Literary feast as Hay makes second cut at Kells

In person, Jeremy Paxman is as bossy and opinionated – although not as tall – as you would expect

Joe O’Connell looking at a painting of Samuel Beckett at the Hay Festival Kells, Co Meath, which has returned for a second year. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne

Joe O’Connell looking at a painting of Samuel Beckett at the Hay Festival Kells, Co Meath, which has returned for a second year. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:02

Let’s be clear: the Hay Festival has nothing to do with hay. Which is just as well, because as the bookerati moved into Kells, Co Meath, this weekend for the Irish leg of the literary festival which originated in the Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, so did grey skies and squally showers.

This is the second year of Hay at Kells and many of the features which make it special have returned. A “type trail” uses lettering to create large, site-specific installations around the town centre. Pop-up bookshops bring secondhand books to unlikely places – one local woman found herself talking to the butcher about French writer Émile Zola as her pound of mince was weighed and wrapped. Late-night music and comedy slots include performances by Jason Byrne, Liam Ó Maonlaí and the Kells indie band Ham Sandwich.

There are also some innovations, notably the Boyne Valley artisan market, where craft food producers from the area will display their wares, and a series of cookery events with, among others, chefs Richard Corrigan and Evan Doyle.

If the Hay Festival has a signature dish, though, it is the serving up of a range of big-name authors. In particular, the organisers have mastered the art of the provocative headliner. Former BBC2 Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman drew a capacity crowd for a talk based on his book Great Britain’s Great War.

In person, Paxman is as bossy and opinionated – although not as tall – as you would expect. His performance was more anecdotal than analytical, a series of first World War vignettes rather than a coherently argued position on this year’s anniversary “celebrations”.

Along the way, he couldn’t help making a few of his trademark trenchant sideswipes – at the British National Health Service, the French and Tony Blair. When the time came to ask questions, he also took issue with his questioners.

“War hysteria? That’s a phrase you need to be very careful with,” he told one, and kept interrupting another, who eventually cried: “Wait a minute, please.” Paxman’s reply was swift and merciless: “Well, get to the point.”

A very different crowd assembled in the ballroom of the Headfort Arms Hotel for the session which followed. The YA horror and fantasy author Darren Shan had his young audience on the edge of their seats – and on at least one occasion, physically jumping out of them – when he read, complete with scary voices, from his zombie apocalypse series.

The black humour of the Irish Book Award winner Donal Ryan seemed gentle by comparison. “I’m in the middle of writing a short story collection and it’s killing me,” he confessed, before reading from the opening chapter of his debut novel The Spinning Heart – which, along with The Thing About December, was rejected 50 times before finally making it into print.

Over the next two days, Hay will present Louis de Bernières, Jung Chang, Eoin McNamee, Joseph O’Connor, Audrey Magee, Benjamin Black, Hugo Hamilton, Glenn Patterson and a host of visiting writers in a weekend feast which looks set to satisfy even the pickiest of literary appetites.