Listowel Writers Festival

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A fascinating and informative article By JACKIE GOODALL

CONSIDERED to be the literary and cultural hub of Ireland, the lovely market town of Listowel in North Kerry not only plays host to Ireland’s oldest literary festival every year, but is the birthplaceof many of Ireland`s most prominent writers past and present, including John B Keane, Bryan MacMahon, Brendan Kennelly, Gabriel Fitzmaurice, George Fitzmaurice, Maurice Walsh and Robert Leslie Boland.

There is obviously something special about Listowel to nurture so many literary/geniuses, and so it is no surprise that a small group of people including Bryan MacMahon and John B. Keane, established Listowel Writers’ Week in 1970 – not only to celebrate the lives and works of Irish writers, but to enable writers and readers to engage with literature and to encourage new talent.

Over the years the festival has become an International event, attracting writers and visitors from all over theworld.

THIS YEAR the Festival runs from Wednesday May 27 through to Sunday May 31 and will be opened by actor Gabriel Byrne, who will announce the winner of the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award.

The five shortlisted novels for this year’s Award are: ‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry, ‘Molly Foxes Birthday’ by Deirdre Madden, ‘Disguise’ by Hugo Hamilton, ‘John the Revelator’ by Peter Murphy and ‘Netherland’ by Joseph O’Neffl.

The adjudicators this year are teacher and critic Niall MacMonagle and author Giles Foden. The ‘Who’s Who’ of top Irish writers who have participated in the event include Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, who opened the festival last year, Booker Prize winners Anne Enright and Roddy Doyle, award winning playwrights Hugh Leonard and Brian Friel, acclaimed novelists Colm Toibin, Hugo Hamilton, Frank McCourt, Edna O’Brien, and poets Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill and John Montague.

IRELAND has always held a literary fascination for writers from abroad and this is evidenced by the number of international writers who have also given readings, lectures, seminars and workshops at the festival.

Writers such as Kazuo Ishiguro, Alain de Boulton, Andrew Motion, Per Peterson, Melvyn Bragg, Irvine Welsh, Robert Fisk, Clive James and the late British Poet Laureate Te Hughes.

Crucially Listowel draws not only writers who are at the height of their renown and reputation, but it offers a platform to emrging writers via a number of generous literary prizes in various categories, including Writing in Prisons and a Youth Literary Award.

“Listowel welcomes the soul of the writer…… gives it a home and brings it to life” remarked writer and broadcaster Eamon Keane recently.

One of the regular features of the festival, and one which always creates a buzz, is the live recording from St John`s Theatre of RTE`s Sunday Miscellany, which features new writing specially composed for the programme with writers participating in Writers Week.

It was Brian MacMahon, folklorist, poet, playwright, novelist, lecturer, ballad-maker and known affectionately as “The Master” in Listowel, who introduced the concept of a literary workshop in 1971, after he had returned from the USA where he had given a literary tour and creative writing classes.

McMahon felt that workshops would benefit emerging writers and they have now become an integral part of Writers’ Week, and considered to be the most popular and powerful in Ireland, with students coming from all over the world to attend.

Those giving workshops this year include Ellis Ni Dhuibhne, Brian Dillon and Pat Speight, novelists David Park and Carlo Gébler, poet Martina Evans, and journalist Mary Kenny. Pat Speight, Ireland’s best known Storyteller; will introduce a new Storytelling workshop this year; and where better to hold it than in Listowel’s famous Seanchal Cultural Centre and Writers’ Museum, which this year has undergone extensive renovations. Situated in a 19th Century Georgian building in Listowel’s magnificent Square; Seanchai, pronounced “shan-a-key” comes from the Irish language and means ‘Storyteller.’

Regrettably considered by some to be a dying art, the ‘SeanchaI’ workshop was held in such high regard in ancient Ireland that he sat at the King’s table, and in North Kerry, the rich oral tradition of storytelling has been the foundation of its thriving literary tradition.

Another writer who contributed greatly to both local and national literary life was co-founder of the festival John B. Keane who was, until his death in 2002 during his beloved Writers’ Week, a dramatist, novelist, poet, raconteur and Listowel publican.

Listening to the banter of the colourful characters in his pub enabled him to tap into a powerful strand of rural Irish life and translate it to the stage, and it was ‘Sive,’ his first play, presented by the Listowel Drama Group and winner of the All-Ireland Amateur Drama Festival in 1959, that immediately made Keane’s reputation.

A special production of ‘Sive’ will be presented during the Festival at St John’s Theatre & Arts Centre.

To mark the 50th anniversary of ‘Sive,’ the Literary & Historical Bus Tour will take to Lyreacrompane in the Stacks Mountains, homeland of the famous Dan Paddy Andy O’Sullivan, last of the Kerry matchmakers and where John B. spent much of his childhood. The tour finishes in Walsh’s Bar, Knocknagoshel, home of the great Kerry footballer Eddie Walsh, where there will be much music, dance and craic.

John B’s famous pub is still located in the town centre and is certainly worth a visit for its traditional atmosphere and friendliness, not forgetting the evening Literary Pub Trail takes in many of Listowel’s other famous and indeed infamous hostelries. Accompanying the revellers will be the Abbeyfeale Drama Group who will stage theatre scenes at each pub, although depending how much Guinness and Jameson is consumed, the plot may be lost somewhat along the way!

THE FESTIVAL is known the world over for being unique in that it is ‘highly distinguished without being in the least bit snobbish.’ Certainly what makes Writers’ Week stand out amongst other Irish literary festivals is its rural aspect; because Listowel is relatively small in size the whole community becomes involved and the festival literally takes over the town.

It is largely a voluntary event, made possible by the local committee that organises it each year, together with generous local and national sponsorship and Arts Council funding: with input from some of Ireland’s leading literary figures, such as its president Colm Toibin and local poet Brendan Kennelly.

The thousands of visitors who flock to the event every year to soak up the literary atmosphere and have some fun are guaranteed a warm welcome. One of Ireland’s finest writers, the late John McGahern, said of Listowel, “I recall with much affection the friendliness I met everywhere, the seriousness and the great humour. It was a very happy event.”

Winner of last year’s Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award and Booker Prize Winner Anne Enright enthused, “It’s a great festival and has come on in leaps and bounds over the years... .1 had one of the best nights ever at any festival when Glen Hansard was jamming until four o’clock in the Listowel Arms. Just walking down the street in Listowel is special, the feeling of people travelling there and having good fun when they are there.”

Some of this years featured writers include George Kimball, John Montague, Terry Jones (Of Monty Python fame), Jung Chang, Rebecca Miller, Dr Ivor Browne, Carol Drinkwater, James Kelman, Colm Tobin, Dermot Bolger and Louis de Bernieres, among others.

Chairman of the festival Michael Lynch, promises, “an abundance of inspiration for even the curmudgeonly of souls.” There are plenty of treats in store for the children too with award winning writers, workshops, art and storytelling, culminating in a colourful Monster Slam Pageant to round off the festival on Sunday.

We are living in difficult economic times and as a nation we continue to ask whether it is the best of times or the worst of times for literature and the arts in general.

In difficult times, how can literature make a difference as we engage with it as writers and readers?

Colm Toibin offers an insight: “If Irish bankers, politicians and civil servants are looking for lessons in how to govern and inspire, in how to build continuity and trust, they should look carefully at the astonishing levels of skill, good governance, flair and sheer inspiration that arts festivals and institutions in Ireland have offered to the nation. At the end of all this comes magic…..the workshops and readings in Listowel which can change your life….as a society, it is important that we continue to treasure it and provide for it.”

Writers Week is definitely a date for the diary. Further details can be obtained at:

Writers Week, 24 The Square, Listowel, Co Kerry.

Tel: 068 21074 Email: info@writersweek Web:

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