Thursday, September 6, 2018

An island on a sea of stories: Cape Clear Island International Storytelling Festival

It was almost exactly 10 years ago that I sat in a cafe in Jonesborough with Dovie Thomason, and she told me about Cape Clear for the first time. It sounded like a magical place, the kind storytellers would wish to find their way to, and I have been dreaming about going there ever since.
Well, dreams do come true sometimes.

This year I had the absolute privilege to be a featured teller of the Cape Clear Island International Storytelling Festival. I flew from Budapest to Dublin (a special thanks to the Hungarian Embassy in Dublin!), then took a road trip down to Cork, with my gracious host and friend Jack Lynch, and Lyn Ford, a lovely storyteller friend I already knew from Ohio. At the end of the road trip we just caught the 5 o'clock ferry from Baltimore to Cape Clear (we might or might not have stopped to hit some book shops on the way). By the time we were aboard, I could already catch my first glimpse of what awaited me for the weekend. Most passengers on the ferry were either storytellers, or audience, or both; the island only has about 100 inhabitants, but that number swells by the hundreds when the festival comes around. I quickly made friends with one of the other featured tellers, Daniel Morden from Wales, who braved the icy rain on top of the ferry with me, and helped me spot dolphins, seals, and birds (while we also discussed folktales and myths of all kinds). On the island we were greeted by our hosts and organizers, and set up in a cozy B&B, with delicious food cooked for us and tea ready. It was easy to tell that we were going to get horribly spoiled by the end of the week, but no one seemed to worry about that.
(Special thanks go out to Daphne Babington, Liz Weir, Maura Monagle, and Karen Edwards for making us all feel like we just arrived home)

The great thing about Cape Clear (apart from the warm hospitality) is that everyone who is there made a great effort to be there. We had audience members from as far as Canada and New Zealand, but even if they just came over from the mainland, or down the road, audience members were set, eager, and ready to come with us into every story we told. You could not wish for better listeners even if you tried. On top of all that, we also had a team of young volunteers that kept everything moving smoothly, and were there whenever we needed something - whether it was a lift to the top of the hill, or a song.

Each evening of the festival had a concert in a school building on a scenic spot of the island, and each day sported many other storytelling events at various locations. We opened the program with Hear All Tellers, where everyone had ten minutes to show off their stories and their style. Next to the four featured storytellers, we also had with us John Spillane, an amazing musician from Cork, who framed all the performances with beautiful songs in Irish and English. I brought Hungarian folktales and legends, and Lyn Ford brought Affrilachian stories; Joe Brennan, from Wexford via Donegal, told some wonderful Irish tales, while Daniel Morden told stories from all around the world with great humor and eloquence. On the first evening concert, he even ventured to tell a Hungarian folktale... I might have encouraged him to do so, because it is such a rare treat to hear a great storyteller from abroad tell a Hungarian tale. Daniel did it justice, and we had fun with him calling on me every time he had to pronounce "vasorrú bába" (iron-nosed witch) in the story. On my part, I told a legend about Attila the Hun; he came up earlier in a conversation, and I asked the audience if they have heard about him. Most people raised their hands; but when I asked how many of them heard good things, they all laughed and no hands went up. Therefore I told the tale of Attila and the comedians, and introduced them to another side of the Huns; the next evening, I went on to telling the legend of Attila's son, Prince Csaba, and the creation of the Milky Way (which we call the Road of the Warriors). For the rest of the weekend, I was mostly telling Hungarian folktales (among them many of my favorites from my new book), as well as the one Nart saga that I included in a moment of inspiration, since I only know it from two places, Ireland and Ossetia. Among the stories, I had the chance to tell my "feminist" re-telling of a Hungarian folktale called The Gossipy Women, a funny story that originally was told to prove that all women gossip - but in my version, it is told to prove that women share information and help each other in many secret ways.

The evening concerts were always a treat. They were framed by John's wonderful music (among them a song that I immediately fell in love with), and always closed with us singing popular Irish songs together with the audience. Con Ó Drisceoil also joined us for one day, and made us laugh with his songs until we were in tears. I'm not going to say that we exceeded seating limits on the Saturday night concert... I'm just going to point out that some people were standing on chairs, leaning in through the windows to hear us. It would take too long to list all the magical tales I heard over the course of the weekend, but there are many that I will remember fondly. I especially loved Lyn Ford's Cherokee story about Rabbit's heart song (funny and wise, as most trickster tales are), Joe Brennan's Irish version of the Hiding-from-the-Princess story (one of my favorite tale types), and Daniel Morden's telling of an Aesop's fable about love after loss.

I also had the chance to go on a walk across the island, led by Diarmuid Ó Drisceoil and Geoff Oliver. The sun came out for those two hours, and we listened to all kinds of tales about island life, folklore, and wildlife as we walked from North Harbor to the south. For the rest of the weekend, Cape Clear was wrapped in romantic Celtic fog, showing all kinds of picturesque faces of itself; one could walk around, admire the wildflowers, eat the blackberries, and watch the tide come in and go out in complete peace. It really is a magical place.

Sunday evening, after the last concert, we all walked down to the harbor, to say goodbye to the people who were leaving on the six o'clock ferry. In the tradition of the festival, we did so by waving long stripes of toilet paper in the air, singing "Go home, ya bums!" at the top of our lungs as the ferry moved away, carrying people who returned out heartfelt goodbyes with heartfelt gestures. In the evening, we had dinner in the pub with the organizers and the volunteers, told stories and jokes, sang songs, and laughed a lot. The next morning, we got on the ferry to return to the mainland, and, in a way, reality.

All those stories about magical islands in the sea seem a lot more realistic now. I know for sure I have been to one of them.


  1. I love reading about this event, having long heard of it. Thanks for posting the translation and congratulations.

  2. That sounds like a cool event. Awesome you got to go.

  3. You did the festival proud, Csenge!

  4. So nice to see the sigh to Tir na nOg. I wondered how to get there! Cape Clear is on my bucket list.