A haven for writers, a dream for readers, a must for everyone


Novelist and playwright DERMOT BOLGERfinds Listowel Writers’ Week undiminished after 39 years, and says the secret of its success is keeping its focus divided between the parochial and the universal

WHEN THE fractiously divided revolutionary factions in The Life of Brianpondered the question, “what did the Romans ever do for us”, their litany of actual benefits from the Romans was fairly extensive, from roads to sanitation, but one legacy of the Romans was overlooked. Without the Romans, 200 people would not have been sitting in the Listowel Arms Hotel last Saturday listening to Terry Jones (key conspirator in Monty Python and director of The Life of Brian) present his persuasive and witty perspective on Roman and Barbarian history and the bloody fault lines along which they met.

Earlier, he was preceded on stage by Gerry Jackson who in 2000 won the right in the Zimbabwean Supreme Court to open the first independent radio station in Zimbabwe – a station closed down at gunpoint six days later, although she continues to broadcast from London into Zimbabwe, using shortwave and the internet.

Hearts made heavy by ancient Roman or modern African oppression were soothed by Louis de Bernières (author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin), who not only read his love poems, but showed great courage in playing the harp music of O’Carolan on a mandolin to an Irish audience.

With such dazzling varieties of speakers, this could only be Listowel Writers’ Week, which this weekend completed its 39th successful year. Many festivals have been launched since writers first came together in Listowel all those years ago, but Listowel retains a uniquely intimate character. The green room for authors in the Edinburgh Book Festival is a cordoned-off tent; the green room in Toronto’s Harbourfront festival is a sequestered penthouse; the green room at Listowel is the footpath outside the Arms Hotel during outbreaks of sunshine and the back of John B Keane’s pub in all other climatic conditions.

With Billy Keane remaining as droll and hospitable as his father in welcoming the writers and readers who mingle in Kerry’s most famous bar, on one level it seems like nothing has changed since the days when JB benignly presided over the annual influx of book lovers.

For Carlo Gebler, who gave this year’s novel writing workshop, what remains unique about Listowel is that the whole town involves itself – it doesn’t stop for Writers’ Week, it moves over to make room in the bed. Unlike some festivals that seem parachuted into towns, this festival belongs to the town. It is run by a wonderfully astute local committee, with a genuine love of books, and their enthusiasm permeated this year’s programme, which ranged from an Amnesty International debate on re-imagining the Republic to a reading by Booker Prize-winner James Kelman, and from an exploration of Chinese society by Jung Chang to a reading by Colm Tóibín that attracted such a vast crowd that Tóibín and his audience abandoned the planned venue at St John’s Theatre and – taking a leaf from Terry Jones’s Romans – marched across the square in formation to annex the hotel ballroom.

There are two types of awards in literature – those with big cheques for the caterers and those with big cheques for the writers. Listowel is thankfully in the second group and this year’s Kerry Group Irish Fiction Prize went to Joseph O’Neill for his superb book Netherlands. But Listowel is as much about emerging writers as established ones and Marie Gahan (a generous encourager of literature as a workshop teacher in Tallaght) received the original short poem prize.

Listowel has cradled several generations of writers and Kerry County Council sponsors awards for young writers while Tommy Christie received the Irish Post/Stena Line award for Irish writers based in Britain. There are even awards for writers in prison; and with one well-known face jailed for corruption and hopefully more to come, this may become the most entered category as Listowel enters its 40th year.

Listowel’s secret has been to keep its gaze fixed on the parochial and the universal. Its philosophy is marked by curiosity and confidence, by being so local that anyone writing their first poem can recite it to a listening audience in the Mermaid Bar, so sufficiently clued into Irish culture to continue the tradition of storytelling in which Eamon Kelly excelled; but by also being sufficiently universal for you to find discussion of human-rights issues in China and Zimbabwe and just as importantly at present, Ireland itself.

It is where you will find Siveperformed, but new and innovative stage works such as Benny McDonnell’s Bondi Beach Boy Blueor Conor Lovett’s epic recreation of Moby Dick.

It is a town that invites writers into its centre for a week because it has a genuine curiosity about the written word. Its confidence comes from knowing that writers will enjoy the experience. In the words of its energetic chairman, Michael Lynch: “Ask them and they may come.”