Promoting 'the most outrageous imaginings'


The West Cork Literary Festival offers writers, both established and new, an encouraging, nurturing and informal atmosphere, writes BRIAN O'CONNELL

IT’S 10.05am yesterday morning. Over tea and toast in the Maritime Hotel in Bantry, West Cork Literary Festival director Denyse Woods runs through a to-do list for her day ahead.

She needs to meet and greet visiting authors, make introductions, check emails and organise accommodation.

The festival is barely an hour old, and already Woods’s phone is buzzing. In her short tenure in charge of the festival, Woods has succeeded in putting together a diverse and comprehensive literary programme, encompassing headline events, workshops, readings and public discussions.

There’s a distinctly informal feel to this west Cork festival, minus the more academic (and sometimes stuffy) atmosphere of some of Ireland’s other literary events. In Bantry, Booker nominees and budding travel writers share the same compact social space, and the emphasis is very much on learning in an informal, organic setting.

The festival, though, has not been unaffected by the prevailing economic climate and workshops are not as well attended as in recent years.

Counterbalancing this, some of the evening events, including Michael Palin’s (below) on Thursday, have already sold out, prompting one festival-goer to put a sign in a local shop window looking for tickets.

“The majority of festivals are finding workshops a big problem,” says Woods, “but what is happening more for all events is people are turning up on the day and not buying in advance so much.”

Part of the attraction of the West Cork Literary Festival is the fact that many of the morning and afternoon events are free. The first reading of the day yesterday was at Bantry Bookshop, with Phil Young and James Lawless reading from their new respective works of fiction. It was standing room only, and mingling among the attendees was a remarkably fresh looking Felix Cheong – a poet who had just flown in from Singapore.

Cheong was spotted at the Singapore Literary Festival and approached to attend. He had hoped to turn his visit into a honeymoon, but unfortunately his new wife took ill and was unable to travel.

“It’s great coming here to the land where James Joyce, Beckett, Oscar Wilde, Yeats and Heaney, and the whole mafia gang of them, were born,” he says. “They disrupted the English language and turned the apple cart upside down.”

Cheong writes about religion, love and family and how they are connected and he’s also interested in a shared history between Singapore and Ireland.

“Both of us were colonised by the English so we see the English language as a second tongue.”

The organisers have asked journalist Sue Leonard and I to read from our respective books – hers on depression and mine on alcoholism. The readings prompt a lively discussion on the cultural and historical reasons behind Ireland’s problem drinking and mental-health issues.

In addition to readings, workshops will run throughout the week on topics such as short fiction, freelance journalism and writing for women.

Musician Julie Feeney is putting her class through song writing techniques anddoing a good impression of an authoritarian schoolteacher in the process. Deadlines are to be strictly observed, she says, and God help the poor student who don’t do their homework. Among the participants hoping to pen the next hit single is Faye Boland, who describes herself as a “single parent trying to be successful as a songwriter, poet or music journalist”.

Also present is Nicki Ffrench Davis who works with musicians, but wanted now to “rediscover [her] own creativity”. Davis noted that Feeney was “serious about deadlines. We have some strict ones already for this week.”

Muinteoir Feeney hopes to help all students to write and perform their own composition in front of an audience later in the week. She herself is travelling to Dublin after her class to take up an invitation by President McAleese to perform at a garden party at Áras an Uachtaráin.

Down the corridor, writer Nuala Ní Chonchóir is talking about the role of narrator in fiction. The discussion ranges from Martin Amis to The Sopranos.

“The best fiction,” Ní­ Chonchóir says, “can sometimes come from the most outrageous imaginings.” Afterwards, many festival goers retreats to the Organico cafe, where, over lemon drizzle cake and tea, they digests the day’s literary offerings.

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