Strokestown: rising to the poetic challenge

To mark its 20th anniversary, Strokestown International Poetry Festival has put together an eclectic mix of poetry events, probably unlike any other in Ireland

Melissa Newman, director of Strokestown International Poetry Festival

Melissa Newman, director of Strokestown International Poetry Festival

 

When Strokestown International Poetry Festival lost its Arts Council funding two years ago, there was a collective sharp intake of breath from poets who know about these things. Aghast, they signed a petition, and there was much arm-waving and the sound of loud voices. Strokestown is part of the fabric of literary life in Ireland, surely? It would be a crying shame to lose it, wouldn’t it?

After all, there are plenty of literary and other multidisciplinary cultural festivals in Ireland, but only a handful like Strokestown, devoted to poetry alone. It is an event where wannabes and unknowns can rub shoulders with the great and good of the poetic world – even Seamus Heaney attended, back in 2006.

Seamus Heaney at Strokestown in 2006
Seamus Heaney at Strokestown in 2006

Thankfully, the troops rallied in 2016 to preserve Strokestown’s place in the literary calendar and eventually, funding was secured. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the festival, which runs over the May Bank Holiday weekend, from May 3rd-7th, safely cushioned by a hard-won Arts Council grant.

Strokestown, with a population of less than 900 people, is a rural town in Co Roscommon, dissected by the N5 Dublin to Westport road. Its main claim to fame is Strokestown Park House, a Georgian Palladian mansion, once the base of the Anglo-Irish Pakenham-Mahon family, now open to the public as a tourist attraction, and home to the National Famine Museum. The grand house serves as the backdrop to the annual poetry festival, which is a major feature of the town’s cultural activities.

To mark the 20th anniversary milestone, a tight-knit team of volunteers, led by tireless director Melissa Newman, put together an eclectic mix of poets and poetry-themed events, probably unlike any other in Ireland. Over the course of five days, 70 poets will read their work, from children to international celebrities, with book launches, music, films, street performances and more.

Responding to criticism that previous festivals could have been regarded as too stuffy and elitist, and with the words of specific Arts Council requirements for things like “social inclusion” and “audience participation” ringing in their ears, the organisers have been at pains to make this year’s festival as wide reaching as possible.

Which is how you can expect to see awardwinning poet Jane Clarke on the same stage as Manchester celebrity Lemn Sissay. Clarke’s poems from her acclaimed first collection The River feature the rural idyll of a Roscommon farming childhood. Broadcaster and performance poet Lemn Sissay has written moving accounts of his experiences as a black teenager with no family, growing up in white foster care in northern England. Bridging the gap will be music from Irish fiddle player Danny Diamond. All this is on Saturday, May 5th, and the €10 tickets are expected to be a sell-out.

Strokestown Park House, once the home of the Pakenham-Mahon family, now home to the National Famine Museum, serves as the backdrop to the annual poetry festival
Strokestown Park House, once the home of the Pakenham-Mahon family, now home to the National Famine Museum, serves as the backdrop to the annual poetry festival

Included in the weekend’s activities are readings from Galway poet Rita Ann Higgins, the Poetry Divas, the Hermit Collective, and Tony “Longfella” Walsh, the community activist and slam poet from Manchester. Tony’s poem, This Is the Place, captured the response of Mancunians after the terror attack last year in which 22 concert-goers were killed at an Ariana Grande concert.

While Strokestown rises to the challenge of finding new audiences for poetry, regular attendees can still rely on the stalwarts to deliver: James Harpur will run a workshop, a new edition of Cyphers magazine will be launched, there will be hushed tones in the oak-panelled rooms of Strokestown Park House at the launch of new collections, and there’ll be the showing of several poetry-themed short films.

The backbone of the festival has always been its international competition, with a first prize of €2,000, plus a week-long retreat at Anam Cara, and publication in an anthology. In 1999, Vona Groarke was its first competition winner.

But while this year there were more than 1,200 entries for judges Moya Cannon and Harry Clifton to sift through (they read every entry, there are never any filters), the competition struggles to make money, not least because the proceeds are returned to the shortlisted poets in the form of reading fees, accommodation and other perks. Strokestown is known for its generosity, its insistence that writers are paid for their efforts.

The international competition runs alongside a series of other poetry contests, the Roscommon Poets’ Prize, Duais de hÍde (an Irish language competition which carries a prize of €600), contests for national and senior schoolchildren, plus the Percy French Prize for comic verse.

There was an additional competition this year to mark the 20th anniversary, which brought in a satisfying number of donations to help the festival along.

By necessity other events have been organised during the year to keep the festival in the public eye; you’d be hard-pressed standing in the supermarket or bank queue to talk to a local who hasn’t heard of Strokestown’s poetry connections, even if they claim not to like poetry themselves.

With huge poster poems going up around the town to mark Poetry Day Ireland on April 26th, just a week before the start of the main festival, you shouldn’t miss the point: Strokestown is still all about poetry, in all its guises.
Louise G Cole is a poet and short story writer living in Co Roscommon; she joined the committee of Strokestown Poetry Festival last year and serves as PRO and assistant treasurer. Winner of the 2018 Hennessy Literary Award for Emerging Poetry, Louise blogs about “reading, writing & other stuff” at: louisegcolewriter.wordpress.com

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.