skill set into what she calls ‘Medicinal Storytelling’. She lights up while telling me about her work with women’s circles and disenfranchised groups.

“I tell two types of stories, one is the more traditional Irish stories, like Capall Bán na Mara, but I also create stories, so as a drama therapist, I create medicinal stories.”

“These include stories around the Bean Sidh and a story I wrote in praise of the Choctaw nation, who donated famine aid to Ireland.”

Commissioned by a local arts group, Maria created a story around the Bean Sidhe. The result was a poignant piece that carries a certain gravitas, loudly echoing a theme concurrent with recent findings at the former mother and baby home at Bessborough.

“Creative Bandon asked me to create a story about the good side of the Bean Sidhe, because she got a bad rap of late, but it didn’t start out that way,” Maria explains. 

“She reclaims holy ground for the babies who died without ceremony during famine times.

“These babies were never claimed in life so in the story she is saying, it’s important that they are claimed.

“There’s a famine graveyard in Bandon and they knitted the Bean Sighe story in with that and made her the protector of those babies.”

Medicinal storytelling for groups involves taking wisdom and messages from traditional stories while looking at where similar themes resonate for her clients today.

The model looks at what is unsayable, and how it can become sayable through story, offering a bird’s eye view of a particular issue.

“Stories allow you to look at something without having to take a stance. When you take a stance you create a line, and on one side you have the people you can offend while on the other side of the line you have the people who could offend. So, we rub out that line out with story.

“You can work with things in that way. The Greeks had a word for this, and they called it ‘catharsis’.”

Experiencing a kind of catharsis of her own, since everything changed with Covid-19 a year ago, things have never been busier for Maria. Life is good.

Through Zoom, she holds storytelling workshops all over the world; everywhere, from New Zealand to Newfoundland. And just last month she was taken on as storyteller-in- residence at the Kerry Writers Museum in Listowel, whom she’ll represent in Marrakech.

“For me, stories have always been there. But there has been a real coalescence for storytelling since Covid. It’s one of the big silver linings to the Covid cloud for us.

“I’ve met storytellers that I could only dream of meeting. On the one hand, we were out of work, but on the other hand, you get to have weekly meetings with people like (renowned storyteller) Liz Weir, people you’d only ever dream of working with. Our community is really coming together, storytelling is a lot more in the public consciousness.”

Maria no longer needs to only dream of working with Liz Weir.

When a consort of Irish storytellers’ hits Marrakech next year, Maria will be one of a four-strong team from the island of Ireland.

She and Galway’s Orla McGovern will fly the flag for the south, while Colin Irwin and Liz Weir will represent Northern Ireland.

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