The busiest book club in Ireland


THERE ARE plenty of book clubs around the country and many festivals that celebrate literature, but to date, there’s only one event in Ireland that combines both. Last weekend, the Ennis Book Club Festival held its sixth annual gathering. Nobody is sure how many book clubs there are in the country, because most of them are privately run, but what is certain is the astonishing fact that members from more than 400 clubs were at the Ennis festival.

At a time when many arts festivals are worrying about keeping their audiences, the Ennis Book Club Festival continues to grow its audience, with a 20 per cent increase in attendance from last year, making this its most successful festival to date. Glór, its largest venue, which seats 400, was full or near capacity for several events.

The events on the programme over the weekend combined the small-scale local with talks and discussion by nationally-known writers. There was a literary quiz in a cafe, a walking tour of Ennis with local historian and writer Séan Spellissy, and a reading by the rather magnificently-named Clare Three-Legged Stool Poets.

Fergus Finlay, chief executive of Barnardos, and Pat Donlon, former director of the National Library, both spoke about their 10 books you should read. Each had an eclectic list.

Finlay’s included Stephen Oates’ biography of Abraham Lincoln, With Malice Towards None; his favourite of the two dozen biographies of Lincoln he’s read to date. “He’s the non-Irish politician I admire most,” Finlay said. “The thing I admire most in politicians is character.” Some of his other books included: 50 Great Curries of Indiaby Camellia Panjabi; James Fenton’s Selected Poems; and One Spin on the Merry-Go-Roundby Sean Duignan.

Donlon’s picks included Shadowstory, a novel by Jennifer Johnston; the memoir Elizabeth and Her German Gardenby Elizabeth von Arnim; and a stress-management book with a title nobody present is likely to forget: F**k It, The Ultimate Spiritual Wayby John Parkin.

There was also a talk by psychologist Maureen Gaffney, which attracted the largest audience of the weekend. Gaffney spoke stirringly about her most recent book, Flourishing in Difficult Times,and the importance of optimism to both individuals and society. Taking questions later, she was asked by one audience member, “When does optimism slide into delusion?” Gaffney answered drily, “Well, the Celtic Tiger is an example.”

Fiction writers Kevin Barry and Lynne Reid Banks were interviewed by broadcaster Sean Rocks. Barry, a recipient of the Rooney Prize for Literature, was asked if winning prizes puts pressure on him as a writer to live up to future expectations. “The only thing it means to me is money,” was Barry’s pragmatic answer. “Money buys you time to do more work.”

Reid Banks was asked about the controversy provoked by her first and best-known novel, The L-Shaped Room,which was published in 1960, set in London, and told the story of an unmarried pregnant woman who chose to keep her baby.

At the time, this was seen as a shocking story. Now, 52 years on, what Reid Banks identified as controversial about the novel was her subsequent embarrassment at the way she had portrayed a black character, John. “I treated him as if he’d just dropped down from the trees,” she said.

People and Place was the theme of the Sunday Symposium, chaired by Caimin Jones, with panellists Catríona Crowe, Manchán Magan, Christine Dwyer Hickey and Michael Harding.

Crowe spoke about the public’s response to the online 1901 and 1911 censuses, and how they brought people back into the past and to different places from where they themselves had grown up in, to find out more about their families. “There would have been a sense of shame from some people before about looking into their pasts,” she said, pointing out that most Irish people at the beginning of the 20th century came from simple rural backgrounds. “But now, because it is easy to do so with the census being online, the desire to find out where you came from has overcome the shame. People needed to complete their story.”

The two censuses have so far had a combined number of 650 million hits. “One of the things archives are meant to do are illustrate difficult pasts,” Crowe said. “Archives bring us very intense relationships with the past.”

Crowe told the audience that she was currently negotiating with bishops and members of the ecclesiastical community in Ireland in an attempt to persuade them to place their parish records online for free.

Other participants in the weekend included novelists Patrick Gale and Sheila O’Flanagan, poets Joseph Woods and Paula Meehan, and co-authors of a book about their Camino experience, father and daughter Peter and Natasha Murtagh.

Next year’s festival is already confirmed, and will take place on March 1st to 3rd.