River of words flows strong and true at Writers' Week

Dónal Nolan

The Listowel Arms Hotel was full to capacity with writers, poets and guests who enjoyed an evening's entertainment, full of anticipation for the short-listed entries, as the 48th Listowel Writers' Week festival was opened on Wednesday.

Ardú, one of Ireland's premier a cappella vocal ensembles, kick-started the evening in style anda special cheer was reserved for band member and Lixnaw native, Leanne Fitzgerald.

The unaccustomed heat in the hall meant that at times it felt like a gospel church in Alabama as guests fanned themselves with festival programmes and flyers, trying to stay cool while the literary competitions began to heat up as the big announcements loomed. 

Listowel Writers' Week recently won the 'Best Irish Festival Award 2018' and its Chairperson, Liz Dunn, paid an emotional tribute to the late Margaret Broderick - an important part of the Writers' Week team - when placing the award next to a photograph of a smiling Margaret on stage.

Poet Billy Collins officially opened the festival after award winning poet Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill was unable to make the event. Billy said the fact the festival is nearly 50 years old shows 'remarkable resistance, self-encouragement and cooperation.'

President of Listowel Writers' Week, Colm Tóibín captivated the audience, telling a story that started with W.B Yeats and Maude Gone before concluding with an image of the legendary couple from Irish mythology, Diarmuid and Grinne, making their way across the Shannon and through the backroads of north Kerry to be at Listowel Writers' Week. 

Edna O'Brien received a standing ovation when accepting The John B. Keane Lifetime Achievement Award. 

Edna's colourful and energetic demeanour charmed the audience as she spoke of her pride at being Irish, a feeling she takes with her no matter where she travels in the world, she said.  It's likely this comment was also meant to reach the parish of Emer Martin, who last month wrote a stinging article in the Irish Times criticising Edna for accepting her OBE. 

The fanning of brows intensified to a point where it would have filled the sails of the Cutty Sark as time ticked towards the announcement of The Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award. The accolade and cheque for €17,000 went to Paul Lynch for his novel of the Famine-era, 'Grace'.

On Saturday, a lively debate on the War of Independence and its legacy was chaired by Ballymacelligott native and history lecturer at UL, Dr Ciara Breathnach in a panel full of big names that is typical of the Listowel literary fleadh.  Guests included BBC Correspondent Fergal Keane; Catherine Crowe, National Archives of Ireland; UCC historian, John Borgonovo, and actor Adrian Dunbar.

John Borgonovo said there is an insatiable interest in the subject and that it gives people an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the conflict. 

Catherine Crowe spoke of the vast 'archival legacy' Ireland has, opting for 'interrogation or reflection' as better terms than 'commemoration'. 

"We must understand the consequences of revolution and make up our own minds," she said. Fergal Keane called for 'sobriety' on how we remember the period saying a right or wrong argument would only impede our understanding. 

"We're mature enough now to look back on this period as an obscenity," he said.

Keane also said we need to get away from using the past as a weapon for justification. All panellists agreed there was too much of a 'southern focus' surrounding the discourse; a view shared by Enniskillen native Adrian Dunbar who said people in the North are still dealing with the legacy. 

"We must interrogate what happened. But the first healing must happen here in the south," he said. Adrian also encouraged more people to use the arts for a greater understanding of the period. 

Another sell-out crowd came to hear the famous artist Pauline Bewick in conversation with Niall MacMonagle. The latter introduced Pauline as someone who lives in the day and cherishes it.

"She is a feminist, aware and awake from the get-go." Pauline, who was born on September 4, 1935, told the audience how she recently discovered that Gerald Massey Taylor was her real father and not John Corbett Bewick. 

Pauline's mother had always told her this was possible but in July 2017 Pauline had it confirmed through a DNA test. Pauline said she was delighted to have discovered 'a whole other family'. 

Her stunning work was also discussed in detail. "I get a 'go for it feeling' when I'm in front of a blank page. It's an obsession and a way of thinking. I've been like that since I was a child," Pauline said.

The weather was kind to the festival throughout the week as the streets of Listowel produced its own unique atmosphere.

Even the odd thunder shower was welcomed as it helped keep the dust down. Sunday was a kind of 'scattering day', but the countdown to Listowel Writers' Week 2019 is already underway.