Celtic folklore is laden with stories of strong and ferocious warrior men and women. John Hamilton impeccably brings these characters to life, intertwining the tales of the men with those of the strong Celtic women of the time. Hamilton first enters the lower theatre of the Scottish Storytelling Centre with a bodhrán in hand, enchanting the audience with every beat of the traditional Irish drum. As he passes the sound around the audience in a playful game, he draws his crowd into the storytelling, and the scene is set.
Hamilton tells stories of Cruden’s wife Macha, who outran one of King Conor’s great chariots and gave birth at the finishing line in order to save her husband’s head, and of Queen Meadhbh, who entered fierce disputes with her husband to contest his claim on her unworthy ‘woman’s wealth’. He highlights the strength and prowess of these women, integral characters in much of Celtic folklore. The stories tell of their strength and loyalty, and their roles in making men into strong warriors. Hamilton introduces these feminist characters subtly: not devoting his tales to these women, but instead intertwining their success with the success of those which they helped and inspired – the men of Ireland and Scotland.
Humour is used flawlessly throughout the telling, due entirely to Hamilton’s enigmatic performance. Through his intimate narrative style, the entire audience is reduced to crippling laughter numerous times in his performance. The art of storytelling is perfectly embodied in Hamilton’s style, and as he tells stories in a range of whispers and loud speeches, the audience is moved swiftly from the Ulster Castle to the Scottish ‘university of violence’.
As a young Irish person, folklore and storytelling have been an integral part of my childhood, and watching this performance, I am brought a nostalgic comfort. My understanding and foundation in folklore certainly aid my understanding of the tales which we encounter, and it seems that others without any previous understanding of the tales involving Cú Chulainn or Sétanta may find the plots hard to grasp. However, perhaps the entire point is to commence not at the beginning, and not to end at the conclusion – a conventional trait of traditional storytelling, where Hamilton’s expertise is evident.
Through the evocative and enchanting storytelling of John Hamilton, the stories of the strong Celtic women – and their at times foolish and often drunken men – are able to come to life in the intimate venue. For someone with a grounding in storytelling this experience is hugely enjoyable, but even to those with little prior knowledge on these captivating characters, Hamilton’s performance is hopefully equally fascinating.
Scotland and Ireland: Warriors and Wild Women was performed as part of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. For more information please visit: https://www.sisf.org.uk/events/
Image: Dara Vallely