Down the length of the Dingle peninsula on a blustery winter night, after driving across the country through Friday’s rain and traffic; you arrive in darkness, weariness-tinged, to find a refuge of physical and intellectual sustenance. The welcome at the Dingle Skellig Hotel is warm and efficient; they have it sussed in Kerry.
We had not come just for the hotel’s undoubted comforts or fine view of the sea, but Dingle Lit, a relatively new kid on the block of literary festivals. It’s quite the distinct feel: a winter weekend festival at the end of a far-flung Kerry peninsula. Out of the way, out of season, with an impressive line-up and an impressive team.Some 2,000 attendances are embedded at the small town’s events, writers and readers, locals and visitors. Turn around in the coffee shop and there’s a favourite writer. Aside from the shoals of writers mooching and chatting and hanging out, there are shoals of fish, with seafood on menus from Michelin-starred to humble pubs.
We hit the ground running shortly after arriving, with Anne Enright interviewed by Max Porter, in the Dingle Skellig’s large function room. Talking about her novel The Wren, The Wren’s mother and daughter, Carmel and Nell, “I had no problem writing Nell. People say, how do you write about young people, as though youth is another country. ‘Nobody understands me’ is actually a symptomatic phrase of being 17. But also, I have been young.” Writing Nell “I went back to my early work, maybe slightly modernist, fragmented short stories” she wrote at Nell’s age. “The internet is a modernist space, it’s not like Middlemarch, it’s not Tolstoy. I wanted to get that sensibility of people who are half online and half in the world.”
Amusing moment 1: Porter asks her about “the absent person’s presence”, using the word ontological, or maybe it’s hauntological. At one stage Enright says she’ll have to look up the word again.
(Later we check: ontological relates to the nature of existence and being, and hauntological to the notion that the present is “haunted” by lost futures, a state of non-being. We think Max Porter was talking about the second. Anyway, ‘twas gas.)
Amusing moment 2: an audience member opens her remarks “To be honest, The Wren irritated me all the way through”, to much hilarity. In a festival with excellent reader-writer interactions, this was acute. The reader “the mother of millennials” who understands mother-daughter dynamics said The Wren disturbed her. She didn’t like Carmel all the way through, but eventually realised “oh my God, there is Carmel in me”.
For the rest of the weekend the action moved to Dingle Bookshop and the festival hub at An Díseart, a former convent on a hill, tucked behind the church. There are moments of delicious counterpoint, between the forbidding building heavy with religious iconography and books often dealing with gutsy lives.
This week Dingle Lit launched a short story competition, inviting submissions of previously unpublished work by the end of February
In the chapel with its beautiful stained glass on Saturday morning there is shouting, swearing, aggression, threats and pain. Max Porter is performing from Shy, his polyphonic novel about a troubled teenage boy in 1990s Britain and those trying to reach him after his act of violence. Accompanied by Aoife and Deirdre Granville improvising impressively on fiddle and harp, Porter performs multiple characters in a 30-minute “reading” where hope and despair co-exist.
Afterwards he talks about crossing forms, smudged language, writing as brushstroke, working with children in care and how what Shy hears is just “feedback” in a lake of depression. The story shows, he says, “what happens when you take funding out of social care and youth clubs, and close libraries”.
Festival director Sheila O’Reilly and her husband Peter McKay, both book industry professionals, retired from London to their Ballyferriter holiday home, from where she works for the Booksellers Association and is a European Prize for Literature judge. Chatting with Camilla Dinkel, then-owner of the Dingle Bookshop, she wondered “how come there’s no weekend festival in west Kerry dedicated to authors, readers and contemporary writing. Camilla said ‘if you make it happen, I’ll support you’. And so it began. That was in the August. We gathered together a band of volunteers, many of whom form the current committee and by the November we put on 20 events over the weekend.”
There was no funding, of course, so it happened with “a combination of madness and naivety”. About two dozen local individuals and businesses supported it financially, to pay writers and contributors. This showed there were plenty of people in the area who believed in the festival. After year one they got more formal funding, from the Arts Council, Foras na Gaeilge, Ealaín na Gaeltachta, Kerry County Council, plus more recently Fáilte Ireland and sponsors including Dingle Distillery, a big local employer.
Right after its rapid birth in 2019 the introduction of Covid plunged it online, then hybrid and it’s fired full-throttle since 2022. This week Dingle Lit launched a short story competition, inviting submissions of previously unpublished work by the end of February.
O’Reilly and Dinkel were joined early on by others including McKay (“he didn’t have a lot of choice!”), Nicholas McLachlan, and Siobhán Prendergast for Irish language literature, all on the organising committee along with Irene Flannery, Niall McDowell, Deanna O’Connor, Mia Colleran and Aoife O’Connor.
O’Reilly says curating by committee “works rather well. Many festivals have a single curator, but we meet early in the year and sit around our kitchen table. We all make suggestions of who we’d like to see, and go from there. Nearly everyone at the festival is suggested by one of us. It means it’s a team effort and there’s variety because we don’t all like the same books or authors. I think it would be challenging for one person to curate a whole festival. A varied and interesting programme needs input and suggestions from several people, and it needs to appeal to locals as well as visitors.”
The weekend was stuffed with fiction, non-fiction, poetry events: writer interviews and panels in English and Irish (including several at the Blasket Centre), writing workshops, children’s and fringe events. The eclectic lineup included Nicole Flattery, Soula Emmanuel, Colin Walsh, Karl Geary, Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, Claire Kilroy, Sophie White, John Banville, Suad Aldarra and Mark Moriarty.
Dingle Bookshop had a pop-up across the road in An Díseart, readers milling about the laden trestle-tables, writers signing books. Actor and filmmaker Stanley Tucci possibly visiting with his literary agent wife Felicity Blunt, was spotted in several audiences and signing his book, Taste.
In another room, Michael Magee fresh from his Rooney Prize for Close to Home, talks about the culture shock of returning to Belfast for a master’s at Queen’s, different territory to his youth in the same city. His novel starts with a punch, but it started life not as a book but a letter, to his friend and fellow author Thomas Morris. The trick for him, says Magee, was “to write it as if no-one’s ever going to read it”, which led to an intensely personal voice.
Choice is when you have all the options and then you make the choice— Katriona O'Sullivan
Changing the narrator’s voice from “Mick” to “Sean” gave distance, but also reclaimed part of himself; when Michael was born in Belfast in 1980, he might have been Sean, but his father felt a more neutral name would protect him. The protagonist’s mother, who lived through the Troubles as a young woman, is based on his own. “She was almost like a collaborator.” She “felt a degree of catharsis, that her story was being told”.
Kevin Barry goes solo in the chapel holding the congregation by reading a spirited short story he’s just finished, set on a ferry to France. Barry spins a good tale about the genesis, over 20 years ago, of his novel The Heart in Winter, coming next summer. In 1999 he came across an abandoned copper mine near Allihies in West Cork, whose miners had emigrated to Butte, Montana in the 1880s, creating an Irish enclave and a sin-city of pubs, brothels and opium dens. His Butte trip for novel material resulted in 100,000 words in a box that never went anywhere: “I had a great world with texture but no characters.”
He returned to his western during the pandemic, making a story hinged on two runaway lovers. He mentions re-reading Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, a doomed non-fiction romance and realising retrospectively its influence on his new novel. “So much about writing fiction is patience, and just waiting it out.”
Belinda McKeon interviews Martin Doyle of this parish about his book Dirty Linen, The Troubles in My Homeplace, seen through the lens of his rural Co Down parish. McKeon describes reading it “in near disbelief at the cruelty, the utterly relentless horror of what it must have been not just to live through the Troubles but to live them”. The details, she says, are “not gratuitous, and remarkably this is not a depressing book” but redemptive and life-affirming. In a powerful conversation, Doyle talks about the importance of bearing witness, of not just “moving on”. He describes a recent internet search for a pub bombing in Gilford, a village near home, that yields instead only the notorious Guildford pub bombings, wiping out the record of three lives lost in his parish in 1975.
Katriona O’Sullivan’s startling life is the subject of her memoir Poor and a terrific interview with Deanna O’Connor. Now a psychologist (and double Irish Book Award-winner), her early years were harrowing. Her family was poor-poor, rather than rich-poor, but her point is, “it’s the system that’s poor”. As a small child in extreme deprivation, while her father was overdosing, “the police pushed past me” a terrified child, asking “‘Is he dead?’ The police saw us as vermin.” Authorities, who should have cared for her, hated her.
“I can talk about it because I’m from it.” It was not a choice. “Choice is when you have all the options and then you make the choice.”
Mike McCormack resplendent in his cowboy hat, talks about revisiting the world of his award-winning novel Solar Bones in his new novel This Plague of Souls, now with his character Nealon returned from prison. McCormack is eloquent on the creative benefits of writing late at night while tired, on trusting your instincts, the virtues of patience in a world of instant feedback, and dealers’ yards in the west of Ireland, with cars in disrepair. “That’s what my head feels like sometimes.”
At night in the chapel Neil Jordan talks fairytales, night-fishing and liking “difficult stuff” as he gets older, such as the challenges of classical music, key to his novel The Well of Saint Nobody. Concert pianist William Barrow retired to west Cork after a skin disease on his hands stopped him playing; Jordan also had a recent mysterious skin condition. Eventually it just went away, but it stumped “the incredibly expensive dermatologists most of whom wanted to know what was life like in Hollywood. One guy I gave 175 quid for a session, he says, do you know a good hotel in Los Angeles?”
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