Tuesday 20 February 2018

Greer's still got that killer instinct at Listowel festival

Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

TO arrive in Listowel to find a creamy pint waiting for you on the bar and Germaine Greer sipping champagne against a spectacular Kerry sunset is to know that Ireland's longest-running literary festival is once again upon us.

It is exactly a decade this weekend since local legend John B Keane passed away -- from his death bed he demanded that the show go on -- and in the meantime Writers' Week has flourished.

Unlike many of the English or American festivals, this is a true literary democracy.

Scattered around the Arms Hotel -- the centre of the action -- amateur scribes on laptops studiously ignore the more established talents, which include the recent Booker nominee Carol Birch, Irish Novel Award winner Christine Dwyer Hickey and Paul Durcan, (who, to be fair, is feted like a rock star after his uproarious talk on Friday).

There has even been the requisite drop of controversy, as it emerges that convicted wife killer Eamonn Lillis has won a prize for a short story, which was adjudicated without the judges knowing his identity.

The piece begins with a quote from Emily Dickinson and describes the anxious solitude of a car journey. Implied throughout the story is that the narrator is running from something.

"Can a killer make great art?" Greer muses as I explain. "Of course! Is it likely? No. Is it possible? Definitely."

As the moon rises, Durcan huddles in a corner with Joanna Keane -- John B's daughter -- and gives her advice on how to deal with unscrupulous agents (it is said John B's estate hasn't always got what was coming to it).

We all plough on up the square, past his statue, to his eponymous pub, where Booker winner Anne Enright is taking drinks orders on her cracked iPhone.

The next day, she arrives on to the balcony for a fag at breakfast time and claims to be the worse for wear but nobody believes her as she looks fresh as a daisy.

She recommends the seaweed baths at Ballybunion to a sceptical Germaine Greer, who considers this and then orders another glass of champagne (but has to settle for white wine).

Germaine confesses to me that she hasn't read any of Enright's books -- that's allowed at this festival, seemingly -- but then quietly chuckles her way through much of The Forgotten Waltz while stealing a morsel of black pudding from my plate.

She vows that she will smuggle some home, even if it has to go inside a horseshoe. Surveying the day's news, she is somewhat incredulous that we passed the treaty.

"It's quite a result. Maybe not unexpected but I honestly expected them [the Irish] to kick back more. It's a long, hard road you're taking."

On Saturday morning, tributes and tears flow at John B's anniversary mass and later in the day Anne Enright takes to the stage in the main hall to give her talk.

The festival's gregarious and charming director Sean Lyons quotes Kenneth Tynan: "If the English hoard their words like misers, the Irish spend them like sailors."

By early Saturday and two days on and off (but chiefly on) of solid talk, we seem to be overspent.

There is a lull in the action but it's merely the calm before the storm. On one bad knee, the warhorse Greer is making her way to the stage.

Sunday Independent

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