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Irish Eyes

By Mattie Lennon

Writers’ Week

Last month I threatened to tell you all about my annual visit to Listowel Writers’ Week. Well here goes.

I arrived in Europe’s Culture Capital on Wednesday 01st June. Called to see a few old (literary) friends and made it to the opening of the 40th Listowel Writers week.

It was officially launched by Jimmy Deenihan, Minister for Arts, Culture and Gaeltacht Affairs. Jimmy (who happens to be a local man) spoke for twenty minutes, with the minimum of notes, on everything from Listowel in the fifth century to the town’s connection with Shakespeare to a comprehensive account of the first writers’ week in 1971. At that first gathering of literati in the north Kerry town local celebrated writer the late Bryan McMahon imparted the following advice to the founding committee, “Always keep one foot in the cow-dung.”

Thursday meant an early start for a radio programme broadcast live, on the national airwaves, from John B. Keane’s at nine o’ clock. Then on to Saint John’s Art Centre for a recording of Sunday Miscellany.

In Lunchtime Theatre Sean Tyrell did a great show on the lives of the people behind Irish poetry. He went through the passions and foibles of Yeats, McNeice, O Direáin Hartnett Wilde and Heaney to mention but a few.

After a hectic day it was a delight to sit and watch Tony Guerin’s Cuckoo Blue. It was a wonderful performance by the Lartigue Players.

And the night wasn’t over yet . Poets Corner, in the Kingdom Bar, hosted by John McGrath and attended by a talented crowd went on until . . .

Friday was another busy day. The songs of Delia Murphy were delivered by the famous Mairin O ‘Donovan accompanied by Gerry Anderson and Rita Ann Higgins, that celebrated poet from a humble background gave a wonderful account of herself in the Plaza Cinema.

Poetry Without Pints in the Seanchai Centre was not to be missed. talks by Harry Clifton and Gerry O ‘Carroll were well worth a visit. . Dear Frankie in Saint John’s and once again it was time for Poet’s Corner and another late night.

Events of Saturday? It would be exhausting just to write about them. Suffice to say that from John Lonergan’s talk at noon until midnight was an action packed and most enjoyable day.

And Sunday . .

The annual Healing Session is held in John B. Keane’s on the Sunday of Listowel Writers’ Week. For many it is the highlight of the festival. As far as I know there is no laying of hands . . . although there is a dimly-lit area in the west corner of the bar., George Rowley , Author and Civil Servant , was Master-of-Ceremonies for two decades. His contract expired in 2009 and he informed Billy Keane that he would not be renewing it but he would assist in securing a successor. Billy agreed but with the stipulation that George’s successor would have to be the opposite of George in all respects.

He would have to be;

  • *Unable to sing, dance, play an instrument or write.
  • *Be unattractive to females.
  • *Come from a county which hasn’t ever been beaten in an All-Ireland Final.
  • *Have an agricultural voice.
  • *Be in employment but have a healthy aversion to work.
  • A shortlist was drawn up and everyone on it was an antithesis of George. Yours truly was included and I was interviewed by Billy Keane in Croke Park at half time of the 2009 All-Ireland football final.

    I heard nothing for several months. Then on Sunday 04th June 20010 at precisely 12.30 P.M. Billy Keane invested George Rowley as Grand Master of the Healing Session. (I’m told that the sash and other investiture items were since auctioned for charity.) I was then unveiled as the new MC.

    And I mustn’t have been too bad because I was retained as Master-of-Ceremonies this year.

    Singer Mickey McConnell started the ball rolling accompanied by Jim Gornal on the Piccolo (he objects to being introduced as “the man with the small flute.”)

    It was my job to recruit a continuous stream of performers . That wasn’t difficult.

    The place was like the marquee in Drumlish, with “Cajon Queens from New Orleans and Marys from Dungloe.”

    First to the platform was Mike Gallagher, a Mayo man exiled in Lyrecrompane. Having pointed out to us the Ireland is an island off the east coast of Achill he read his assessment, in verse, of local politicians.

    A man from the far side of Dirra Boy refused to perform unless he was allowed to sing two songs.

    Most people read their own work but Larry Burke an actor from Minnesota gave a moving rendition of The Stolen Child and a Limerich woman gave a very moving rendition of Sean McCarthy’s “Darling Kate.”

    My amateur status showed more than once. When introducing a singer/songwriter from the Premier County I got mixed up between the two “Ridings.” A poet from Rathdowney put me wide pointing out, “ . . . there’s also a sort of a no-man’s-land across Tipperary where there’s no riding.

    When I introduced Paddy Phelan as a reciter Billy Keane was in like a shot to point out that the term is “Recitationist.”

    The marathon finished at five thirty and only because the less cultured patrons of the Island Racecourse were due in.

    Picasso said “If it’s worth stealing I’ll steal it” but I say if you come to John B’s the Sunday of Writers’ Week, if it’s worth healing we’ll heal it.

    While driving home I even put together a bit of a rhyme about it;

    The Healing Session.

    The Angelus bell o’er William Street
    Put people at their ease.
    ‘Though signs of irritation showed
    In the queue outside John B’s.
    The man beside me shuffled;
    His face was stern and dour.
    “With the Sergeant that’s in Listowel now,
    We’ll be here for half an hour.”
    When the bolt was drawn, with a stifled yawn,
    The landlord scanned the scene.
    “I’m stuck” says he “will you do MC”?
    ‘Twas the voice of Billy Keane.
    The author of “ . . .”Our Rivers . . .”
    Was quickly in full flow
    With Jim Gornal and his small flute
    (It’s called a Piccolo.)
    We had farmer-scribes from Breffiney
    And teachers from Mayo.
    Some looked like Priests in mufti
    (But you wouldn’t really know.)
    There were busmen-poets from Dublin
    Who knew the “Jimmy Riddle.”
    And singers wearing mini-skirts
    That wouldn’t dust a fiddle.
    Mike Gallagher, reciting,
    Wore a Western Seaboard grin.
    Tom Donovan whispered strategies
    In the ear of Mannix Flynn.
    And that woman from West Limerick,
    With a bust above the norm,
    I think she misinterpreted
    When I asked her to perform.
    A man who worked for CIE
    Read prose about rails and sidings.
    When I introduced a poet from Tipp
    I got mixed up in the Ridings.
    Mallow men and Tralee lads
    Would send each other up.
    With some things left unmentioned
    (Like the Sam Maguire Cup.)
    A Minnesota actor
    Was delighted with my touch
    But a lad from near Dungarven said,
    “You curse too fucking much.”
    Retrospective FF bashing
    From Biffo through to Harney.
    When John Sheahan entered with his Strad
    I pretended he was Barney.
    The others all could come and go,
    Which put me in a rage;
    I wouldn’t get a break at all,
    I couldn’t leave the stage.
    If someone reads an epic poem
    Sure I could walk away,
    Relax for maybe half an hour,
    An’ have me cup o’ tay.
    Christ. That won’t bloody happen,
    I’ll stick it out instead.
    Then Pat McDermott rescued me;
    He’d do “The Slatted Shed.”
    The rest went very smoothly
    With Sonnets and Haikus
    With the odd race-goer filtering in
    With non-poetic news.
    The Healing Session over
    (With its myriad acts and strands)
    Except in one dark corner;
    The laying-on of hands.
    Those things can last ‘till Monday
    And keep you on a high
    But without cop- on will ruin you
    And leave you high and dry.
    I knew ‘twas time for wind-down. I needed to get real
    When I tried to pass a Squad-car
    On the road to Abbeyfeale.

    Before I see you again, please God, I’ll have attended the Doneraile Literary and Arts Festival.

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