Rhyme and reason – An Irishman’s Diary on the Strokestown poetry festival
God Save the Queen strikes a discordant note
In Strokestown Park, in the local library, the secondary school, the Percy French Hotel, and on the streets, the sound of pentameters and rap, haiku and ballads, has enchanted audiences with soulful and humorous testaments of love, beauty, nature, death – the great themes of poetry – and everything else in between. Photograph: Tourism Ireland
You couldn’t make it up: there I was squeezed into the gracious library of Strokestown House and sitting on the edge of my seat for a centenary celebration of poems written by and about the patriots of 1916; my daughter was one of the readers.
Then the antique grandfather clock, a magnificent old gent of ornate wood and golden trimmings, began to chime the hour loudly. Its meandering baroque-sounding notes seemed to go on and on, making the reading grind to a halt; there were wry smiles from performers and the audience alike . . . then disbelieving grins when we simultaneously realised that the wheezing inchoate tinklings were actually playing God Save the Queen. It seemed a magnificent piece of timing and irony that only Strokestown could deliver.
The Strokestown International Poetry Festival was born in 1999 and celebrates continued rude health in 2019, thanks to the wonderful support of the Arts Council, Roscommon County Council and various local sponsors (especially the Callery family, who, with great generosity, lend Strokestown House to the festival every year).
The town itself is a surprise; small and discrete in its boundaries, it’s mostly known as a place to stop at en route to Sligo, Knock or Westport
Nor could it have survived so long without the magnificent efforts of local people who have helped to make the festival an unforgettable poetic experience.
Strokestown is an extraordinary fusion of old-style country town and the heterogeneous world of poetry. The festival began in one of the town’s famous bars in 1997 and 1998, when two local people, Pat Compton, a mover and shaker in An Post, and Merrily Harpur, a Trinity College Dublin English literature graduate and writer and painter, ably assisted by Shane Lynskey, a local accountant and cultural enthusiast, put their heads together and plotted a way of raising the town’s profile – to improve its economic prospects.
They decided that a festival of poetry would be most in keeping with the town’s hidden charms and the talents of a former local luminary, Percy French, whose name shines forth from the local hotel.
From the acorn of this idea the festival took root in 1999 and, began to grow through the years. Its competition became famous for offering what was at the time the country’s highest prize fund. Every year, on the May bank holiday weekend, shortlisted poets would form the nucleus of the festival, with raw talents mixing with established names.
A novice poet from California or New Zealand or Clonakilty might find her or himself rubbing shoulders with Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin or Michael Longley or Ciaran Carson either in the elegant surrounds of Strokestown House (and has a Big House ever been put to better use than honouring the arts?) or in one of the town’s many and distinctive bars.
The town itself is a surprise; small and discrete in its boundaries, it’s mostly known as a place to stop at en route to Sligo, Knock or Westport.
But tucked away off the main roundabout is the demesne of Strokestown House, home of the National Famine Museum and a walled garden, that is a festival unto itself on the May bank holiday weekend.
Traditional music and folk ballads and spoken word poetry waft out of windows onto the streets
Here and in the local library, the secondary school, the Percy French Hotel, and on the streets, the sound of pentameters and rap, haiku and ballads, has enchanted audiences with soulful and humorous testaments of love, beauty, nature, death – the great themes of poetry – and everything else in between.
Six competitions entice poets and listeners: an English language prize, an Irish language prize, the Percy French satirical prize, a schools’ prize, a Roscommon poets’ prize, and a pub poetry competition, where local balladeers joust for bragging rights and a prize measured out in pints of stout.
Visitors seldom forget their Strokestown experience. I remember a well-to-do mature English poet, who had never been to Ireland before, telling us he was urged by a Kerry woman to place money on a certain horse. He had never betted before in his life but, after touching down in Dublin, he braved the bookies, placed the bet and won.
He then took the bus to Strokestown and after a couple of days of poetry and merriment discovered that he had won the English language prize (winners are revealed at the end of the festival, not before). How could his weekend possibly get better? Well, our poet had apparently published a translation of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam way back in the 1970s, not an achievement he trumpeted nor indeed one that any festival goer knew about.
Except one person, who recognised the English poet’s name and went up to him in the bar of the Percy French and tapped him on the shoulder to congratulate him on his fine rendering of Mandelstam. When our English poet turned round he found himself staring into the eye-crinkling, smiley face of Seamus Heaney.
For the present, the festival is thriving under the dynamic directorship of local woman Melissa Newman and her hard-working volunteer committee, who ensure the festival runs smoothly while maintaining its inimitable local warmth and welcome. From its acorn the festival has grown to become an oak tree of both quality and diversity.
Traditional music and folk ballads and spoken word poetry waft out of windows onto the streets; workshops, talks and, sometimes plays, are performed; ballads are sung in the pubs. At Strokestown you’re never quite sure what you’re going to experience, only that it’s likely to change your view of the world.
It’s a great credit to local sponsors and the vision of the Arts Council and Roscommon Co Council that they have supported the festival which this year runs from May 2nd to May 6th and will be launched with readings in Poetry Ireland in Parnell Square in Dublin on April 18th.