A standing army of poets at Speakeasy session in Skibbereen

Frank Connolly, Anton Floyd and Ian Bailey among the writers who spoke

Voluntary readers included the multiple-award-winning Anton Floyd, whose poems have been published in many places including this column. Photograph: Frank McNally

Voluntary readers included the multiple-award-winning Anton Floyd, whose poems have been published in many places including this column. Photograph: Frank McNally

 

The “Speakeasy Sessions” of Skibbereen have nothing to with illicit drinking. Yes, they take place in a pub, but a fully licensed one, on the last Tuesday of the month. And their main focus is literature, in the broadest sense of that term, or if not literature always, at least the spoken word.

Hence the latest instalment, this week, which included everything from poetry and prose to stand-up comedy, and even newspaper columns – the reason yours truly was included in the line-up.

On a bleak November evening, peering out the window of a slow-moving bus from Cork, I wondered for the umpteenth time at my wisdom in accepting. Then I noticed a signpost for “Crossbarry”: a reminder that this part of Ireland was once notorious for a different sort of column: Tom Barry’s flying IRA version.

It added to the usual sense of foreboding prior to speaking engagements. Not that I was fearing an ambush in Skibbereen, exactly. But leafing through printouts of my own, non-flying columns, I wasn’t at all sure they would be adequate to the occasion.

If they weren’t, mercifully, the audience of the Speakeasy didn’t let on. And in general, despite the weather, it proved to be a pleasant night.

There was even something of the original speakeasies about it, in that the front room of the bar had people watching Champions League – Spurs v Olympiacos – which looked like a cover for the literary material (licensed and otherwise) that was being served in the back.

As for the second fear you have on these occasions – that nobody will turn up – that was also groundless. There were more in the back of the pub than the front. But then this was west Cork, where Mount Olympus beats Olympiacos every time.

I was not the only journalist speaking, or even the only journalist named Frank. There was also Frank Connolly, who has done famous work on the tribunals and Nama over the years but was here reading from his debut novel, A Conspiracy of Lies.

Writers

When the listed speakers had finished, however, the microphone was opened to the floor. And it emerged that the entire audience, or near enough, were writers. They may not have flying columns in west Cork any more, but what Patrick Kavanagh called the “standing army” of Irish poets is well represented.

Voluntary readers included the multiple-award-winning Anton Floyd, whose poems have been published in many places including this column.

In fact, unusually, I once quoted an entire work of his, all 10 syllables of it. I had somehow forgotten this until he presented me with a signed, hand-written copy. The poem expresses not just something about nature, in classic Haiku style; as I now noticed, with Crossbarry still in mind, it also had a sub-theme of ambush: “Waiting/in the sheaths of ice/blades of grass.”

Ian Bailey

That wasn’t the night’s only surprise. Another impromptu speaker was vaguely familiar too, for different reasons. Sure enough, it was Ian Bailey, who took to the stage during the Open Mic session to read from his latest collection, just published.

Next to the Speakeasy itself, the most interesting event in Skibbereen on Tuesday was my B&B. Miriam O’Donovan, the chief organiser, had promised it was “unusual”. She wasn’t exaggerating.

I imagine it’s extensively decorated at any time of year, but the woman of the house, Mona Best, had just declared Christmas, so the place was a mixture of Santa’s Grotto and one of those old emporium shops that every Irish town used to have.

The features of my charmingly anarchic bathroom, for example, included an open fire, a small-to-medium-size statue of Jesus, and a full-sized female mannequin, wearing a hat and fur coat.

Strategically positioned beside the toilet, meanwhile, was what I initially mistook for a guestbook. At first glance, it even looked as if the most recent guest – one of Ireland’s greatest poets – had composed a verse in it while seated, because the open page displayed one, hand-written, with his signature.

So it was some relief to realise that the handwriting was a reproduction in print, like the rest of the book.

Anyway, it was useful to have reading material there, if only so that, during awkward moments, you could avoid eye contact with the mannequin. But, the bedroom had plenty reading material too. Depending on mood, last thing at night, you could choose from one of two best-sellers: The Bible or Fifty Shades of Grey.

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