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'We want to get people talking about ­writing... and we want them to have fun'

With another stellar line-up and action-packed schedule, the Ennis Book Club Festival will again celebrate writers and readers equally, writes Henrietta McKervey

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Author Sarah Moss

Author Sarah Moss

Authors Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght

Authors Sarah Breen and Emer McLysaght

Neil Hegarty

Neil Hegarty

Lemn Sissay

Lemn Sissay

Artistic director: Paul Perry

Artistic director: Paul Perry

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Author Sarah Moss

The noise struck me first. But there was more to it than just the hubbub of people chatting and laughing. It was loud, yes, but welcoming; lively rather than off-putting. Glór seemed more like a busy bar just after a concert or a sports ground with a jubilant crowd, than an arts centre on a sunny Saturday morning. The Ennis Book Club Festival, I realised, was going to be unlike any other literary event I'd been to.

By turning reading into something social, book clubs have inverted a silent pleasure into a shared activity. From those hosted by local libraries to the wine-and-crisps sessions in the kitchen, the undiminished popularity of getting together to talk about a book proves that reading doesn't have to be solitary to be meaningful.

In 2007, members of a local book club in Ennis realised something was needed to replace the defunct local arts festival. In conjunction with Clare County Library, they decided to set up a new literary and social event. Whether deliberate or not, from the outset the Ennis Book Club Festival appears to have adopted the DNA of a book club by choosing to cater for all sorts of readers. You know the types… every club has them: the avid enthusiast who reads the book and everything else the author has written; the well-intentioned who always gets the book but won't make it to the end; the benignly hapless who'll never read it but loves the chat.

Fast forward to 2020, and 'Ennis' - as it's now widely known - has become one of the most popular literary festivals in the country. Running from March 6 to 8, this year it's continuing to do what is does best: mix it up.

Alongside big names such as Sarah Moss, whose brilliant novel Ghost Wall was a highlight of 2018, and acclaimed performance poet Lemn Sissay, there is also a special recording of RTÉ's Sunday Miscellany, a book-making workshop with Co Clare artist and bookbinder Éilís Murphy, a wine tasting, and a Burren walking tour. Irish authors featured include Hilary Fannin, Rosita Boland, and Emer McLysaght and Sarah Breen, co-authors of the phenomenally successful Aisling series. Dozens of events include Sarah Webb's relaxed workshop for children with autism spectrum conditions and their families, Réamonn Ó Ciaráin's bilingual talk about the modern relevance of Cúchalainn, and in a first for the festival, a commissioned piece from Mia Gallagher based on work curated from the Arts Council Collection.

Artistic director Paul Perry says that although they are programming a mix of events in order to have something for everyone, the committee deliberately tries to create an informal, social setting. "It's like one big book club meeting, but it's also where you can meet new friends, and where authors, emerging and renowned, are part of the buzz, mixing with everyone. And you don't have to be a book club member. We want to get people talking about writing, and issues, and we want them to have fun doing that, getting to know new friends, eating good food, making a weekend of it." Programming is a balancing act, and he believes that taking risks is important.

"Obviously, there's an appetite for well-known writers, but if you can host a writer on the rise, that's something special, too."

'10 Books You Should Read' is a firm favourite. Sitting somewhere between Room 101 and Desert Island Discs, two writers make the case for 10 books to author Paula McGrath. As well as being entertaining and enlightening, this event opens a conversation between past and present, as writers talk about books that have really mattered to them. The list isn't revealed in advance, but Perry promises it's going to be a cracker.

McGrath describes '10 Books' as, "like having two exceptionally well-read friends, both passionate about their favourites and eager to share them with you. Last year, Michelle Richmond and Paul Lynch deployed their most persuasive tactics to win over their audience. This year, it's the turn of Ruth Gilligan and Neil Hegarty, two wonderful writers with most discerning book tastes; prepare to do serious bookshop damage after the event!"

Patricia O'Brien, a regular attendee and occasional volunteer, is a member of a very active book club based in Charlie Byrne's bookshop in Galway. Her club use the festival as a source for material, and while she does read the authors in advance, one of the pleasures of the festival for her is, "the element of surprise by joy." Liz Price from the festival's founding book club agrees: "Coming up to the festival, our book club usually chooses to read a couple of authors. Then, afterwards, if we have been impressed by anyone in particular, it guides future choices. Individual members generally spend a small fortune buying books at the festival!"

Ireland is awash with festivals. According to last year's Fáilte Ireland National Festivals & Events Calendar, there were hundreds scheduled nationally. And while celebrations of community and cultural creation deserve to be admired and supported, the sheer number vying for bums on seats and sponsors doesn't seem sustainable long-term.

Perry believes that local interest and ambition have been crucial to their success. "Local businesses are literally invested, as are the libraries, and arts office… There's a local, democratic feel to the whole thing.

"People are running this festival in one of the most beautiful counties in Ireland, and one of the friendliest towns because they want to."

Standing in Glór that spring morning, I realised that by neatly subverting the literary festival concept, the Ennis Book Club Festival celebrates readers and writers equally. In one weekend, it does what the most memorable books do: brings literature alive.

Ennis Book Club Festival runs from March 6 to 8. For details visit www.ennisbookclubfestival.com

Indo Review