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Listowel Writers’ Week, the curator’s story: ‘It was an oppressive atmosphere’

Stephen Connolly says he experienced hostility and anti-Northern bias from people angry at changes to Kerry festival

The wounds at Listowel Writers’ Week, festering for some time, don’t seem to have healed, and burst open again over the past week.

Its first professional curator Stephen Connolly, who has not been reappointed, describes his term as a traumatic experience and says there was sustained antagonism from some quarters towards him.

Following a long saga around restructuring of Ireland’s longest-running literary festival after an independent consultant’s report, the long-established large volunteer committee that had run the festival for years was disbanded, and the Co Kerry festival appointed Connolly, a founder of Belfast literary organisation The Lifeboat, for the June 2023 festival.

Last August’s report (an Arts Council requirement for ongoing funding), concerned about leadership and governance, recommending restructuring, overseen by chair Catherine Moylan and the board. The new curator faced a rapid turnaround: Connolly had to have most of the festival in place within 10 days of his appointment last December. He moved to Kerry on January 4th, and presented his full line-up to the board on February 15th. The contract was for one festival only, though Connolly says he was told to expect to plan for three years.


After the May 31st-June 4th festival, he says, there was no feedback or discussion. Within weeks, without a word to him (“a rational person would expect some feedback and a debriefing process”), the festival advertised for a 2024 curator.

This was shortly after chairwoman Catherine Moylan finished her term in early July.

What Connolly had thought was “a dream job” had gone sour.

Over the past week there has been social media commentary about references Connolly made in Andersonstown News about encountering anti-Northern bias in Listowel. He described comments on being introduced to people: “Could they not have got anyone Irish to do it?” He posted an email clip referring to volunteers with Northern accents being bussed in (to shift chairs). He says someone bizarrely compared the Writers’ Week controversy with gerrymandering and civil rights abuses. There was disquiet over a perceived bias towards Northern writers (the festival included Wendy Erskine, Paul Brady, Michael Magee, Stephen Sexton, Lucy Caldwell and Paul Muldoon), and while “I started to doubt myself”, he says “the numbers don’t line up with that at all”, Northern writers accounting for just 20 per cent of the line-up.

Response has made much of how Northerners are often treated as outsiders and alien. While there’s probably truth in that, Connolly also says the Northern angle is “a red-herring. It is a convenient way to write off” his experience. “There were people in the town who were angry about the restructuring and the changes. There was a very strong feeling I was parachuted in” by the Arts Council. His appointment followed an open recruitment, but “that feeling that I was faceless bureaucracy allowed for the gloves to come off, and people felt empowered to say whatever they wanted”.

Shortly after he broke the Listowel Parkrun record, he says he was followed out of a pub by three young men and heard them saying “Let’s see how fast he is now”

He describes being out having lunch in Listowel and people would “come up and say, ‘Oh you’re the curator, I know all about you’” and ask what he was doing in the town. This was “twice, three times” a day. Maybe they were being friendly? “That was never the tone. Somebody said, ‘The sooner you’re out of this town the better.’” Shortly after he broke the Listowel Parkrun record, he says he was followed out of a pub by three young men and heard them saying “Let’s see how fast he is now”.

He describes an incident during the festival, in the midst of two best-selling events (with writer Liz Nugent followed by poet Paul Muldoon and musician Paul Brady in Conversation). With two standing ovations still ringing in his ears, somebody (“I’ve no idea who it was”) approached him, saying: “Well, that was interesting. I used to be involved here. You’ve destroyed everything.” The disjuncture was almost comical, “in an absurd sense”, he says.

For those unhappy with the restructuring, “I became an easy target. If they wanted to direct their anger about the restructuring process, I was a good receptacle. It was an oppressive atmosphere...There were people in the town who were raging about the restructure and it empowered them to say anything they wanted to me. It felt as though there was a collective agreement among the old guard that nothing was off-limits, the occasional jibe about the North was just a small part of it.”

He says: “I do have a thick skin. Most people would have walked. But I’m a stubborn person. I wouldn’t give up on something.”

There was “sustained negativity towards Stephen”, agrees former chairwoman Catherine Moylan. “I received some negativity from sources so I know how difficult it has been for him. Thankfully, there were others who welcomed him and made every effort to include him in the community.

“His contribution as curator showed the potential of Listowel Writers’ Week to be more ambitious and inclusive, and also to have engagement with a more diverse and younger audience.”

In a town of 4,000 Connolly reckons maybe 50 people went out of their way to be antagonistic. He refers to social media comments mentioning where he was around town

Connolly says Moylan was subjected to a lot more anger than he was, as she was overseeing the restructure. “There was a huge amount of misogyny in the relentless criticism she received online and around Listowel”.

But nothing is black and white. Connolly went into it enthusiastically, and committed to getting to know the town and its people. He made lasting friends, was welcomed by many and mentions several kindnesses. Moylan observes “he made time to get to know the town and the people in it. He made friends and had support from people who understood his vision and hopes for the festival. As a result, the programme included new venues and attracted a wider audience. It was a breath of fresh air.” Social media comments also mention how he “did a great job in keeping it all going. I was aware of absent locals who had been on committee but many others were there & hope they stay”.

In a town of 4,000 Connolly reckons maybe 50 people went out of their way to be antagonistic. “I didn’t know them. A lot of people didn’t introduce themselves. I’m new to the place. They seemed to be people opposed to the disbanding of the committee. There were enough people for me to feel, it sounds paranoid, but that I was being watched.” He refers to social media comments mentioning where he was around town.

Many former volunteer committee members had welcomed the move to appoint a curator, with whom they could share their long knowledge and experience, but efforts failed to resolve poor relations between the committee and the board. By the end of March the committee announced it was “disengaging completely from this year’s festival”. A statement signed by 18 people said it had been “unceremoniously” disbanded without explanation and that the board had not “actively” engaged with it. A spokesperson for the committee confirmed to the Kerryman newspaper this week that it had not been in contact with Connolly while he was curator.

Local Senator Ned O’Sullivan, a long-time supporter of the festival and whose wife was on the volunteer committee for decades, has more recently been a vocal critic of what he calls “the shocking treatment of the democratically elected committee”. He has also criticised “the murky role of the Arts Council and its practice of providing lucrative funding for ‘reports’ carried out by previous [Arts Council] ‘insiders’. In a Facebook post he has said this “resulted in the near destruction of one of the country’s major arts festivals”. He also called in the Seanad for the Minister for Arts to answer questions on the controversy.

In response to questions this week from The Irish Times about whether he was aware of the antagonism the former curator felt, O’Sullivan referenced his comments quoted in the Kerryman this week.

He objected to attempts “to demonise Listowel as an anti-Northern enclave”. He described Listowel as “the most welcoming town in Ireland”. He said Connolly’s appointment was welcomed by the former committee. “If the board had made attempts to meet with the group then he would have benefited from their expertise. He was really pitched in at the deep end, flying solo ... This all goes back at the end of the day to the decision of a small group of people to sack the committee.”

On Facebook posts O’Sullivan previously praised a Radio Kerry interview with Connolly. “He acknowledged the hurt caused, which is more than his employers did. Had they agreed to be interviewed even once since last September we might have avoided the current debacle. I haven’t met him but he sounds like a reasonable guy.”

My mental health was shot by having the deal with all of it. But I’m a stubborn person. I wouldn’t give up on something

—  Stephen Connolly

Was Connolly too sensitive to comments he got in Listowel? “Of course I was expecting resistance. I’m not stupid. I can’t over-stress the regularity and intensity of it. It was sustained for months and ramped up in intensity the closer it got to the festival.” A friend of his who visited at Easter had wondered was he exaggerating, he says, but later observed “if anything you were not describing it strongly enough”.

He says now: “It’s disheartening when you know you did a good job.” He describes his programme as “incredibly safe”, with big names and best-selling authors. While many new people got involved in the festival, others refused to engage.

He talks about “trying to make a real go of this”, and doing lots of logistical administration, including of the ticketing system, that were not part of his job specification. He describes arriving at a hotel venue 25 minutes before an event he was hosting for 70 people, and putting the chairs out himself because no one had briefed the hotel on it. “Nobody was entirely sure how much was my responsibility.”

There was a short window for new applications for curator, and he was abroad. “I’m starting to come out the other end. My mental health was shot by having to deal with all of it. I would have liked to stay on. The sad thing for me is that I immediately saw the potential for interesting things.” He observes it’s a tight timescale for a new curator to pull the festival together given book publishing’s calendar, and that it’s the same fee for a longer period of work.

Meantime, many in Listowel hope for peace between the former committee and the board. The Kerryman reported this week that a new curator has been appointed, but the festival didn’t respond to a request for confirmation. Existing board member Tom Donovan was elected chairman in July. There was no response this week to attempts to contact Donovan, who is believed to be on holiday, nor from the festival generally.

As for Stephen Connolly: “I’m writing a novel now.” We await to see if it’s reminiscent of John B Keane’s small-town intrigue.