Artists Interviews

August 2013: Cliodhna Noonan

Irish Artists in Conversation


Storyteller Joe Brennan

Artists engaging in high quality new ventures for early years audiences are growing in numbers. In order to find our way forward and ensure a regular supply of such events, we are forced to think outside the box. We have to offer something out of the ordinary to communities that have a sense of togetherness and venues that have unusual, but attractive, meeting areas for small scale storytelling, visual arts and theatre and music performances.

In the case of Jabberwocky, I attended the first performances with my own children. It was completely sold out. Jake and the Sleeping Beauty also. Barbara’s storytelling sessions are booked out weeks in advance. Doesn’t this show that there is a vibrant audience chomping at the bit for regular arts experiences to bring their very young children to?

Let’s hear who these artists are, where they have come from and where they hope to be in the future.

Magic Carpet Productions North County Dublin is a small group (numerically) with a large passion for introducing children to the wonder of live theatre in a professional family atmosphere.

"Our productions include many aspects of theatre i.e. drama, music, dance, comedy, audience participation etc. While our productions are fully staged with costumes, music, lights and sound effects, we adapt our shows according to the venues. (Tony and Susan Cash have a circus background!) We are currently touring with a children’s show, "Jake and the Sleeping Beauty", an original fairytale suitable for 4 to 12 year olds (as well as Mums, Dads, Grandparents, Cousins, Uncles and Aunties). Lack of core funding frustrates our efforts to provide up to the minute technical effects i.e. lighting, sound, set design and impacts on our efforts to provide employment to technical staff. We are performing in Libraries, Community Centres, Heritage sites and Festivals around the country. Owing to the nature of the family content of our shows, we are currently playing to packed houses. Occasionally we perform also in theatres."

Barbara O’ Meara (Early Years Storyteller at Bishopstown Library in Cork) is a mother of five children. Retired early years teacher from Cork College of Commerce and grandmother of 5 nowadays.

"I always liked working with my children and during the holidays we did all sorts of arts projects. When the youngest was 2.5 I opened up a home playgroup and did that for 12 years. I really loved it. I did all the courses the I.P.P.A. could provide and became a tutor for them. I then went on to do my degree in English and sociology at U.C.C. and followed that with a Masters in Education and a post grad diploma in whole school management. I taught the C.A.C.H.E diploma in childcare, London City and Guilds, and the F.E.T.A.C childcare programmes at levels 5 and 6. I quickly realised that a lot of my students had very little experience of the arts and working with very young children. It was my job to inspire them and give them the artistic experiences that would help them relate to the very young children through drama, music, creative arts and of course story telling. I witnessed their talents unfolding, which matched with their awakening as to the importance of engaging with the very young. The students did work placement and were able to try out their ideas on placement. We had a great time. So you can see I came from two different perspectives - on the one hand I was a practitioner for 12 years and on the other I was a trainer of trainers.

I am now retired and I work as a storyteller for early years at Bishopstown Library in Cork. I use the methods of story boards, velcro boards, puppets, interactive storytelling, drama presentations for the very young, the overhead projector and computer to engage the childrens interest and beg participation and interaction. The question is can our childcare workers engage in this way with the children and babies? Does the training our childcare students get enable them and give them the necessary confidence to do this? My experience has been that there is not enough time and credit on the courses given to these areas. We need to captivate the childrens’ interest from babies up. They need multisensory experiences in the area of arts education.

The library is where children pick and choose books, so encouraging libraries all over the country to have story time or music rhyme and story with professional artists would be a great idea. Following the session children can be encouraged to choose books for themselves. The pure pleasure of sitting in a corner with a book and turning the pages with excitement is what it is all about.

I love it. I can use all my skills and experiences of pre-school and teaching. I have written 8 little stories about the Shellys of Shelly Bay. I drew the stories on A2 card and coloured them in with aqua colours. They cross cultural divides and open discussions on all sorts of familiar topics. I believe in fewer statistics and more stories, paint not politics, plenty of drama and dreaming and colour. We could change the world."


"I’ve been working with kids of all ages for over thirty years. I ran an inter-disciplinary arts workshop for kids with two artists in the late seventies. My first plays were written for children. I subsequently had a puppet theatre in the mid-eighties which toured Munster regularly. I don’t really differentiate in my mind between children and adults. They relate to different content but the basic wish to put on a show that is stimulating to the audience and of some general benefit as a social and intellectual experience is the imperative at all times. I’ve done some theatre in education work in language teaching contexts but it is not my primary interest. I have also done many shows with children, which are conventional dramatic experiences for all.

The current Toy Theatre initiative is a misnomer. A mistake on my part. I need to re-cast the enterprise as a storytelling form of theatre with a parallel development of a genuine toy theatre ideally continuing in the Everyman. I intend to launch a new initiative immediately called Jabberwocky Storytelling Theatre.

My work is very straightforward and smells of the story and the clown more than the classroom. It is not highly theorized but is relentlessly attentive to the best form of storytelling available for different age groups."

JOE BRENNAN is a storyteller, theatre maker, writer and facilitator. He has worked throughout Ireland and travelled widely with his work from Iceland and Norway to the north, India to the south, Egypt to the east and the US to the west, and many places in between.

"When I started storytelling I immediately found myself working in early years without being fully aware of what it meant. I found myself telling in playgroups, in reception (in Northern Ireland) and with the junior classes in schools. I guess I was thrown in the deep end to some degree but I quickly learned to read my audiences. Over the years I have taken more and more risks with early years in the type of stories I tell in terms of the length and complexity of them. At the start I stuck to short stories with lots of joining in but I have learned when and where I can push that and challenge the audience. Telling progressed in time to creating workshops where I would encourage the participants to tell their stories using a variety of media from telling, drawing, puppets, digital media and drama.

I share stories and model them using storyboards to give a framework to hang ideas on. I use storyboards all the time and encourage children to share their ideas. I believe in creating a space where children feel safe to contribute. With this in mind I encourage them to say out all their ideas, not to stop themselves with feelings that it might sound stupid or wrong. I always tell them that there are no right or wrong answers/ideas in the creative process, just ideas. Some will work better than others for a particular project but often an idea will spark another idea that could be the one that works but without the other it may not have come. I stress the collaborative progress as it gives all the children ownership of the process and the outcomes.

I was the Children’s Curator for Kilkenny Arts Festival and made sure to include top quality early years work in the programme. I travelled to a number of festivals to see work, participated in workshops and developed my own skill base. As a storyteller I was particularly intrigued by the idea of telling stories without words. This led me to creating and performing my own early years theatre piece Star Boy which I took to the US last year and continue to tour. I get so much from this show but I love it when I meet a child who has come to the theatre for the first time. What a privilege and what responsibility we carry in this. I love to hear what they have enjoyed, not for my own sake but for theirs. I hope it has opened up a new world to them and inspired their own creative journey. I think a major challenge remains to convince people at all levels of society of the importance of the arts for early years. Not only the importance but to accept both the artistic/cultural needs of young children and their ability to create, appreciate and ‘get’ complex, abstract concepts. I think we still have a long way to go in fully cherishing our children in all aspects of their lives. The simple mantra ‘children should thrive, not just survive’ informs my work throughout and pushes me to create and deliver to the very best standards. It can be surprising that not all people, even people working with young children, see the importance of art in the early years. There is also a challenge for venues to understand the particular needs of early years theatre in terms of numbers and access to the theatre space, marketing and staff awareness."


HELEN BARRY is a visual artist with a studio practice in Broadstone Studios and 25 years experience working with children and young people through the creative arts.

"My own practice uses sculpture and drawing to explore the architectural spaces of buildings and structures where communities and people come together. The current work is focused on buildings of prayer, such as churches of different faiths and mosques. These buildings offer an array of architectural symmetry, geometry, structure, pattern and mathematics, all of which my own work investigates. My ambition is to realize and reflect within my work the symmetry and balance held within these sacred spaces. I wish to see if I can achieve a resolution of spaces through sculpture and installation works that can instill peace, balance and tranquility offered by the symmetrical structure of religious architecture. As part of this investigation I am currently engaged in a collaborative process with early years children aged 1 to 6 years."

I see my engagement with early years children as a collaborative process rather than positioning them as an audience for my work and this process has now become an important part of my practice.

My most recent engagement with early years was a long-term residency with the senior infants in Rathfarnham Educate Together School, an initiative of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and Blackrock Education Centre. We kept a blog of the residency and this can be viewed on

This collaborative process provided an experience that has given me a raw and inspiring new resolve in approaching my work. The children trusted me completely, handing me their ideas knowing I would identify and celebrate what is important to them. In turn I am looking ever closer at what is important to me as it is only this that can provide the development of my own practice.

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