Geraldine Brennan on the revival of an ancient art. Once upon a time in Northern Ireland before the ceasefire, there was a storyteller from County Antrim who was booked into two neighbouring primary schools: the Protestant school one week, the Catholic school the next. It could have been the other way round - that's not the important bit.
The pupils shared a school bus but the two groups never spoke to each other apart from an occasional flurry of abuse. After the storyteller, Billy Teare, had been to the first school, the bus driver reported that the pupils were talking. The first move had come from the Protestant children, who couldn't resist passing on the stories they had heard.
This tale was retold at Stories for Peace, an international gathering of storytellers held in January in Tel Aviv to celebrate the tenth birthday of Israel's Centre for Storytelling. It was passed on by Liz Weir, another County Antrim storyteller and a frequent collaborator with Billy.
Liz is currently orchestrating a revival of the ancient and compulsive art of telling. She is a children's librarian who has become a freelance storyteller during a three-year leave of absence. Also a governor of an integrated school, she believes storytelling can be not only an indispensable teaching aid, but a tool for conflict resolution in and out of the classroom.
"Sharing stories can cross all sorts of barriers - of age, disability, religion and culture. Northern Ireland is a small place and not very multicultural - we have to work at widening our horizons. And to appreciate other people's cultures, you have to have a sense of your own."
She believes that any demarcation theory which slots particular folk traditions into Protestant or Catholic territory is itself a myth. "The traditional tales from Ireland or from the Ulster-Scots heritage belong to everyone, not to Catholics or Protestants. You can tell a story from Kilkenny in a Protestant school in Ballymena and the message is just as relevant. "
Storytelling is a co-operative art form, with the artists borrowing and sharing from all cultures and giving it a fresh flavour in the repetition. The exception to this common ownership policy are original texts by living authors. "If the story is from an original text written by an individual, you wouldn't tell it for profit but you could borrow bits with permission. In any case, the point of telling a story is to give it your own stamp."
Storytellers are accessible to their audiences and there is a sense of intimacy even in large venues. It's the everyday human element in the performance - and the feeling that there is a storyteller in everyone - that is making the oral tradition attractive to the jaded consumers of the video age.
"People are fed up with pre-packaged information and they are looking for contact with real people," says Liz. "It's easy to feel disconnected when you watch television. The storyteller depends on interaction."
At one of her regular haunts, Steelstown primary in Derry, she is still croaky from a bad cold but presses on with selling storytelling to 10 and ll-year-olds.
A lone cry of "TV's far better" has died away by the end of Liz's "Three Bears Rap", which rounds off an hour of stories - hers and theirs.
In order to make pupils and teachers perceive themselves as natural storytellers, she presents the process in simple, everyday terms. "See the picture in your mind first and tell it in your own words," she says. "Then you'll always remember it."
Storytelling has a tradition of respect for the teller, of taking turns without interrupting or heckling and of giving full attention. These may seem like elusive ideals in many classrooms but Liz pursues them relentlessly, challenging interruptors with "one singer, one song", banning crisps and ice creams from out-of-school sessions ("I tell them they're not at the pictures") and reining in listeners whose minds are elsewhere.
"You have to watch their faces to see if they're with you. If it's not working you slip in another story. Once you've hooked them, their attention is total even if there are outside interruptions."
Billy Teare trained for the rigours of the storytelling circuit by working as a stand-up comic in Belfast nightclubs. He held two groups of mostly under-6s spellbound in a busy museum foyer on a public holiday, from a platform between the cafeteria and the shop. "When their mouths drop open, you know you've got them," he says. "They don't notice what else is going on."
The Steelstown session came in the middle of the North-Western Storytelling Festival, organised by Liz for the third year. She has put this event firmly on the international storytelling calendar, drawing in major-league performers such as Alex Pascall from Grenada via north London, the Storycrafters from New York state and Duncan Williamson from Scotland, who is generally recognised as the father of the current storytelling revival.
It is significant that the festival takes place in and around Derry, in hospitals, schools and residential homes as well as in more obvious performance venues. The city has been enjoying a cultural renaissance which was already in place before the ceasefire. The Verbal Arts Centre, set up in May 1992 by local writer Sam Burnside, has helped to promote and discover new writers and storytellers from north-west Ireland with its programme of community outreach work, performances and writers' residencies Anita Robinson, a primary teacher on a year's secondment as the centre's teacher-in-residence, points out that the demands that storytellers make of the listener are contributing to their popularity. "It takes more concentration to listen intently to a story than to watch a video passively. People need the challenge."
Liz is sufficiently convinced that there is a future in telling stories to give up her old job. She sees her role as that of "an injector of enthusiasm" for her craft.
"I visit schools a number of times, saying, 'I'll be back and I'll be wanting to hear your stories'. I get the pupils to do the collecting and gathering. There's no point in doing a brilliant performance and never being seen again."
She wants the teachers to feel they can do what she does and believes storytelling skills should be included in all three-year teacher training degrees. She herself has led seminars on PGCE courses, done in-service training work and provided source books for materials. "A lot of teachers are scared of the idea of having to do a big performance. In fact there's no need for that - everyone has what's necessary in them already." For practising teachers a first step is to invite a storyteller into school - they are often publicised by local education authorities and there is a Society for Storytelling which publishes a directory - and then listen.
"If the teacher wanders off or sits there marking, the pupils get the idea that it's not important or that it's 'only for children'. that's telling them they're not important. Sure, teachers are under pressure - which makes it all the more important to do something that's fun once in a while.
"Storytelling is not wasting time that could be spent on curricular work - it is cross-curricular work. It can be used for history, geography, the environment, anything."
Taffy Thomas, the only storyteller in the UK employed full-time by a local council (South Cumbria), agrees there is no question about their place in the classroom. "The appearance of speaking and listening in the national curriculum (all key stages in English, England and Wales) has done us a favour in that respect. We're not coming out of the entertainment budget any more."
Liz delves into her repertoire afresh for each session, thinking on her feet. At her public performances she may have to suit everyone from babes in arms to their great-grandparents, with desperately cool 14-year-olds somewhere in the middle.
"There are stories to suit any audience. Very academic grammar school pupils can be the hardest nuts to crack - harder even than the ones who are acting tough. The academic children are worried about wasting time. But I show them the benefits of the visualisation element and the spin-offs for creative writing. Nobody is too clever or too cool not to have room for a story. "
The Society for Storytelling directory, listing storytellers, is available at Pounds 10, incl pp, from Miranda Perry, 95 Riversdale Road, London N5 2SU Tel: 0171 359 9103 National Tell a Story Week is promoted annually by the Federation of Children's Book Groups. Contact: Alison Dick: 0131 449 2713