The Festival is always looking for storytellers.
They might be balladeers or poets; dancers or tour guides, but they must always have a certain ‘something’ that makes their style unique. Thus, when we stumbled upon the many talents of The Armagh Rhymers -and the way in which they beguile children and elders alike- you can imagine we were pretty pleased! This year, we are thrilled to announced the delivery of a new story -about the Liver Birds- and their presence at the Festival again. Below, Dara Vallely -founder, performer, artist and storyteller- outlines The Rhymers story.
Who are The Armagh Rhymers?
The Armagh Rhymers have been delighting audiences in their native Ireland and across the world for 45-years. Some have commented that they are like ‘cow clap’, never off the road! I suppose in many ways that is true, their work takes them to numerous places. A recent standout moment was a TV appearance on The Antiques Roadshow with the formidable and delightful Fiona Bruce.
The rhyming tradition in Ireland stretches back into the mists of time, in fact to when the first person donned a disguise and stepped into a neighbour’s house to entertain them with a song, dance, story or poem. When was that? I’m not sure anyone knows. Such traditions live in the heart of the people rather than history books. Nowadays The Armagh Rhymers celebrate their tradition through song, dance and drama; art forms that bring them to a staggeringly large range of audiences and venues. Their work in schools is legendary, with people now in their 40’s and 50’s recalling the day The Rhymers came to their school. Their wonderment and sometimes fear relived when they meet the group 30 or 40-years on at a festival or an event and often in the company of their own children.
From the earliest days of The Rhymers, their trademark willow and straw masks aroused a sense of tradition and history, evoking the spirit of the Wren boys and the ancient house visiting tradition of Ireland. The rhyming tradition is a celebration of the ‘theatre of the people’ and over the years has inspired poets such as John Montague, Brendan Kennelly, Seamus Heaney and John Hewitt. It is a tradition that had been embraced by all beliefs in Ireland. In the 1980’s The Armagh Rhymers were the first group to bring Catholic and Protestant school children together and often in each other’s schools. The children took active parts in the anarchic and highly comedic storytelling ritual. The audience were the rest of the school, teachers and parents. For that brief time the laughter, music and the joint purpose of helping The Rhymers tell the story made differences dissolve. These were landmark events for the participating schools, in many cases the first meeting that led to many more.
With Covid came challenges. Fortunately it appears that zany folk drama also works well on Zoom. The Armagh Rhymers were able to reach thousands of children, in their own classrooms, and the craic didn’t seem to be diminished at all! The group have recently released their second CD, The Armagh Rhymers VOLII and a LP containing bonus tracks from recordings in Cultra Folk Museum the 1990’s. These are perhaps the first commercial recordings of a mummers’ play. Over their 45-years the group have toured widely throughout the world including USA, China, South Korea, England, Scotland, Wales, the Baltic States, Portugal, France and Italy. The group have recently been commissioned by the United States Library of Congress to make a film of their music and tradition.
The Armagh Rhymers have enjoyed a great relationship with Liverpool Irish Festival and are honoured to be associated with such a fine city. Of course, Liverpool is home to so many Irish people and the musicians really enjoy making the connections with the diaspora as well as meeting people from Liverpool’s very diverse population. It never fails to delight when they meet up with someone from ‘home’ who wants to tell them where they came from and maybe discover a friend or even relation in common. The Family Day at Museum of Liverpool is their base during the festival and here they perform their eclectic blend of storytelling, music, dance and song. There’s always a chance to join in and they are never short of volunteers. Sunday brings them to the Liverpool Irish Centre for the Samhain Céilí. The group are honoured to play with the superb local musicians. They grew up listening to The Liverpool Ceili Band and watching them win All Ireland titles. Here they re-enact parts of the Old Mummers’ Play for the audience. Again, stories abound from around Ireland of the old days when mummers, rhymers and Wren boys visited the houses in the dark days after Christmas or for the wedding of a son or daughter.
This year The Armagh Rhymers will present their very own take on where the Liver birds came from and how they have affected the fortunes of the city they are famous in. The story is told through an old monk who found two little sibling birds after a storm, after their father and mother and all their kind had perished in the storm. The kindly old monk reared the two little siblings and even taught them to speak. People from all over the world came to see them and wonder in amazement at their human powers. Generous individuals gave gifts to the old monk in thanksgiving for the two marvellous birds and the old monk used the money to help feed the poor. The birds went on to live very different lives, but their many adventures led to them being immortalised as sculptures perched high above the city where they can watch generations of Liverpudlians come and go. Our version of the story was adapted by Dara Vallely and has been beautifully illustrated by Annie June Callaghan.
The Armagh Rhymers look forward to appearing at Liverpool Irish Festival again this year. Come and meet them, try on their masks and hear about the adventures of those two birds!