A festival that Echoes Maeve Binchy’s passions and concerns
The beloved author believed shared experiences fostered communities – the theme of next month’s Dalkey festival
Maeve Binchy and fellow writer James Plunkett, author of Strumpet City, in the Oliver St John Gogarty Pub in Dublin for the Writers’ Lunch in March, 1993. Photograph: Independent News and Media/Getty Images
“Success is not like a cake that needs to be divided,” Maeve Binchy told an interviewer who asked about her sense of pride in other Irish writers’ achievements. “It’s more like a heap of stones – a cairn. If someone is successful, they add a stone to the cairn. It gets very high and can be seen from all over the world.”
That 2007 comment is one I’ve thought about often since last January, when Echoes director Margaret Dunne and I first discussed possible themes for this year’s festival.
I hadn’t been involved in programming before, though I’ve spoken at festivals since my first book What Becomes Of Us was published. My first outing as a speaker was at the Belfast Book Festival in 2015, and as I heard myself try to answer Marie Louise Muir’s questions with something approaching coherence, I realised that until then I hadn’t had to so clearly articulate the reasons why I wrote What Becomes Of Us. (And, in a note-to-self moment, I also realised that undergoing such a carefully-constructed interrogation before starting to write would be really helpful.)
Often, because of the time lag between writing and publication, an author who is discussing a particular book at an event has already moved onto something completely different, absorbed in an idea as yet unspoken to the world: an entirely different set of characters may have taken up residence, commanding the inner stage yet swearing their creator to silence.
A book finds a different home in the unique imagination of each and every reader, yet is a fixed thing for its author; completed and concluded. Having to discuss it in public gives authors a chance to revisit its intentions and ideas. There is something curious and exciting about the conversations and connections that occur at literary festivals that adds to Maeve Binchy’s “heap of stones”: each interaction contributes, and each contribution is different.
I was in the audience at the inaugural Echoes festival in 2017, and participated the following year, so when Margaret Dunne – director of Dalkey Castle & Heritage Centre, the popular living history tour in the medieval castle in the heart of Dalkey – suggested I get involved in programming this year, the territory was familiar.
As the only literary festival with Maeve Binchy at its heart, Echoes (October 4th-6th) attracts an ever-growing audience – in addition to the enthusiastic local crowd, visitors come from the US, Sweden and the UK. Each year, Echoes takes a contemporary theme pertinent to Binchy’s work and uses it as the springboard for an exploration of an aspect of contemporary writing and experience: in 2017, how Binchy’s writing was a social chronicle of late 20th-century Ireland, a recorder of lived experience; and last year Echoes looked at feminism and gender stereotyping in contemporary fiction, with the well-known description of her as “a quiet feminist” as its jumping-off point.
Binchy believed that shared experiences created and fostered communities, and from the adventures of Irish writers abroad to our collective identity as an island nation, and from real life as reflected in fiction to today’s activism, this year Echoes considers and celebrates community in contemporary writing in Ireland.
A full day of discussion, readings and interviews on Saturday, October 5th is bookended by At Home in The World, Olivia O’Leary’s personal reflection on Maeve’s life, journalism and fiction at 9.30am, and Maeve Binchy at Home in Ireland with Róisín Ingle at 4.45pm. Cathy Kelly, Chris Binchy and Jo Spain, in conversation with Niall MacMonagle, discuss whether contemporary Irish writing reflects the diverse reality of life in Ireland today; Carlo Gébler, Senator Lynn Ruane, Ibrahim Halawa and Martin Doyle explore how writing is giving a voice to previously unheard or little-heard communities, and how fiction, nonfiction and memoir are increasingly being used for advocacy and to drive social and political change; Hazel Gaynor, Andrea Carter and travel writer Fionn Davenport debate whether living on a small island affects one’s sense of community; and Caroline Erskine talks to Madeleine Keane, Christine Dwyer Hickey and Irish-American Mary Pat Kelly (an author who is less well known in Ireland than in US, where her career includes stints as a screenwriter at Columbia and Paramount Pictures, writer at Saturday Night Live, novels, filmmaking and more) about the experiences of Irish writers abroad. Deirdre O’Kane and Clelia Murphy will be reading from Binchy’s nonfiction.
A performance of Aches & Pains, Shay Linehan’s adaptation of Binchy’s book on illness and recovery that is part self-help guide and part survival manual, opens the festival on Friday, October 4th at 7.30pm. Directed by Margaret Dunne and starring Michael Heavey and Margaret Toomey, this performance is in honour of Shay Linehan – who also adapted her novels Light a Penny Candle and Minding Frankie – who died in June. It comes with a fascinating post-show bonus: director and writer Conall Morrison in conversation with RTÉ’s Evelyn O’Rourke about the challenges of adapting other writers’ work for the stage. His recent productions include La Traviata for the English National Opera and The Taming of The Shrew for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and he has just opened his production The Travels of Jonathan Swift, adapted from Swift’s work, for the Blue Raincoat Theatre Company in Sligo.
On Sunday at 11am, the Maeve Binchy and Irish Writers Guided Walk starts in the Writers’ Gallery at Dalkey Castle & Heritage Centre and takes in the work of James Joyce, GB Shaw, Hugh Leonard, Jennifer Johnston and Flann O’Brien among others on its way to the Maeve Binchy Memorial Garden in Dalkey Library.
Assembling the panels with the most appropriate and engaging speakers was a fascinating task. And with each one I thought of Maeve Binchy’s comment about the meaning of success for Ireland’s writers… and how in October, each person will be bringing another stone to the cairn.
Details and booking information on echoes.ie