Pebbles and names – working with the elderly


The West Cork Literary festival,which began today and continues until the 23rd, is renowned for attracting outstanding Irish and international writers and also for its wonderful vibe and local hospitality. Another aspect that I like is the community inclusiveness.

As any artist knows, it’s rare to make a living from your craft, and most writers will be involved in teaching, or mentoring, to survive. The Arts Council, in conjunction with local arts centres, and Words Ireland, as well as the Library Services, have set up a number of programmes, such as Writers in Schools, Writers in Residence and Arts for Health, to provide work for writers, and to encourage members of the community to engage in creative pursuits.

Writer in Residence

This year, the festival programme is including a slot for the Libraries’ Writer in Residence, novelist, Denyse Woods, to showcase the work of her workshop participants from five libraries around the county. (That’ll be at 5pm on Friday 21st July.)

Arts for Health
So often, the elderly in a community can become marginalised and feel redundant, which can lead to depression and accelerating dementia. This is why the Arts for Health programme is so invaluable. This year, I am working with the Bantry Day Care Centre, and as the workshops are running concurrently with the festival, there will be a link from this blog to their website.

The theme for this series is ‘Exchange.’

First workshop
Today, at our first session, we discussed names, which is first thing we exchange when meeting someone.

We discussed the origins of our own names, whether people were named after a grandparent, aunt or uncle, what our names meant, the various nicknames we’ve been given over the years, if there’s a saint or famous historical figure with that name, and what our names mean, as well as etymological and historical origins.

A group like this can be very diverse in terms of education and physical writing ability, so I kept things simple. After using my own name to demonstrate what a haiku is, I asked everyone to write a haiku about their names. Grace was my scribe, and she helped me by taking dictation for anyone who was unable to write.

Here are some of the results, starting with my own, spontaneous (and rather dramatic!) example:

My name is Afric,
a gift my father gave me;
Africa, my fate.


I’m Elizabeth.
At school, I was called Betty.
At home, I’m Lily.

My name is Willie.
My nickname’s unprintable.
Today, I am Bill.

My long birth-name is
Lillemor Birgitta Horn.
I’ve added Malone.

High Cue
I’m Kath, like my gran,
Mary’s identical twin.
A few teeth missing.

At school, I was Tom.
Sometimes I’m Thomas Patrick,
like two of the saints.

My name is Nora.
At parties they sing the song.
A name from my gran.

I was named Denis
When young I was Donncha.
Now I am Denny.

My name is Chrissie.
I was born on Christmas Day,
and I hate my name!

I like my name, James.
Called after the apostle.
These days, I am Jim.

My Gran was Kathy.
When at school I was called Kit.
Today I’m Kathleen.

My name is Jim and
my sister’s name is Ruth; last
of the Pyburn clan.

What was surprising was that none of the participants knew the meanings of their names. And with one exception, none of them had ever considered whether they liked their names.

A name is the first gift we receive from our parents. We also talked about choosing names ourselves: for our own children, or pets, or even toys as a child. What we considered when choosing: the sound of the name, its resonance, associations, family connection and symbolism. They all began to show a lot more curiosity about their names and several said they were going to go home to do some investigating!

For the last part of the session, I gave each of them a pebble I’d picked up from our local beach, and asked them to tell me what the pebble evoked for them. And here’s where the highlight of my day occurred – one deaf participant, who had been snoring for most of the session, suddenly woke up and offered all sorts of insights about its weight, colour, texture, association for him (he thought his stone was shaped like a harp) and he certainly triggered a much more animated conversation around the room. Interestingly, although I had specially selected white pebbles, not one of them referred to the colour of their pebble as white. It was pale pink, or grey-bluish, or ‘stone-coloured’ or ‘the colour of clouds.’ One person said it felt ‘precious’. When I asked why she thought that was so, she said because it was a gift from me. Another person said it was because it was so smooth, made that way by wave and sand, which must have taken thousands of years. And that was a gift – to me.


2 thoughts on “Pebbles and names – working with the elderly

  1. I enjoyed reading this, Afric; thanks for posting some of the surprising insights of your workshop participants.

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