Time Stands Still for U.S. Writer in Ireland
The author, at far left, in Listowel with fellow writers, poets, playwrights and storytellers -
This piece was originally published in The San Francisco Gael in September 1992.
The clock in the tower of St. John’s in the town square read nine minutes to seven when I arrived in Listowel from San Francisco for Writers’ Week.
Through long, dense days of meeting other writers and critiquing their work, singing ballads for which I did not know the words with new friends in pubs, and dancing ‘til dawn with a spirited, broad-backed woman (Don’t worry. I’ll lead.”) who celebrated her 84th birthday the previous day, the hour in the town square did not change.
And, fittingly so, because time stood still in Listowel during the last days of May when everyone was swept up in the reverie of storytelling.
“This then, is the 22nd Writers’ Week. It promises to be its usual vital, vibrant self, full of fun and friendship,” retiring chairman Gabriel Fitzmaurice said at the crowded opening ceremony in the Listowel Arms Hotel ballroom, where monetary prizes were awarded for a short story, a play, a ballad, poetry, writing in prisons, work by children and about the environment.
“We have drawn up a program that, we feel, has the proverbial something for everyone – writers, publishers, theatre lovers, book lovers, children, artists, art connoisseurs and collectors, and those elusive unqualifiable free spirits reductively, patronizingly and unpoetically referred to as the general public.”
The prestigious week takes place in the literary haven in County Kerry that writers Bryan MacMahon and John B. Keene call home. Both native sons were advisors for the event. Sean McCarthy, the balladeer who wrote “Shanagolden” and for whom there was a well-attended memorial concert, once wrote:
“Many nights, years later, in New York, where I plied my vocation as a folk singer, I look back in time to my native place in Listowel. Every boy should have a William Street and a Tay Lane for a memory. My town is a hamlet of four thousand storytellers and every story a little taller than the one before. All stories are true, of course, and if you don’t believe me, just ask the man standing at Walsh’s Corner.”
Not everyone was so forthcoming about their dabbling.
“Do you write,” I asked a man with honest eyes behind the bar at John B. Keene’s pub in front of a painting from a scene in Keene’s play “Sive.”
“Oh, no,” he answered quickly, paused and then admitted, “I had written some poetry and a few short stories. . . .”
A friend’s grandmother confessed that, as a young woman, she wrote a few short stories but kept them to herself.
The rich texture of conversation, however, in the pub of the Listowel Arms Hotel, where the week’s socializing was centered, revealed unabashedly the town’s romance with language.
Most participants in the six workshops came from all over the country, although there were a few from other corners of the globe. One could secure a place in the small forums exploring poetry, short fiction, writing for theatre, writing for children, creative writing, and writing for radio.
The workshops met three days for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon, although it was not unusual for the writers’ enthusiasm to force them to run longer. Five were held in the back rooms of pubs, which were, for the most part, quiet venues. However, we did have a visitor wander into and out of Creative Writing, probably to satisfy his curiosity about what the dozen Irish spring waters were doing in John O’Leary’s Bar. And once, a man’s break into song penetrated the closed door separating serious writing and serious drinking.
For those not taking a workshop, the days on which the sun seemed to shine brightest at 10 p.m. were not long enough to encompass the breadth of the week’s activities. There were plays, concerts and tours; readings, lectures and discussions; art exhibits, book launchings – and very little time alone.
A classy pub crawl was led by two actors who waited for us to order our drinks and then performed scenes in close quarters from Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars” and James Joyce’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
Several Eastern European writers, including George Szirtes, who emigrated from Hungary to England years ago, talked at afternoon lectures and read their work at late-night readings which lasted well past midnight at St. John’s, a former Church of Ireland now enjoying a second life as the Arts & Heritage Centre. It was also there in the 130-seat theatre where three plays – “Agnes of God,” and two by Tony award-winner Brian Friel, “The Gentle Island” and “Aristocrats” – were performed by acting companies from around the country to standing-room-only audiences. And it was outside St. John’s where several writers found themselves with their pints of Guinness engrossed in conversation as a false dawn fooled birds into singing atop closed businesses on the square.
One evening, a concert featuring the music of West Limerick by Con Greaney (seannos singer, Daisy Kearney, and a flutist, another singer, accordionist and guitarist) drew a staunch group of foot stompers to the ballroom of the Listowel Arms Hotel.
I took full advantage of the array of the week’s offerings but, for me, the Creative Writing Workshop led by Vincent McDonnell, author of the novel “The Broken Commandment,” was at the heart of my time in Listowel. McDonnell was generous in his stories of his own experiences as a writer and his reflections on them as well as his criticism of short stories and chapters of novels.
Workshop members grew close as we bared ourselves to each other through our work. I found myself teary-eyed several times as I listened to the fine writing of colleagues.
After our last meeting, we went for a late-afternoon walk through fields of green grass and golden thistle along the River Feale, which was so still that the reflection on the trees lining it made it seem like a mirror. We talked about the future. And I knew that once we left the river, it would flow again; we would leave Listowel, and time would start again.