Hay Festival Kells, Part 1: Reflections on Michael Harding

Michael Harding

Michael Harding

Sometimes it feels as if Michael Harding was born at the age of 58, middle-aged and fully-formed. A performer, an actor, a novelist, a memoirist and a playwright, he has come to inhabit that great unfathomable of the popular consciousness only over the past few years.

Staring At Lakes, his first memoir, a chronicle of depression and love and the jagged line between the two, won the Irish Book of the Year award in 2013. It was followed by Hanging With The Elephant last year and a weekly Irish Times column about life in the Irish midlands. From Cavan, his prose has echoes of the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh from neighbouring Monaghan, recognising beauty “in the habitual, the banal”.

Continue reading “Hay Festival Kells, Part 1: Reflections on Michael Harding”

The Great Paul Durcan Poetry Reading Tour of Ireland

Paul Durcan (Photo via The Guardian)

I’d love to see more of this in literature: a poetry reading tour. Paul Durcan, described as “Ireland’s most playful poet” in an Irish Times interview last week, has embarked on an almost nationwide tour to promote his latest collection, The Days of Surprise. Continue reading “The Great Paul Durcan Poetry Reading Tour of Ireland”

James Joyce updates x 2: UCD to develop Joyce Museum, and details of The Dead Weekend announced

newman-house

Image via digital.ucd.ie

More than 101 years after a row with the proposed publishers of Dubliners led James Joyce to leave Ireland for the last time, his alma mater UCD has revealed plans to dedicate a museum to the writer at its Newman House buildings on Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green.

A large room known as Aula Maxima, interlinking the two buildings, will house a permanent Joyce museum as part of a joint plan between UCD and the National Library of Ireland.

Joyce graduated from UCD in 1902 and his links with the college will be the primary focus, but the museum will also include items relating to other writers with UCD links, among them Mary Lavin, Flann O’Brien, Gerald Manley Hopkins and Cardinal Newman, for whom the buildings are named.

The museum is given a provisional opening date of early 2016, and while costs haven’t been revealed the Irish Times has estimated that it the project may run to as much as €20m.

An estimate of 140,000 visitors per annum has also been declared, a figure which represents approximately 14% of the annual pilgrims to the Guinness Storehouse, but then that ratio is probably to be expected given the level of marketing invested in the home of the black stuff (both in-house and by the State).

The announcement of a new museum should not overshadow the fact that there are already at least two Joyce museums in Dublin – the James Joyce Tower and Museum in the Martello Tower at Sandycove (currently closed for renovations until February) and the James Joyce Centre on North Great George’s Street in Dublin city centre.

The James Joyce Centre hosts The Dead Weekend from January 4-6 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the publication of Dubliners, which first went to press in January 1914 – on an initial print run of 1250, according to this resource.

There are a series of talks and workshops about The Dead and its influences, and while the cost for the whole weekend is a not insignificant €180, there are some events that are free-but-booking-required, most notably the closing talk by the always eloquent and informative Joyce scholar Declan Kiberd on Monday, January 6th, titled “Dubliners: The First Hundred Years”.

All the details about The Dead Weekend are here

Events update: The John Hewitt International Summer School

John Hewitt International Summer SchoolThe 26th John Hewitt International Summer School takes place in Armagh from July 22-26, and the theme this year is “Living Among Strangers: The Lost Meaning of Home”.

The theme is inspired by Hewitt’s poem “The Search”, which includes the lines

It is a hard responsibility to be a stranger;
to hear your speech sounding at odds with your neighbours […]
Often you will regret the voyage,
wakening in the dark night to recall that other place…

Hewitt himself experienced the notion of “the stranger”, both in Ireland and the UK, where he took up residence in the 1960s.

Given the migratory nature of modern life in Ireland – whether by those born in foreign lands who have made their home here (a recent RTÉ documentary which followed children’s television presenter Diana Bunici to her native Moldova springs to mind) or the new generation of young Irish men and women forced to emigrate to every corner of the globe in search of a job first, and prosperity second – the theme is well-chosen.

The blurb for the John Hewitt International Summer School includes lines such as

What is the place, ‘the local’ in the twenty-first century? In a world of globalised entertainment and communication, and increasingly migratory labour, is there room for sentiment about place in our art?

Is the ‘living among strangers’ that allowed separate, mutually opposed cultures to develop here over four hundred years to be the norm for future populations? Will diversity reduce conflict, or increase antagonism between hosts and guests? Can those of different backgrounds and histories share increasingly fragmented spaces?

All of which, added to the list of names on the programme, should whet the appetite for a fine five days in Armagh’s Market Place Theatre the week after next.

The lunchtime reading series alone are worth the trip, with Irish writers Pat McCabe, Anne Enright, Deirdre Madden and Gavin Corbett joining English novelist Salley Vickers over the five days.

There is a poetry reading by Simon Armitage, Medbh McGuckian, James Byrne and Conor O’Callaghan (among others), a creative writing workshop with Carlo Gebler (among others), a fascinating talk entitled “Ulster Through Polish Eyes: Reconsidering the Stereotypes” by Professor Jan Jędrzejewski, several art exhibitions and evening theatre performances.

It all promises to be a great few days.

The full John Hewitt International Summer School programme can be downloaded here.

Upcoming events: The Swift Satire Festival, the Ezra Pound International Conference and the Gerard Manley Hopkins Festival

If you are in Ireland and are ludicrously fortunate enough to have both

(a) something more than a passing interest in literature, and
(b) some time to spare

then the next few weeks promise to be hugely productive.

Swift Satire Festival logoThis weekend sees the Swift Satire Festival return to Trim, Co Meath for a sixth year, commemorating the time spent by Jonathan Swift in the town, his works and his enduring legacy three centuries on.

While a lot of the energy goes into some major comedy gigs – the festival will bring around 30 of the country’s favourite comedians and satirists to a big tent in the grounds of Trim Castle – there is plenty for the literature-lover too.

Most notable is a unique event, inspired by the year of the Gathering and some good old-fashioned ambition: The Great Gulliver Gathering, which will aim to bring 302 people together (one page apiece) for the largest ever simultaneous reading ever staged in Ireland.

There is also the “Swift in his Time” exhibition, which will feature objects and documents relating to the Dean’s time in Meath, while the concluding Sunday lunch features a performance of The Great Goat Bubble, written by Julian Gough and directed by Mikel Murfi. The Fishamble production was a success story at last year’s Galway Arts Festival and it marks an impressive lineup on the final day of the festival, which comes to a close with the inaugural Swift Lecture delivered by President Michael D. Higgins.


ezra-pound-conferenceMoving swiftly on – geddit? no? – and I admit that if fate suggested I’d have a few free days in Dublin next week then I’d be a happy bunny indeed.

The 25th Ezra Pound International Conference starts next Tuesday, and there is lots about the American writer’s relationship with Ireland and Irish writers.

While I haven’t spent much time with Pound’s work, the draft programme for the conference, which is titled “Ezra Pound and Modernism”, is nevertheless startlingly promising, with speakers from Turin, Beijing, Pennsylvania, Tokyo, York, Gaziantep in Turkey and elsewhere, plenaries such as “Pound and the Irish Masters: Beckett and Yeats”  and readings from poets Maurice Scully, Nerys Williams (excellent at Hay Festival Kells last weekend), Hugh McFadden and Fred Johnston.

And all that without mentioning that the welcoming address will be delivered by Seamus Heaney next Tuesday morning.

Visit the website for even more.


The other upcoming literature-leaning festival to catch the eye today is the annual Gerard Manley Hopkins festival, which will take place in Newbridge, Co Kildare from July 19-26.

There is a broken link to their programme at the moment but the summary of speakers gives a glimpse of what’s on offer:

James Mackey will deliver the Keynote Address Tuesday 23rd July at 12.00 am. Other lectures by Robert Smart and Richard Murphy from USA; Duc Dau – a Hopkins scholar from Australia; Thomas Berenato; Patrick Murray; William Adamson (Germany); leading Portuguese scholar, Amador Frias Martins; Kevin Mc Eneaney (USA); Francis Fennell; noted Hopkins scholar from Chicago, Michael Raiger; Courtney Dombroski … and others. Special events will include a talk by Graphologist Denis Sexton on Hopkins’s handwriting; and an illustrated talk on the landscape of Hopkins’s Ireland by naturalist Michael Jacob.

Visit the website for more.

Update: In an earlier version of this blog it was incorrectly stated that Ezra Pound was English. I can only think that I got confused by currencies… (Thanks to Susan for pointing it out on Twitter)

Hay Festival Kells Reflections: Lisa Dwan in Samuel Beckett’s impossible play

The first ever Hay Festival Kells is already a receding memory – but what a memory. Massive congratulations to all involved in putting together a spectacular three days in the Co Meath town.

I live a hen’s race from Kells, but I feel duty-bound to insist that such proximity brings no bias here. By any measure this was a phenomenal success, and one which, I can only hope, will become a regular part of the Irish summer calendar for many a year to come.

This is the first of a couple of posts I’m planning reflecting on last weekend’s events. I also attended the John Banville interview and the poetry reading by Frank McGuinness and Nerys Williams, so I’ll offer my thoughts on those separately.


Lisa Dwan Not I Samuel BeckettIt was a privilege, on the first day of the first ever Hay Festival to take place in Ireland, to share a pitch-black room with a couple of hundred others and the brightly lit mouth of Lisa Dwan.

It’s not often that something this vibrant happens in rural Co Meath. For it to happen before the early evening news, as just one small part of an overall programme, underlines the breadth of the ambition of the Hay Festival on its welcome first foray into Ireland.

“Mouth”, the only character in Samuel Beckett’s play “Not I”, has been described as the most difficult role in all of theatre, and during ten frantic minutes in Kells it was easy to see why.

Not having seen “Not I” before – the extent of my exposure was some pre-performance reading outlining Beckett’s fury when Jessica Tandy, the first actress to perform the role in 1972, took a leisurely 22 minutes to run through the script.

Beckett’s muse Billie Whitelaw subsequently knocked that back to a distinctly more rapidfire 14 minutes, but Dwan has continued the constriction by reducing the time to less than 10 minutes, which increases the verbal dexterity required.

The show included an entertaining and insightful video transmission of Whitelaw’s recollections of working with Beckett. Sample: “He wrote me a note to say, ‘On page eight, six lines down, remove a dot. It should be two dots instead of three.’”

Such was the precision of Beckett’s notes and stage direction that, as Dwan said during the Q&A with Telegraph journalist Liz Hunt which followed this performance, it is extraordinarily difficult for a director to direct Beckett. And that difficulty is magnified to an extreme level in “Not I”, in which the only lit element in an expanse of darkness (Emergency exit lights? Forget it…) is a mouth, a mouth that utters a virtually incomprehensible stream of consciousness. And also a mouth suspended exactly eight feet above the stage.

The speed of expression is so incredibly rapid that it’s almost impossible, on first experience at any rate, to comprehend anything but occasional words and turns of phrase.

It is, as Dwan wrote in the festival-accompanying leaflet published by The Telegraph, as close to unlearnable as any role in theatre can be, and one that leaves her body in spasm throughout the performance as she engages in the unwinnable battle of trying to speak at the speed of thought. All without acting. (Another Beckett note.)

The melody shines through, as does deep admiration for the performance, and while one can’t help regretting that it’s difficult to make any satisfying sense of it all, then life is a bit like that too.

As Whitelaw says about Beckett, he had absolute and unimpeachable integrity. Avoiding cosy characters or setpieces did not go far enough. In treating of the world, he had to go all the way, instilling the inherent ridiculousness of the human experience. Dwan says her ambition is to fulfil this quest. “I’m not there yet,” she says. She admits that it’s unlikely she ever will be, but then again none of this is about success.

She can try again, fail again, fail better, and that’s the best any of us can do.

Indeed, art and failure was another theme in the Banville hour, about which more later…

Note: If you’re unfamiliar with the text of “Not I”, as I was before last Friday, it’s over here.

Are these the five most valuable books by living Irish writers?

anne-enrightThe recent developments at English PEN have really caught the eye of the wider public – and not just those concerned primarily with the arts, as the Financial Times coverage attests.

English PEN is a worldwide writers’ association which campaigns to defend the right to freedom of expression of writers (and readers), both in the UK and around the world.

And it has come up with a phenomenally brilliant idea to raise funds: a series of 51 first editions which will go to auction Sotheby’s in May.

These are not just any old first editions, either; they’re also annotated by the author, making them as unique a series of books as any you’re likely to see.

There’s a significant (and welcome) Irish interest, with five of the 51 by Irish writers: books written and annotated by John Banville, Sebastian Barry, Anne Enright, Seamus Heaney and Colm Tóibín will be part of this very literary auction at Sotheby’s in London on Tuesday, May 21st.

The special quintet is comprised of Booker Prize winners The Sea (Banville) and The Gathering (Enright), Barry’s A Long, Long Way (Booker- and IMPAC-shortlisted), Tóibín’s reputation-forging second novel The Heather Blazing and Heaney’s breakthrough second collection Death Of A Naturalist, published in 1966 and including, alongside enduringly perfect pieces such as “Mid-Term Break” and “Digging”, at least one hilarious note by Heaney.

Alongside the title poem, he jots:

Once described by a reviewer as ‘a long disappointing poem about frogs’. But in fact it’s quite short.

This particular famous five is quite probably the most valuable series of books in existence written by living Irish writers.

So hats off to everyone at English PEN. I’m sure I won’t be the only one following events from Sotheby’s with interest in a few weeks’ time.

For more details visit the “First Editions, Second Thoughts” microsite of English PEN.

The full list of “First Editions, Second Thoughts” is here.

Audio: Paula Meehan reads her poem “Well” live from the Cúirt International Festival of Literature

paula-meehanI’ve been looking in jealously from afar (if not afar, then from the other side of a small country) as Seamus Heaney, Sheila Heti, Laurent Binet, Michael Harding and many, many others have been pitching up in the City of the Tribes for the annual Cúirt International Festival of Literature in Galway this week.

Our own much-loved Paula Meehan and the brilliant recent Pulitzer Prize winner Sharon Olds read together at the Town Hall Theatre on Friday evening and they appeared live on RTE Radio 1’s Arena show with Sean Rocks before they went on stage.

Below Meehan, award-winning poet and playwright and member of Aosdána, gives some background to, and a beautiful reading of, the poem “Well”.

(If you’d like the written version, “Well” is reproduced on the website of Dedalus Press here.)

Source: Arena, RTE Radio 1

From Galway to the Gate: This week’s notable literary events around Ireland

cuirtThere are few places I would rather be this week than Galway for the annual Cúirt International Festival of Literature, which features Irish writers of renown such as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Edna O’Brien as well as Laurent Binet, who was responsible for one of the most critically acclaimed novels of recent times, last year’s HHhH.

From the perspective of emerging writers, one of the events to catch the eye is Over The Edge’s reading evening, which takes place in the Town Hall Theatre on Thursday afternoon (4.30pm), features readings from several writers including Cúirt New Irish Writing fiction prize winner Hugo Kelly and does not have a cover charge.

Michael Harding (feature interviewee in today’s Sunday Times culture magazine) will read in somebody’s kitchen, Keith Ridgway and Leanne O’Sullivan will give fiction and poetry workshops respectively – although you’re probably too late for those as the deadline to apply passed a fortnight ago –  festival director Dani Gill will interview Binet and Sheila Heti (the author of this year’s How should a person be?) on characterisation in the novel and Lucy Caldwell (whose All the Beggars Riding was published earlier this year) and Indian-American poet and novelist Tishani Doshi will talk about the origins of stories with Galway City Arts Officer James C. Harrold.

And all that’s nowhere close to even the half of it. Download the full Cúirt programme here (pdf 17MB).

What: Cúirt International Festival of Literature

Where: Galway (multiple venues … including kitchens)

When: Tuesday-Sunday

Find out more: www.cuirt.ie


If you happen to be around Belfast with some time on your hands this week, you could do much worse things than make a date with Brian Friel’s Translations, directed by Adrian Dunbar.

Where: Grand Opera House

When: Tuesday-Saturday, 7.30pm; Matinees Thursday and Saturday, 2.30pm.

How much: £11.25-£28

Find out more: http://www.goh.co.uk/translations


Peter Gowen, originally from Youghal and now based in London with his family, is a playwright by spare time, actor by night and chef by day – “corporate fine dining, cooking for bankers, hedge fund managers and VIP clients,” he said this week. His latest play, which he performs himself, is entitled The Chronicles of Oggle, which has been eight years in the making and aspires to treat big Irish themes with an Irish sense of humour. It is also the debut production of the Everyman County Touring Initiative.

Where: Everyman Palace, Cork

When: Monday-Thursday, 8pm

How much: €9-€15

Find out more: http://www.everymanpalace.com/category/mon-22-thu-25-apr/


It’s more than 30 years now since Frank McGuinness’s Factory Girls was first staged at the Abbey Theatre. The story of five women who stage a lock-in in a shirt factory in Co. Donegal when faced with losing their jobs is as relevant now as it was then.

Where: Millennium Forum, Derry

When: Wednesday-Saturday, 8pm; Matinee Saturday, 5pm

How much: £12.50-£16.50

Find out more: http://www.millenniumforum.co.uk/content/factory-girls-frank-mcguinness-city-factory


Banned for 32 years after it was written, George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession is now regarded as one of his finest plays and it is currently on an extended run at the Gate. Variously described as “magnificent”, “stunning” and with “exceptionally high performances” by the national media, the production stars Sorcha Cusack, Tadhg Murphy and Bosco Hogan.

Where: Gate Theatre, Dublin

When: Monday-Saturday, 7.30pm; Matinee Saturday 2.30pm

How much: €25

Find out more: http://www.gatetheatre.ie/production/MrsWarrensProfession

Gutter Bookshop to give away copies The Secret Scripture for World Book Night

secret_scriptureNice gesture from The Gutter Bookshop in Temple Bar, which will be giving out free copies of Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture on World Book Night in a couple of weeks’ time.

Published in 2008, The Secret Scripture won the overall prize at the Costa Book of the Year Awards and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, where it was defeated by the hugely overrated The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga.

It is the only Irish choice among the 20 books chosen by the organisers of World Book Night, which takes place on Tuesday, April 23rd.

World Book Night is a charitable organisation registered in the UK, with the aim of fostering reading among members of the community who might not be regular readers. As many as 20,000 volunteers are recruited each year to hand out 20 copies of their favourite book from the list.

And The Gutter Bookshop on Cow’s Lane in Temple Bar will become a focal point of the occasion in Dublin as it hands out free copies of The Secret Scripture on the night.

Although better known for many years as a playwright, 57-year-old Dubliner Barry has become a notable novelist of late, with each of his last three novels – A Long, Long Way (2005), The Secret Scripture (2008) and On Canaan’s Side (2011) – all either shortlisted or longlisted for the Booker.

The Secret Scripture concerns the fortunes of 100-year-old Roseanne McNulty, who has spent half her life as a resident in Roscommon Regional Mental Hospital.

For more check out www.gutterbookshop.com and www.worldbooknight.org.