Article Irish Times - June 8, 2011

Listowel Writers' Week, 40 years later

1224298562191 3 33 Writers’ hangout. Open only a fortnight, Pierce Walsh’s Café Hanna saw Neil Jordan, Gerry Stembridge and several others drop in for coffee. They may also have been admiring, as I was, the astonishing flowers on each table. Brought in from Walsh’s garden, the striking peonies were half pink rose, half cream dahlia. In a week dedicated to literature, those gorgeous flowers were poems.


Listowel Writers’ Week Festival turned 40 this year, celebrating with a line-up that included Alice Sebold, David Sedaris and Kevin Barry – so how better to mark its 40th than with 40 festival facts?

1 The cost of the festival’s first two-page black and white programme, in 1971: Twopence.

2 The cost of 2011’s 56-page colour programme, complete with fold-out map: Free.

3 Informality. At breakfast on Saturday, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Jimmy Deenihan, sat down with me and talked at knowledgeable length about the poets of north Kerry while I ate.

4 Biggest coup of the festival? Novelist Alice Sebold reading, for the first time, the first chapter of her novel-in-progress, The Happy Man , set in Pennsylvania in 1998.

5 The prize money. €30,000 in total was awarded this year.

6 Winner of the €15,000 Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award 2011. Neil Jordan, for his novel, Mistaken . Also on the shortlist were Claire Keegan, William Ryan, Emma Donoghue and Joseph O’Connor.

7 The windows. Several traders in Listowel joined in the celebrations by decorating their windows with literary themes. Finesse Bridal Wear had a mannequin in a dress created from the pages of a book, while Haplin’s Shooting and Fishing Shop displayed copies of John B Keane’s Sive and The Field next to copies of Gun Trader’s Guide and the Pocket Encyclopedia of World Aircraft in Colour Bombers Between the Wars 1919-1939 .

8 Base camp. The Listowel Arms Hotel is where all the writers were staying, and its bar stayed open long into the night.

9 Cost of a room in said establishment – the town’s only hotel – during the festival. My single, extremely modest, room, overlooking a derelict site, was a whopping, unrecessionary €160 per night for Friday and Saturday. Many festivalgoers complained of being stung by temporarily inflated hotel-room prices.

10 Among the many writers to come to Listowel over the last 40 years are: JM Coetzee, William Trevor, Nuala O’Faolain, Ted Hughes, Jung Chang, Alain de Botton, Paul Muldoon, Frank McCourt, Edna O’Brien, John McGahern, Michael Dibdin, Kazuo Ishiguro and Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

11 Some of this year’s participants: Kevin Barry, Michael Holroyd, David Sedaris, Jackie Kay, Alice Sebold, John Connolly, Robert McCrum, Cathy Kelly, Catherine Dunne, Joseph O’Connor, John Lonergan, Gerry Stembridge and Emily Barr.

12 Oddest-named event of the week: Poetry Without Pints, which took place on Friday afternoon, for “anyone with a lyrical inclination”.

13 Best new venue? Fossett’s Big Top, on the site of the town’s disused cattle mart.

14 Nickname for the Big Top venue: The Albert Hall.

15 Event with the biggest attendance? In the Big Top on Thursday night, 900 people turned up to hear ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins being interviewed by journalist Kevin Myers.

16 Long established in Listowel, this year’s workshops included screenwriting with Mark O’Halloran, writing for theatre with Marina Carr, popular fiction with Sarah Webb, freelance journalism with Terry Prone, creative writing advanced with David Park, poetry advanced with Harry Clifton and novel advanced with Sean O’Reilly.

17 Biggest fan – the woman at biographer Michael Holroyd’s reading, who stated afterwards: “Your reading was so good, I think I’ve fallen in love with you. When I read the books, God only knows what will happen.” Holroyd’s response: laughter.

18 Biggest insult – the man in the audience for novelist Alice Sebold’s reading, who stated, during the Q & A: “Your reading left me cold. I got nothing at all from it.” Sebold’s eventual response was the icy line, “Perhaps I don’t love you, sir.” When asked by Sebold’s London publisher why he said what he did, he confessed he didn’t know, other than that he “liked being a renegade voice”. Sebold did not go for dinner after her reading and left Listowel at 6am next morning. No matter how famous they may be, it’s clear that writers also have feelings.

19 Author with the longest queue for a book signing: David Sedaris.

20 Most popular bar in town – John B Keane’s, formerly owned by the playwright, now run by his family.

21 First president of Writers’ Week, in 1971: Academic Seamus Wilmot, from Listowel.

22 40th anniversary family connection: Actor Ronan Wilmot, son of Seamus, performed his one-man show at St John’s Theatre on the Saturday.

23 Current president of Writers Week: Colm Tóibín.

24 The meaning of the distinctive three-pronged Writers Week logo. “An old Celtic symbol that’s supposed to be cyclical, designed by local man Tony O’Callaghan, who is now dead,” explained Marie Logue, committee administrator.

25 Most esoteric event. Denis Sexton’s talk on Thursday. A qualified graphologist, his talk was about what your handwriting says about you.

26 Children’s Festival. Voted the most successful element of the programme, with large take-up on all events.

27 Most popular children’s event. “Baby Boogie” each weekend morning with Jo Jordan; a 45 minute music, singing and movement class for one- to four-year-olds and their parents.

28 Number of people and organisations on the 2011 committee: 61.

29 Image on the front of the 2011 programme – a cartoon of a man holding a stack of books in the shape of the number 40, by Martyn Turner.

30 Best ancillary event. Artist Sean Lynch’s intriguing and important Maid of Erin installation in the Maid of Erin building on Main Street, about the work of Listowel’s famous stucco-worker, Pat McAuliffe. Examples of McAuliffe’s work can still be seen throughout the streets of Listowel and Abbeyfeale. Runs until August 27th.

31 What did writer and editor Robert McCrum do before his Saturday reading? Watch the derby.

32 Globish . The title of Robert McCrum’s new book on the English language and how it continues to be adapted globally, depending on the culture of the country it arrives in, from which he read on Saturday afternoon. Asked in the Q & A if he thought “the language of texting will become common as another language”, he replied: “The delightful thing I can tell you is that texting is on the way out.”

33 Writers’ hangout. Open only a fortnight, Pierce Walsh’s Café Hanna saw Neil Jordan, Gerry Stembridge and several others drop in for coffee. They may also have been admiring, as I was, the astonishing flowers on each table. Brought in from Walsh’s garden, the striking peonies were half pink rose, half cream dahlia. In a week dedicated to literature, those gorgeous flowers were poems.

34 Funniest reader of his own work – by a mile, David Sedaris, who had the audience in the Plaza howling like the beasts in the title of his new book, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modern Bestiary. We learned how flight attendants wreak vengeance on passengers: have you ever paused to analyse the tone of attendants who go up and down the plane at the end of a flight, incanting, “your trash, your garbage, your rubbish”? He also read a piece about the peculiar language of phrase books that will run in a forthcoming edition of the New Yorker . Sedaris told the audience he had been keeping a diary for 35 years, and that he returned to it regularly for material. Just before his reading, he had visited a barber in Listowel, who told him, Sedaris informed us, that he had a client who used margarine on his hair instead of gel. Watch out for that detail in Sedaris’ future work.

35 Unfortunate typo of the week – displayed in the ballroom of the Listowel Arms Hotel, where many events took place: “By order of Listowel Writers Week, No Photograph’s or Recordings.”

36 Insights into the work of a biographer. Michael Holroyd, who read on Saturday, is best known for his biography of George Bernard Shaw, which he worked on for 15 years. When asked how relevant he thought Shaw is now, he replied, “He is very much out of fashion. I don’t mean out of date. His time will come.” Holroyd also pointed out that Shaw would have been “perhaps more effective if he had written less”.

37 What John B Keane wrote in the 1971 programme: “There isn’t a Listowel man but could talk the hind leg off a pot, sober or in his cups. If it’s a writer you want to be yourself some day, this is the place to visit. If the spark is on you at all, the flames will grow here. What was latent must leap forth to flower. It’s in the air around us, this magic which calls forth the urge to write, to create.”

38 The 40th anniversary concert, held in the Big Top on Saturday night, saw novelist Joseph O’Connor team up with broadcaster Philip King, band Scullion and singer Eimear Quinn for an evening of literature and music.

39 Number of books launched at the festival. Hard to keep track of them, but at least eight.

40 Line in programme most likely to have intrigued festival visitors from outside Ireland. “We will pass through Asdee, famous for moving statues and Jesse James, and continue to the Crooked Cross in Ballylongford.” Part of what you were promised during the Sheila Barry Memorial Literary Bus Tour on Saturday afternoon.