Who was Esyllt and what is Gwobr Esyllt Prize?
Our friend Esyllt Harker was a beautiful and respected voice in traditional Welsh song and story.
Born in Birkenhead in 1947, youngest daughter of a father who was a minister and a mother who graduated in Welsh literature at Bangor University, Esyllt grew up speaking Welsh outside Wales, which perhaps accounted for her passion for her mother tongue.
After university at Edinburgh and a brief marriage, she lived in Greece for several years with her young daughter, Anna, before becoming an actor and performing in community theatre in London.
In 1981 she moved to her beloved Wales, cast as Branwen in a magnificent performance of The Mabinogi at Cardiff Castle. Many roles for S4C followed.
Singing was her first love. Her beautiful, distinctive voice was equally at home with jazz andtraditional material and she sangwith many bands. She trained in voicework with Frankie Armstrong and Giles Petit, and taught voicework, singing, and Welsh song for Welsh learners.
After moving to North Wales in 1990, Esyllt began storytelling. Being bilingual, she was in great demand and produced acclaimed pieces, both alone and in exciting collaborations. As well as appearing several times at Beyond the Border Storytelling Festival and the National Eisteddfod, Esyllt represented Wales in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington.
Esyllt was always a seeker, in both her work and personal life, and she made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.
Despite her talents, Esyllt was humble, often doubting her work. She was a generous friend and devoted grandmother, who loved spending time with her grandchildren. She was passionate about Welsh myth and legend and the importance of caring for the Earth as a living being. Her final work, ‘Tair: Daughters of Earth and Time’, commissioned by Beyond the Border in 2012, wove a sense of healing and of the emerging power of the feminine in the landscape into the stories of three historical and legendary Welsh princesses.
She was already ill while working on Tair, and soon became unable to continue performing. Her aim then became to live and die as mindfully as possible. The courageous way in which she lived with and somehow embraced the pain and indignity of bowel cancer was inspiring.
Her last two years were a powerful journey through illness, whichshe faced with courage, strength and wisdom.
She was a remarkable woman and a dear friend, and her legacy is in the memories of those who heard her songs and stories.
Following Esyllt’s death in May 2014, Beyond the Border Storytelling Festival expressed its intention to create a bursary in recognition of her unique and vital role in storytelling in Wales. The bursary would support the development of an emerging storyteller, living or working in Wales.
The winner of the first bursary, named in Esyllt’s honour as Gwobr Esyllt Prize, was announced at Beyond the Border in 2016. Tamar Eluned Williams was the first holder, and performed a newly commissioned piece of storytelling at Beyond the Border in 2018. At this performance, the winner of the second bursary, Siân Miriam, was announced.
By 2018, Beyond the Border was no longer able to administer and fund raise for the bursary, so storyteller friends of Esyllt created Chwedl, a network of women storytellers in Wales, to raise the funds for the second and subsequent bursaries.
Chwedl awarded the second Gwobr Esyllt Prize, with support from Beyond the Border, which continued to offer a performance slot to the bursary holder.
Chwedl exists to support and nurture women storytellers in Wales, in memory of Esyllt Harker. One of its main aims is to continue to fund raise for and manage Gwobr Esyllt Prize. It is still growing and developing as a network for women storytellers in Wales.Here are some comments from a previous holder of the bursary:
Gwobr Esyllt Harker prize is an ongoing, incredible journey of story and self discovery for me as an emerging storyteller. The combination of bilingual story and song is at the core of my work – and with thanks to this commission, my explorations, writing and telling style is in constant development as I further explore my style and delve into the rich tapestry of story beneath my feet. I have discovered how stories really unite us in these times. With the warmest thanks to the incredible support from the storytelling network here in Wales – including the women of Chwedl.
Mae’r Wobr yn siwrne parhaol sydd yn fy nhywys – rwy’n dysgu o’r Wobr trwy fewngloddio straeon ac mae hynny yn fy ysbrydoli i ddatblygu fy llais fel storiwraig. Mae’r Wobr yn annog ac yn fy nghefnogi i ddatblygu fy arddull adrodd – sy’n cael ei hatgyfnerthu gan straeon sydd yn y tirwedd. Mae’r Wobr hon wedi dangos i mi wir ystyr stori – bod stori a chwedl mor bwerus, ac yn ein uno fel pobl. At wraidd fy nghrefft, mae plethiant stori a chan ddwyieithog. Rwyf llawn egni yn ei ddatblygu. Mae gen i ddiolch twym galon i rwydwaith a chefnogaeth y byd Stori yma yng Nghymru – a Merched Chwedl.