An Irishman's Diary
The plan, insofar as I had one, was to turn up at least 20 minutes after the advertised time, slip in at the back, then eavesdrop on the speeches
You’ll remember a scene from The Third Man, wherein pulp-fiction writer Holly Martins has to address a group of expatriates in post-war Vienna about “the crisis of faith in the modern novel”.
Unfortunately for both him and the audience, he knows nothing about the modern novel, never mind the crisis of faith in it. But during a distracted moment, he has accepted the lecture invitation from a British cultural attache. Then he forgets all about it until, on the night in question, he finds himself bundled into a car and driven at speed to the venue.
The scene plays with the idea that, for many people, fear of public speaking is next only to fear of death. At first, Martins thinks himself kidnapped by homicidal drug racketeers, before finding that instead, he just has to give a talk, impromptu, on a subject about which he knows nothing. A more benign nightmare, but only just.
Whenever I have to speak in public myself, I often find it reassuring to reflect on Holly Martins’s dissertation. Compared with which, mine – however inadequate
it might be by any other yardstick – is always well researched. And yet, in connection with an event happening this weekend, I came uncomfortably close to reliving his experience in full.
A few weeks ago, an e-mail arrived in my inbox inviting me “to the launch” – as I thought – of something called the “Hidden Gems Forgotten People” project. That was (and is) happening as part of a day-long seminar at the Patrick Kavanagh Centre in Inniskeen tomorrow. And not only did the project sound interesting but, checking the date, I realised I would be in the area on the day in question, anyway.
So I thought, yes, I might drop in on that. But I didn’t reply to the invitation because, as I assumed from a glance, it had been sent to a mailing list. It was only an invitation “to the launch”, after all, and those are very common in a journalist’s inbox.
Even so, a few days later, I received another e-mail from a concerned third party, inquiring whether I’d received the first one, and whether I could make it on the day. Which was a little unusual, in my experience. I’m not used to being so valued as a guest, even at weddings of my immediate family.
But since they appeared concerned about the matter, I answered the second e-mail saying that, yes, I probably would be able to attend. The plan, insofar as I had one, was to turn up at least 20 minutes after the advertised time, slip in at the back unnoticed, and then eavesdrop on the speeches, during which I hoped to learn what the project was about.
So it’s just as well that, this week, the second e-mailer followed up again, double-checking that I was still in position to attend. At which point, a sackful of pennies dropped and, for the first time, I read the invitation properly. Thereby discovering that the phrase “to the launch” was in fact crucially devoid of the definite article I had previously imagined.
Only for the follow-up, my comprehension error might not have become clear until tomorrow when, spotted arriving late and trying to disguise myself at the back of the hall, I would have been invited forward “to launch” the project. Whereupon the scene from the The Third Man, if not my entire life, would have flashed before me.
Anyway, as I have since discovered, “Hidden Gems Forgotten People” is a cross-Border initiative, bringing together the Federation of Local History Societies and the Federation for Ulster Local Studies. The idea is to discover Irish places and people whose local fame deserves to be more widely known, and to collate them on a dedicated website, hidden-gems.eu.
Saturday’s seminar will include a keynote address by an acknowledged expert, Prof Raymond Gillespie of NUI Maynooth. As for me, it turns out – now I’ve read the small print – that what I’m launching, exactly, is the project’s promotional leaflet.
This may be a first. I don’t think I’ve ever launched a leaflet before – except perhaps once, many years ago. I have a vague memory that, as a child at Mass one Sunday, I launched a missalette, having first folded it into the shape of a plane, at the neck of a boy in front. I hope tomorrow’s launch is better received. In any case, I’m relieved to know it’s not of a more heavyweight document, because I suspect my contribution will be leaflet-sized too.