Remarks at Listowel Writers Week
30th May 2012
Ladies and Gentlemen:
Tá áthas an domhain orm bheith anseo inniu ag Seachtain Scríbhneoirí Lios Tuathail atá 41 bliain ar an bhfód i mbliana. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le Seán Lyons as a chuireadh cineálta chun an ócáid seo a oscailt agus ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil libhse uilig anseo as an bhfáilte chroíúil.
I’m delighted to be here today at the forty first Listowel writers’ week. I would like to thank Sean Lyons for his kind invitation to open this event and all of you here for that very warm welcome.
Listowel writers’ week has become firmly established as one of this Country’s primary literary events; a great coming together of many of Ireland’s most respected literary talents and creative minds, and an opportunity to listen to the words of writers from all over the world as they explore and share their art and talent. It has also, and even more importantly, is still, the launching pad fondly recalled by so many writers, whose work is being heard or published for the first time.
Every summer many of you gather here to celebrate your creativity amongst like minded people, to exchange ideas, progress your work, and to support and encourage new and emerging writers. For a brief moment this entire townland is transformed as a remarkable programme of literary events unfolds and Listowel becomes a true republic of letters
Here in Listowel every year the Nobel Laureate and bestselling author is celebrated, the emerging voice of the poet reading in public for the first time is applauded, the draft novels and stories are discussed and encouraged. Here the writer gets to realise that he is part of a group, part of a family composed of creative individuals interested in and anxious to support each other’s gift and talent.
Ernest Hemmingway once said that “Writing, at its best, is a lonely life.’ Every writer here will empathise with that statement. Writing is, of course, by its very nature a solitary occupation. The writer needs to be alone to dream, to create, to bring concepts and characters to life on the page, to build memorable imagery and to craft those beautiful moments of quiet epiphany that are so important to a well written story, poem or play.
However, writers also need to interact with each other, critique each other’s work, bolster each other’s confidence, exchange ideas and, of course, share the frustration of the muse’s absence or the pain of rejection letters. Events like Listowel writers week and the many other writers’ festivals that happen every year all over the country help to ensure that, while the occupation of writing may require certain solitude, the overall experience of being a writer does not have to be a lonely or an isolated one.
It is always very, very encouraging, in these challenging and difficult times to come to occasions like this and to see and be reminded once again of what a wonderfully creative, inventive and original people we are in this country. When I was inaugurated as President of Ireland I stated my belief that when we encourage the seedbed of creativity in our communities and ensure that each child and adult has the opportunity for creative expression, we also lay the groundwork for sustainable employment in creative industries and enrich our social, cultural and economic development.
Is ábhair thábhachtacha an chruthaitheacht agus an íogaireacht chultúrtha den sochaí agus ní cheart dúinn neamhaird a dhéanamh orthu. Ní mór dul i ngleic leo agus dlúthpháirtíocht nua a chruthú. Ba cheart go dtabharfaidh an dlúthpháirtíocht seo spreagadh agus cumhacht dúinn agus muid i mbun oibre ar ár n-eacnamaíocht agus muinín idirnáisiúnta san eacnamaíocht sin a athbhunú – eacnamaíocht nach bhfuil tugtha do riachtanais agus éilimh an mhargaidh amháin.
Creativity and a cultural sensitivity are ingredients of society that should not be marginalised but should be embraced to bring about a new sense of solidarity. It should inspire and empower us as we work to restore both our economy and international confidence in that rebuilt economy – an economy that is not ‘de-peopled’ nor predicated on the needs and demands of the market at the expense of all else.
While writing may, in its initial impulse indeed, be a solitary occupation, we should never, ever underestimate the importance of our cultural heritage, including our great literary tradition, to our sense of self, our national identity and, indeed, our international image. As a country we are strongly defined, in the eyes of the world, by our artistic success. It is a success we can and should further enhance as we focus on rebuilding our country’s reputation. I recently returned from New York where I attended the musical “Once”, a joint collaboration between Glen Hansard and Enda Walshe, which has received 10 nominations for the Tony Awards. While there, I also attended a preview performance of a one man play featuring Conor Lovett; it has since opened to rave reviews from the New York media. Our writers, actors and artists are huge reputational assets for this country, for which we should be most appreciative.
Just as we are now a country busy rebuilding and re-imagining ourselves, it is important that Irish literature also continues to evolve and grow, tackling the modern world and engaging with the present in all its light and shade. Frank O’Connor once said that
“To have grown up in an Irish provincial town in the first quarter of the twentieth century was to have known the nineteenth century novel as a contemporary art form.” Much has changed since then, of course, and the latter half of the twentieth century saw something of an Irish Literary Renaissance, with new Irish writers emerging who sought to separate Irish literature from its British counterpart, exploring themes and styles that reflected our unique Irish concerns and cultures.
It was an exciting time for Irish writers, and indeed for Irish readers, a time of exploration, of controversy, of a defiant challenging of our traditional thoughts and beliefs. Writers like John McGahern, Edna O’Brien, Mary Lavin and William Trevor, as well as playwrights like Brian Friel, Tom Murphy and John B. Keane, courageously pushed the boundaries of their art, forcing Irish society to face itself in the mirror with an unflinching gaze, while ensuring their work still retained the poetic and lyrical nature for which Irish writing was renowned.
The first twelve years of the twenty first century have also been an exciting era for Irish literature, an era where writers like Joe O Connor, Anne Enright, Colm Toibín and Colum McCann continue to put Irish writing on the world stage as they chart our changing landscape and depict a new pattern of Irishness, one that is woven together with an increased awareness of ourselves as Europeans and as a people deeply susceptible to the contra-flow influences of our diaspora .
As we continue to move through the twenty first century, another generation of writers will emerge - a generation who will also find their own path and leave their indelible mark on Irish literary tradition. It is important that they, too, understand that Irish writing should not just be an elegant form of nostalgia but also a pinning down of the present moment; a capturing of the issues and moods which make each era and each generational experience a unique and exceptional moment. These new writers will have a wonderful tradition to draw on as they continue to push boundaries, to experiment, to constantly move Irish literature out of its comfort zone and ensure our great reputation for artistic success is further broadened and deepened.
This year, of course, marks the tenth anniversary of the death of John B Keane, a man who made his own invaluable contribution to Irish literature. Through his plays and novels John B displayed an unparalleled gift for creating characters who were so real and so immediate that they simply came alive on the page.
As anyone who witnessed the recent Druid revival of Big Maggie – with Aisling O’Sullivan putting the fear of God into every male member of the audience – will know, John B. was fearless, a writer not afraid to confront head on the harrowing issues of emigration and rural hardship, or the fierce destructiveness that could ensue from that unique Irish attachment to family land. He was a man not afraid to dig deep into his own sense of anger and indignation and to transmute those dark emotions into unforgettable plays and stories.
However, John B Keane also wrote with great humour, imbuing much of his work with a wonderful and touching affection for the people of Ireland and the people of Kerry. There is no doubt that his affection was reciprocated and John B Keane became, and remains, one of Ireland’s best loved writers. He was also a person of immense generosity as I know personally from the time we wrote for the student publication I edited in the 1960s to a later time when, being ill and having wished to launch a book of mine, he arranged for Bryan McMahon to do the job. That generosity and rooted humanity is present in Mary and every member of her family.
I will shortly have the great honour of presenting the inaugural J B Keane Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award, which recognises outstanding contribution to Irish literature. As a great admirer of John B Keane I feel hugely privileged to have been invited to perform this task.
I would like to conclude by wishing you all a very enjoyable and fruitful time here in Listowel. I hope this will be a week of generous sharing of talent, of lively exchange of views and of further development of the great creativity that defines so many of us.
Finally, I would like to thank Sean Lyons once again for inviting me to open this year’s event, and also Listowel Writers’ Week’s literary advisors Professor Brendan Kennelly, Seamus Hosey, Lawrence Block and Michael Collins and, indeed, everyone who has worked so hard to ensure the success of this great landmark on Ireland’s literary calendar.
I now declare Listowel Writers’ Week 2012 officially open. Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.