It was my honour to have been awarded a full Bursary by the John Hewitt Society and my privilege to attend their prestigious Summer School in late July 2018.
I have used words like incredible, transformative, inspiring, engaging and amazing to describe the week’s enticing and immersive cultural timetable but in reality the Summer School is all that and more.
The thoughtfully designed schedule ensures that none of the individual events overlap. Days began at 9.45 am and there were at least five daily hour-long sessions outside of the creative writing workshops and at least one evening event.
In an attempt to give you a flavour of how the week progressed I have summed up most of the lectures, interviews and events that I attended. But some of you may not want to read all of this so I have clearly headed each session which will enable you to
- Skim through this and choose to read the ones that interest you.
- Read the whole thing (it is long!)
- At least scroll down to the paragraph about the Radio Drama Workshop and read on from there,
- Leave now and never talk of this again.
This year’s Summer School’s opening address was delivered by Dr. Martin Manseragh, former Fianna Fáil T.D. and former Minister for Finance and the Arts. His fascinating talk shedding illumination on the complexities behind ‘simple’ political messages, spanning recent centuries, North and South of the border.
Fiction: Patrick Gale
Next up was an interview with author Patrick Gale who gave us insights into his writing process,
“Writing and reading are part of the same process.”
On character versus plot,
“Plot arises when you bring two characters together”
Answering a question about ‘wasted writing’,
“No creativity is wasted, you go down a path, and even if it is not used, you are enriched by the journey.”
I enjoyed this quote in particular,
“The whole fiction writing process is hugely therapeutic.”
He read and drew from his 2018 novel ‘Take Nothing With You’ during his interview.
Fiction and Photography – Travelling in a Strange Land: David Park & Sonya Whitefield
The evening discussion was with author David Park about his novel ‘Travelling in a Strange Land’ with photographs by Sonya Whitefield who, unfortunately, could not take part in the interview. Throughout the discussion we were given an understanding of the depth and spirituality of David Park, as a person and a writer, when he talked about his views of creativity,
“There is something redemptive and transcendent in art.”
“There are instinctive subconscious things in creativity.”
Also in his memories of the great snowfall of 1966,
“Never before and never after have I felt the weight of the universe.”
On his collaboration with Sonya Whitefield,
“The book is a finished item in itself but the photographs give it a different life.”
“There should be more opportunities for different art-forms to collaborate.”
Park read extracts from ‘Travelling in a Strange Land’
This lecture was followed by an exhibition of Sonya Whitefield’s thoughtfully taken photographs.
I woke up on the Tuesday feeling that I had already been there for a week and was ready for more of the same.
John Hewitt and the Irish at Coventry
The morning sessions began with Ciaran Davis’ lecture on John Hewitt’s time as Director of the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in post war Coventry (1957 -1972) and the difference in motivation behind his move (a secure job and a willingness to leave Belfast) in contrast to the many Irish people who were forced to see work in the city.
Hewitt’s vision was to help to regenerate the city and he felt that “A better society could be created by focussing on the local” and he brought in works by Stanley spencer and J.S.L. Lowry. While he was successful at first, ultimately, his vision was not supported by grant giving city officials.
Fiction – Liz Nugent
We were treated to an interview with the always entertaining, generous and modest author Liz Nugent whose third book ‘Skin Deep’ was published earlier in 2018. Nugent answers gave advice to new and emerging writers.
“The first piece I wrote that was broadcast was for Sunday Miscellany about a pair of gloves (15 minutes). You can start out with something small.”
She explained how the characters from her short story ‘Alice’ “…wouldn’t leave me alone…” and evolved into her first book ‘Unravelling Oliver’.
Answering a question about her dislikeable characters she quipped “I aim to disturb.” She followed this by talking about ‘Skin Deep’,
“As a writer I thought it would be interesting to explore a character who doesn’t care at all”
Politics – Facing Change: The Identity Perspective
Tuesday’s post workshops session was a talk by Dr. Nabeel Goheer, Assistant Secretary General at the Commonwealth Secretariat, on the current state of flux we are experiencing in the world and what this means to our global Identities.
“All of the cooperations we started building up since the Second World War are now being questioned.”
With 6.5 Million people being displaced by conflict identity has come back on a global level as a topic. He outlined the meaning of a global citizen as anyone who has enough wealth to invest a percentage of it into global issues or globally recognisable individuals who have the best values and can reach a worldwide audience.
Tuesday evening’s performance was a charming and quirky musical collection by Ulaid and Duke Special.
Politics – ‘Cross Border Studies’
Wednesday started with an interesting lecture on ‘Cross Border Studies’ with Professor Arthur Aughey, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Ulster University. He used the example of the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the tangle of borders which were carved in Europe to demonstrate how,
“Frontiers are lines on a map but they are also a force of political ideologies.”
He went on to say that “One of the great objectives of the EU has been to remove the borders and the threats of the invasions of 1914-18 and 1939-45”
Issues in the Northern Ireland conflict was dominated by borders, terrorism and political identity and Professor Aughey recalled us that in 2017 Seamus Heaney suggested that the world had become a big Ulster.
Mary O’Donnell, novelist, short story writer and poet, was the next author interview I attended. She was so interesting to listen to that I forgot to take many notes but I came away with a couple of gems.
“If something isn’t working in poetry I ask myself if this will work in fiction.”
One of O’Donnell’s general tips about being a writer,
“You need to be in good health and you need to be living a selfish lifestyle to be a writer and that is not possible for everyone.”
Panel – Writing and Refugees
The guest that stood out for me from the *Writing and Refugees* panel was the multi-talented Annie Waithira, who made the most unforgettable entrance and then served us food for thought with some choice statements.
“If you cannot hear our stories then you will never be able to get to know us.”
“Dear Ireland, why have you forgotten the immigrant?”
To steal from the John Hewitt Society twitter account
“She represents the absent voice in many contemporary debates: the refugee woman.”
Waithira explained that not every immigrant is on the same journey.
“Just because we came on the same boat does not mean we are of the same situation.”
This panel was followed by the opening of an exhibition “Daily Lives: Asylum Seekers in Italy and Ireland” by Mariusz Smiejek.
Music and Dance – Edges of Light
Our evening’s entertainment on Wednesday was “Edges of Light” collaboration between Irish Dance legend Colin Dunne, fiddler Tola Custy, harpist Maeve Gilchrist, and uilleann piper David Power.
An energetic and very entertaining musical and dance interpretation of the time in 1916 when Ireland was 25 minutes and 12 seconds behind the UK and so to coordinate Ireland with GMT the time went back only 35 minutes that October (but not everybody stuck to the rule).
Towards the end of the week I was working on my workshop exercise (more about that later) and so didn’t get to as many of the events as I would have liked.
“Challenging the Two Traditions: Women, Memory and Literature.”
Writer and PhD researcher at Ulster University, Eli Davies, investigated the Northern Ireland conflict through the lens of the women involved and the upheaval paramilitary activities had on marriages and relationships in literature about the period,
“During the conflict the home was politicised.”
“The female figure is portrayed as queen, victim, peacemaker, but often used in service of the bigger male narrative.”
“Nell McCafferty pinpoints the mundane duties that the conflict affected as opposed to the macro issues.”
In Deirdre Madden’s ‘One by One in the Darkness’. Davies points out that “The house becomes a person or a character in itself.”
Fiction – Sheila Llewellyn
The next interview was with author Sheila Llewellyn which centred about her debut novel ‘Walking Wounded’, which deals with how post-traumatic stress disorder was suffered and treated after the Second World War. The book has been praised by, among others, Pat Barker.
Llewellyn mentions that “the generation of writers who came after grew up with the narrative of the second World War.”
On research she said that “It satisfies my inner historian, I love doing the research but I have to hold myself back.”
While researching PTSD she came across recordings of soldiers recounting their experiences “You can hear them struggling to control the memories.”
One of her pre-war book loving characters returns with revulsion of literature because “Books lie because writers write a happy ending and life isn’t like that.”
Llewellyn says that a challenge that writers face is to portray some characters with as much integrity as possible while not liking them.
Northern Ireland Political Collection at Linen Hall Library
The next lecture was a visually centred lecture from Belfast’s Linen Hall Library on the topic of the Northern Ireland Political Collection.
The library is most famous for its local and Irish collections.
Sometime in 1969, Jimmy Vitty, then Librarian of the Linen Hall Library, was handed a civil rights leaflet in a Belfast city centre bar. He kept it. Since then the Library has sought to collect all printed material relating to the ‘Troubles’.
The Political Collection is the only one of its kind that began collecting before a conflict was started.
In 1972 the collection almost shut down under the Special Powers Act which banned dealings with any anti-Government literature.
A former librarian of Linen Hall quipped that the Political Collection has “Something to offend everyone.”
The library has various individual collections as well, for example, the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Archive, Northern Ireland Women’s Movement and more. As well as that they hold a Troubled Images Project which comprises of 16 volumes of press clippings from the early 1970s to 1994,
The digitalisation of the Political Collection is currently underway.
Fiction – Michael Hughes
The last event I attended was an interview with author Michael Hughes, whose most recent book “Country” is set during the Northern Irish conflict using the structure of Homer’s ‘Iliad’. Hughes says said that he chose this approach because
“The Iliad took place among a small group of people who all know each other’s family history. A similar set up here in the Northern Ireland conflict”
He explained another reason for using the Iliad’s structure
“If you are writing about the conflict you will either to fictionalise or dramatise accounts of real people which isn’t fair to them.”
Throughout the week there was a choice of seven different creative workshops to attend, ‘Getting Started’ with Nessa O’Mahoney,’ Poetry’ with David Wheatley, ‘Poetry’ with Siobhán Campbell, ‘Short Story’ with Mary O’Donnell, ‘Fiction’ with Bernie McGill, ‘Memoir’ with Ferdia McKenna and the workshop that I opted for was ‘Radio Drama’ with Eoin McNamee.
Radio Drama Workshop
Eoin McNamee proved to be an excellent facilitator and on our first session he sent us out to the winding streets of Armagh with the quest of returning with a snippet of colloquial conversation. He then guided each of us to expand these snippets gradually into a short radio drama. The feedback he gave to the individual students acted as mini tutorials in the nuances of writing for radio for everybody at the workshop.
At 4.00 pm on Friday the Creative Writing Showcase took place. At least three people from each workshop read out their work. It was a shared pleasure to listen to the wealth of talent and promise from the bursary students chosen to read.
Thursday and Friday evening’s theatrical performances were a double bill from the remarkably astonishing mind and bodies (so to speak) of Mikel Murfi, “The Man In The Woman’s Shoes” and “I Hear You and Rejoice”. If you haven’t seen Murfi’s one man shows yet I urge you to rectify that. These two presentations were such a perfect way to finish off this culture laden week.
But it was not over yet. We all strolled down to the Armagh Centre for a fun open mic night.
During the week I met an eclectic range of people who fast became a strong foundation on which to grow a new creative family and it was their company that turned the cultural experience into an unforgettable adventure.
I woke up on Saturday morning in the charming and quirky Charlemont Arms Hotel with the feeling that I had been back to the best parts of university for a week – the pleasure of learning without the pressure of exams.
I came away with the feeling that I wanted to work towards something astounding but if I don’t manage that I’m definitely aiming higher than before.
If you have an interest in encountering culture I advise you to attend in 2019, see you there.
Finally I have to send many, many thanks the John Hewitt Society for awarding me this incredible opportunity and putting together an unforgettable week and to the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs who kindly funded the ROI bursary students.