A New York Diary - Joseph O'Connor
I tend to advise my writing students not to start on a negative but in almost 30 years of visiting New York at least annually, I've never seen the city looking worse. Potholed avenues, malodorous side streets, mounds of rubbish, gridlocked traffic and, most noticeably of all, a really extraordinary number of empty shops and businesses. On Elizabeth Street, where I once lived, I count seven; on St Mark's Place in my beloved East Village, at least 15.
Still, the city has a vibe that can't be eroded, its skyline that makes you look upward, its brassy, blowsy sense of itself, the jazzy orchestra of its talk.
Joan Didion wrote that Manhattan derives its energy from the fact it contains the largest concentration of single people in the world, and there's probably something to that.
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She added that "few New York love stories end in a double-ring ceremony", a fact that brings an edginess of its own.
I'm here because in my day job as professor of creative writing at University of Limerick I lead the UL Frank McCourt creative writing summer school every other June in Manhattan, with the sponsorship of the Shannon Airport Authority. Tonight we're at the launch reception, hosted by Ireland's genial consul Ciaran Madden. Loretta Brennan Glucksman, a staunch friend of UL creative writing, makes a warm and heartfelt speech of welcome, as does Ellen Frey McCourt. With 52 students signed up, we're at capacity. They're mainly New Yorkers or New Jersey folks, but some have come in from Canada and some from Ireland. I chat with Malachy McCourt, who tells me that he and his brothers, including Frank, all served in the US armed forces, which I hadn't known. Cait O'Riordan of The Pogues attends the reception, causing many a rock-and-roll heart to flutter. She is as down-to-earth, likeable and funny as I'd always imagined.
Reception over, I get an iced coffee and watch the sun set scarlet along the canyons of the avenues, an unforgettable and majestic sight.
Friday sees the summer school commence. The heat is so intense you can feel it through the soles of your shoes. We're at the beautiful Glucksman Ireland House on Fifth Avenue near Washington Square. My UL friend and colleague, the young adult novelist Sarah Moore Fitzgerald, opens proceedings with a lecture so brilliant it draws applause from the students. They then break into sub-groups led by the memoirist Kerry Neville, fine poet Martin Dyar and the most consistently excellent Irish novelist of his generation, my UL colleague Donal Ryan. What a teaching team.
Friday night, to the Beacon Theatre uptown to see one of my all-time music idols, the great Jackson Browne, as great an American songwriter as has ever lifted a pen. I first heard him when I was 15 and I've adored his work ever since. At 70, he looks fantastic, long and lean. I've seen more fat on a chip. Halfway through his set he mentions that he used to take a lot of drugs in the old days. Now he asks our pardon while he takes his nightly vitamins.
Saturday is always my favourite day at the summer school. The excitement of starting out has been put behind, we have the students for the full day; serious line-by-line work gets done. Outside, Fifth Avenue is getting bedecked in rainbow flags and banners for the Pride Parade and a much-needed aura of joy and festivity is descending on Manhattan. In here, people are talking quietly about sentences, verbs, images. I think Frank McCourt, a great teacher as well as writer, would have approved.
Mid-afternoon I head uptown for a meeting at the wonderful place that is the Irish Arts Centre. My dear friend Pauline Turley shows me the architect's model and a video setting out the progress that has been made. But nothing prepares me for the site visit afterwards. It is so moving and enthralling to see this building take shape, the steel girders and floor-spans, the mighty skeleton already there. As a kid, I worked on construction sites and, ever since, I've always adored seeing new buildings. But to see this one brings a tear of joy. I know how much hard work has gone into getting this magnificent project to this stage, and I can't wait for its official opening next year.
Saturday night, with the summer school students, to Swift Hibernian Lounge, where the singer Pierce Turner is playing an intimate show for us. His reinventions of Irish classics like Mursheen Durkin and The Whistling Gypsy go down a storm, as do his occasional quotations from Catholic hymns. It is quite something to see a Saturday night bar-room singing along lustily, if that's the word, with O Sacrament Most Holy and Faith of our Fathers. As well as being a songwriter and performer of extraordinary gifts, he has a tasty line in inter-song patter. "I'm from Wexford in the south-east of Ireland," he tells the adoring crowd. "The sun shines 24/7 in Wexford. Twenty-four hours in seven months."
Sunday morning gathers us all for a lecture on the writing of Dolores O'Riordan and the Cranberries, by UL professor of sociology Eoin Devereux, himself a published poet and short story writer. Eoin is brilliant on Dolores's influences, which included plainchant, country music and choral singing.
Then to McSorley's, the oldest bar in New York, for Sunday morning brunch and readings as the guests of owner Gregory de la Haba. Donal Ryan reads a beautiful poem by Mary O'Malley. Martin Dyar reads a powerful poem of his own and there is that particular replenishing hush that falls over a crowd when truthful poetry is uttered. In honour of Pride, I read I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman, the gay New Yorker who invented modern American poetry. Whitman appears as a minor character in my new novel, Shadowplay, just out, so it's lovely to speak his generous and musical words this morning. The central character of the book is Whitman's great friend, our own Bram Stoker, and a number of scenes in Shadowplay are set in this very neighbourhood of Manhattan, which used to contain a dozen theatres. Stoker knew them well. He crossed the Atlantic 30 times in his day job as theatrical manager for the great Shakespearean actors Henry Irving and Ellen Terry, on several occasions meeting his idol, Whitman, in New York. Perhaps he thought up Dracula while strolling the East Village or the decks of a liner bound for Cobh.
Monday is spent following up on summer school work, then to the City Winery, near Soho, to see Richard Thompson live. His wry, writerly lyrics are just glorious to hear; his virtuosic guitar playing is breath-taking. His song 1952 Vincent Black Lightning, a sort of outlaw ballad featuring a motorbike of that make and era, has a guitar part so complexly brilliant that people sometimes swear it's overdubbed, that it's actually two guitarists. I've seen Richard Thompson play the song live seven or eight times. It's him and him alone. A fabulous way to end a hectically busy trip: seeing the impossible done in Manhattan, as so often.
Joseph O'Connor's novel Shadowplay is published by Harvill Secker.
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