Niall McArdle on Anakana Schofield and Lucy Caldwell

On a warm and sunny Tuesday evening I jogged along the quays to Smock Alley Theatre, hoping I wasn’t too late to miss the beginning of a joint reading by Lucy Caldwell and Anakana Schofield.

I arrived just in time for the authors to be introduced by Selina Guinness, and frankly, it was one of the best literary events I have ever attended, with lively, interesting discussion following two atmospheric readings.

Belfast-born, London-based Lucy Caldwell read an excerpt from her debut collection of short stories, Multitudes, a book of stories steeped in the streets of East Belfast. Caldwell’s short but lively reading – an almost theatrical reading, really – created an intimate, romantic atmosphere on the Smock Alley stage as she spoke of the litany of streets in Belfast dubbed the Holy Land:

Palestine, Damascus, Jerusalem.

Anakana Schofield’s novel Martin John has been receiving rave reviews since it was published in North America last year. The dark, disturbing tour-de- force deals with a grim topic – a child molester – told in a daring, form-challenging way and is shot through with black humour. Schofield joked that Caldwell brought a romantic side to Smock Alley, and it was up to her to now bring the darkness.

Schofield left Ireland in 1999, first to live in London, then Canada. Though she returns regularly to visit her mother in Mayo, the International Literature Festival Dublin marks the first time she has ever read in Dublin. “This may be the last time I ever read in Dublin,” she quipped, before giving a reading no less passionate than Caldwell’s.

During the discussion part of the event, both authors spoke about their relationship to Ireland. Caldwell has lived in London for eleven years; she commented that Kevin Barry mentioned to her that you need to live in a place for eleven years before you can write about it, and indeed while most of the stories in Multitudes are set in the Belfast of her youth and memrory, the final story is set in London. Caldwell also spoke of the massive influence of Van Morrison, in particular how it’s almost impossible to write about Belfast after Van Morrison.

For Schofield, the idea of place is less important. Martin John is set in London and concerns an Irishman, but as Schofield says “I’m not interested in place as a construct in fiction … I’m interested in public spaces, I suppose.” Because Martin John concerns an Irish mother who sends her troublesome adult son to London, Schofield sees it as an inversion of the usual Irish story of how the country treats women. “I was very interested in the way in which in Ireland we’ve dispatched women historically, the fallen, pregnant woman, the way in which we federal express them to England, and then they return without a tummy. So the novel is an inversion of that idea; the idea of him being dispatched by his mother.”

Both writers spoke of how sexual desire can push characters to the extremes of society, and of their shared interest in transgressive characters. For Schofield, she couldn’t ignore the history of abuse in Ireland. “There has been a plethora of clerical abuse reports, not just in Ireland. In Canada we’ve been covered in them because of the residential schools. So I thought that I couldn’t write another novel without responding to the unwelcome incursion into women’s bodies in public spaces.”

Caldwell and Schofield also spoke about the form of the short story, which Selina Guinness pointed out has become somewhat fetishised. Caldwell commented that a short story can illuminate a whole life; it doesn’t need just to cover a single epiphany or a single event, but that it must leave the reader with a sense of something. One way in which she has achieved this is by writing in the second person. “The form is the content … I wrote several of these stories in the second person. It’s funny. It’s one of those things that actually makes me bristle, if someone starts a story with ‘You are sixteen, and this is the best summer of your life.’… But I found that it works, the second person seemed to work.”

She added “I teach creative writing occasionally, and you have to fight against these false dictats that are handed down to you, “that writing should be first person, past tense, for instance,” citing Rosaund Lehman as an example of a writer who freely flips between the past and the present. “Memory is the same,” added Schofield. “We don’t remember sequentially, we don’t remember chronologically.”

As a playwright, Caldwell finds slipping into the voices of her characters easy. “I ventriloquise easily.” But writing in the third person, past tense is something she finds very difficult. “I feel exposed; I become conscious of having a style or having an opinion.” She compares the limits of the traditional authorial voice to how well you can know someone in real life. “You can meet someone on a bus or strike up conversation, or even fall in love with them, and still not know their stresses, and what battles internally they’re fighting. So I love slipping into other people and other characters.”

Caldwell also drew inspiration from the birth of her son, who was very ill and spent weeks in intensive care. She wrote a highly autobiographical story about the experience so that she could capture the emotions that she had gone through during the time her son was in hospital. She wrote the piece in short spurts with her son swaddled and asleep, a process that she initially found disruptive, but later found freeing and bizarrely transgressive.

Following the event, I spoke briefly with Anakana Schofield. Having lived in Ireland, Britain and Canada, she regards herself as “a triptych”, and is less interested in ‘Irishness’ than in simply doing the work. The so-called current renaissance in Irish writing she finds bizarre. “Writers are always writing … I just have some issues with the notion of geography. You need to look at the language. You need to look at what they are responding to. What are they doing in terms of literature, not ‘Where did you happen to be born?’”

Niall McArdle

Anne Cunningham on Maeve Brennan: A Celebration

The clamour for tickets to “Maeve Brennan: A Celebration” on Friday, May 27th, was such that the venue was hastily changed last-minute. Smock Alley couldn’t contain the crowd and the event was held instead in Liberty Hall theatre. I hadn’t been in town for a while, and found myself picking my way through half-built tram tracks which seemed to be running the wrong way in Abbey Street; tracks we had lifted in the name of progress 70 years ago, tracks we are now laying again in the name of progress 70 years later. We’re funny like that.

The Stinging Fly Press has republished Maeve Brennan’s collection of short stories, The Springs of Affection, and Declan Meade of The Stinging Fly joined Brennan’s biographer Angela Bourke along with Sinead Gleeson, broadcaster and editor, to discuss Maeve Brennan the writer and the woman. Actress Caitriona Ni Mhurchu read passages from two stories in the collection, with a poise that matched the elegance of Brennan’s prose.

Maeve Brennan died in a New York hospital in 1993 and almost nobody knew. Almost nobody cared, either. Her mind had failed her by then, as it had done before in her lifetime. Bouts of mental illness and a fondness for the drink, a brief and chaotic marriage to a colleague in the New Yorker magazine, her extended separation from her parents and siblings in Ireland, all of these factors played into her descent from doyenne of New York’s literary scene to homeless bag lady. For further biographical details, you’ll have to read Angela Bourke’s very fine biography.

But rather than moan her loss – and subsequently ours – this “Celebration” event sought to bring her to an audience who might never have known her. People like me, for instance. And in doing so, it delighted a large throng (mainly of women, it has to be said. Plus ҫa change, eh?) who, after the event, circled the Gutter Bookshop counter in the lobby in their dozens, eager to drink in more of Maeve Brennan.

As I picked my way back up through the half-laid tram tracks in Abbey Street later that evening, I was struck by the agreement of all three speakers in the theatre that Maeve Brennan could not have been the writer she became, had she returned to live in Ireland.

“Just look at what happened to Edna O’Brien!” Sinead Gleeson reminded us. Indeed. And look at what happened to John McGahern, and to James Joyce. And to the old tram tracks in our capital city. We only see the value of what we’ve got in retrospect, long after we’ve disposed of it, or dispossessed it, or banished it entirely from the parish. By the time we get to fixing it, it’s invariably too late. We’re funny like that…

Stevie McDermott on Jon Ronson

Jon Ronson2

Jon Ronson

His subjects have included criminal psychopaths, prominent conspiracy theorists and intelligence agents who participated in experiments to discover psychic abilities in U.S. soldiers. But Jon Ronson has so many other interesting things to talk about, these encounters are only mentioned in passing during his International Literature Festival Dublin appearance.

Instead, he tells a capacity O’Reilly Theatre about some of the less-documented encounters throughout what he himself would call his career in ‘humorist journalism’. Like when he jokes about being “nearly killed by Tony O’Reilly” as he was chased away from a meeting of the Bilderburg Group in Portugal. Or the time he was asked to go UFO-hunting with Robbie Williams, which included a trip on Snoop Dogg’s private jet.

Ronson is so naturally charismatic that while he spends most of the event talking about his latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, it never comes across as an exercise in self-promotion. Imagine a TED talk combined with a stand-up comedy routine and you’ll probably have an idea of how he presented his research into 21st century shaming rituals.

For him, the proliferation of social media platforms like Twitter has heralded a return to eighteenth century standards of punishment. Groups of quasi-anonymous people are taking to the internet to publicly shame those whom they believe are transgressing the morals of modern society.

He tells us about the New Yorker journalist whose career was ruined after he fabricated some Bob Dylan quotes, and the PR executive who became an internet phenomenon for the wrong reasons after she sent a racially insensitive tweet to her 170 followers.

Shaming these kinds of people online is the kind of thing that most of us participate in at some point, something we believe we are doing for the right reasons. However, to Ronson it’s the modern equivalent of the stocks or public whipping. And unlike those punishments of old, it’s a process in which everyone gets to play the role of hanging judge, without the feeling of responsibility that comes with being the executioner.

“When shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes,” he says, “nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.”

It’s made Ronson wary of the power the internet has. He talks about how the rise of social media platforms is just the latest in a series of historical events which has seen power seized by people who previously had none. Much like what occurred in the aftermath of the French Revolution, he worries that we are beginning to prioritise ideology over humans, rather than humans over ideology.

“Throughout history”, he says, “when powerless people become empowered it takes a while to work out how to use that power judiciously. I think and hope that things are going to settle down. Right now, bullies are winning.”

We learn about the ways in which the internet has exacerbated Ronson’s anxiety, a surprising revelation given his quite confident performance. In the Q&A session with Anton Savage during the second half of the event, he admits that he is not entirely comfortable by the hype that surrounded his new book.

“Something happened this book that’s never happened with my previous books,” he says. “There was a lot of noise around it, and it was discussed a lot. It wasn’t pleasant, even when the noise was positive: it was just a lot of noise.”

At one point, he even talks of the panic he felt when he recently awoke to 900 notifications on his phone. As he does several times during the event, he uses his laptop to add colour to his story, showing the audience a video by way of explanation: we see a video of Louis Tomlinson from One Direction pushing through a crowd of waiting fans, holding a copy of Ronson’s book The Psychopath Test. It turns out that fans of the boyband had identified both the book Tomlinson was holding, and subsequently tagged its author in tweets which linked the video.

Ronson also reveals that he has created of a list on Twitter dedicated to New York accident reports, which he will sometimes check in frantic bursts when he is away from his family. Both examples are given with the same humour and self-effacing nature that has made him so successful as a writer, and it’s rewarding to see these aspects of his work carry through to his personality.

What’s more, it means that the entire event doesn’t come across as either a shill for his new book, or a polemic against the dark powers of the internet. Ronson captivates his audience by simply being himself: that is, an absorbing and funny writer who seems to know a lot of things about a lot of things. Or, as Anton Savage puts it during his introduction of Ronson: “Someone who has the most extraordinary breadth of exposure, in terms of what he has written about…who is as captivating verbally as he is in text.”

By Stevie McDermott


Wurm im Apfel by Stevie McDermott


Wurm im apfel

Concrete poetry is a form with which even casual readers are probably familiar. Also known as ‘shape poetry’, it is dependant on layout and typography as much as more conventional elements such as rhyme or metre.

There’s usually a playful aspect to a concrete poem’s appearance, and an amalgamation of visual and linguistic elements make it something like a mashup between poetry and graphic design.

Of course, there are other ways of combining the visual possibilities of poetry with its linguistic content, something I learn during Wurm im apfel’s latest event in Oscars Cafe Bar on Fishamble Street.

Vicky Langan begins the evening’s performances without a word. She offers no introduction, no attempt at explanation and seemingly no sense of rhyme or reason as she sits onstage behind a mixing desk, creating otherworldly sounds in an intense performance that sets the tone for the rest of the evening.

Before we know it another figure takes the stage, with her back to the audience as she performs her opening piece. “There is no perspective”, she says. “Her face doesn’t matter. It’s the back of her head that speaks.” Máighréad Medbh brings us from one aural plane to another, but she still invokes the visual element of performance to intrigue the audience and interrogate their expectations.

This is perhaps more in line with what one would expect from a poetry night, but by the time Medbh is performing, presuppositions have been thrown out the window. In that sense it has already been a success, having adhered to Wurm’s self-stated aim to present “unusual, different and experimental poetry”.

Inspired by the 1965 concrete poem by Reinhard Döhl from which it takes its name, Wurm im apfel is a poetry organisation which has taken the concept of visual poetry a step further. Since 2008, it has dedicated itself to presenting experimental poetry in its various guises, bringing an eclectic mix of sound and performance to venues across Ireland.

For Wurm founder Kit Fryatt, poetry’s performative nature leaves the form open to multiple avenues of artistic presentation. As part of the International Literature Festival of Dublin, Wurm present this fresh approach to visual poetry in the performances of sound artist Vicky Langan and poets Máighréad Medbh and Clara Rose Thornton.

“Live poetry seems to me to have a natural overlap with performance art,” Fryatt said in a previous interview. “[T]hat can go places way beyond what people might think of as performance poetry. I find a lot of poetry just says stuff, and I want it to do stuff too.”

Which is exactly what happens as Langan uses digital effects to disrupt more familiar sounds during her performance. She relies heavily on analogue equipment and material, the familiar forms of both sound and audio production. Pre-recorded noises are continually relayed via numerous cassette tapes, and at one point she even picks up a violin to play two discordant notes simultaneously.

In fact, we don’t hear a single word from Langan during her performance. The only sounds from her mouth throughout are the ones she sends through the mixing desk to create further layers of dissonance. She occasionally draws on familiar source material: a child’s voice; footsteps; a dog barking.

But these pre-recorded samples are overlaid with more dissonant sounds until they lose their meaning to create something new instead. It’s hard not to compare her use of samples throughout to the words which fill concrete poetry, raw material that means one thing alone, but which offers something entirely new as it is re-shaped.

Medbh’s performance shows how this re-shaping is also possible when written words find themselves in the context of action. Like the conclusion of her second piece, when she describes the moment when the poem’s speaker and subject interact: “Finding and the found together collapse time”. It’s a knowing statement from a performer who is aware of what poetry can do. She uses form and space to create a new kind of artistic dimension, like a kind of performative concrete poetry.

Throughout, Medbh calls on the audience to seek out the meaning of her work, rather than simply bringing it to them. She performs seven poems on themes of space, love, gender and sexuality, all of which challenge regular preconceptions about how each topic is normally presented. Her re-imagining of gender politics in ‘Quantum Politics’ is her most striking example: “I revise the tired feminist lesson/that it is all personal/that behaviour informs the rule”.

Space is also a theme explored by the evening’s final performer, Dublin slam poetry champion Clara Rose Thornton. However, Thorton’s performance is a much more direct affair, as she introduces herself to the audience and provides tidbits of information about her travels, first across the U.S. and then through Europe.

Unlike Medhb she brings the audience on a journey with her, rather than calling them to join her on the other side. Her opening poem ‘Angels’, for example, tells the story of her travels, which she introduces by asking whether anybody else has experienced “Wanderlust” like her. Then, as she performs, she asks “What does does the road do to us?” with a telling emphasis on the final pronoun.

In her description of scenes from various U.S. states and European locations, it takes a moment to realise we’re still in a room on Fishamble Street. Thornton’s performance is an instant reminder of the power of narratives to transcend space and time, and of the elements of chance which delivered her to the stage in front of us to begin with.

It recalls an observation from earlier by Medhb during an introduction to one of her own poems: “liberation changes according to your thinking toward your culture and your situation.” It seems a desire for liberation is what connects the audience with each performer, as they seek out a challenge to poetic norms and the capabilities of performance poetry, one which is well facilitated by Wurm on a wet Sunday evening in May.

By Stevie McDermott



My Review of DWF 2014

Over the course of nine days in May, the Dublin Writers Festival captured the attention of the city, treating it to tales of trials and tribulations, weaving wonderful worlds for its people to explore – and seizing the chance to show us that the art of writing is very much alive and well.

This year, I was lucky enough to be a part of it. I took in four events throughout the festival, all of which covered vastly different topics; all of which helped me to realise that there’s a whole world of writers/weirdos out there that are just like me.

I was wooed to a “Date With An Agent”, taught a lesson in the school of crime-writing, enlightened into the story of the infamous whistleblower, Edward Snowden – and given a deep insight into the mind of a once-troubled comedian in Johnny Vegas.

Pretty varied, right?

Here’s a review of what I saw, witnessed and experienced, broken up into nice, sweet bunches of literary liquorish for you to enjoy… or, at least, to distract you until something more interesting comes along.

Day 1: Date With An Agent

Dating has never really been my strong point, so when I learned that I was to be a part of “Date With An Agent”, I began to worry about all those silly little things one associates with dating: what to wear, what to bring and, of course, what to talk about.

What to talk about? The answer should have been obvious: my book. It was the reason I was invited to attend after all. But there I was, fretting about which elements were the most important, which parts needed work – and what would make the agent I was meeting sit up and go: “I need to sell this”.

The event, hosted by The Inkwell Group’s Vanessa O’Loughlin, took place in Dublin Castle. Throughout the day, we were treated to writing workshops, given tasks and, not unexpectedly as prospective authors, told how to deal with the inevitable rejections coming our way. (In fact, the first hand-out we were given was emblazoned with the words, “COPING WITH REJECTION”, which raised more than a few uncomfortable laughs in the crowd.)

However, the focus of the day was, of course, the agents. We 75 would-be writers were here to pitch to them our books, our ideas and, in some cases, our very souls. They were here to listen to us, to critique us and, in some cases, take our ideas that little bit closer to reality.

Although I wouldn’t call my own “date” a resounding success, I definitely took some invaluable information from it. Being told that I wrote well was encouraging; being informed that my main character was a bit passive was, unfortunately, a truth I hadn’t really confronted before.

Overall, the event was worth attending. I met blossoming writers of all ages, all of whom wanted to tell their story; none of whom were so insular as to fail to ask me questions about my own book.

Whether phony or not, it was gratifying to hear their positive opinions on my story. I realised that we were all in the same boat: full of passion and hope, mixed in with a healthy dose of pragmatism.

The future of Irish novel-writing was sitting in that room with me and, I promise you, we have a lot to look forward to over the coming years.

Day 3: The State of Crime (with Arne Dahl, Brian McGilloway and Sinead Crowley)

One day you’re sitting in a room with 74 people just like you; two days later, you’re sitting listening to the musings of three of the most respected crime writers in Ireland and Europe.

I was live-tweeting this event on behalf of the Dublin Writers Festival – and, such were the fantastic insights given by the writers, boy were my fingers sore at the end!

Dahl, McGilloway and Crowley discussed their own books, the difference between crime-writing and other types of writing – and took questions from the crowd (like why so many crime writers feel the necessity to cram an irrelevant love story into an already packed novel!)

The event, despite the seriousness of the subject matter contained within crime novels, was light-hearted and jovial, with McGilloway in particular impressing, with his insights into how one writes a crime novel: “As a writer, you do the same as a detective: you work backwards.”

Dahl, more considered and thoughtful in his approach, tended to elongate his answers to questions, but endearingly so. In fact, some of the most profound points of the discussion came from his mouth: “It is a necessary pre-condition in crime novels to have a good plot, but it is not enough.”

Crowley, the only female member of the panel, was also an engaging presence, succinctly summing up how most writers feel from the beginning of a novel to the end: “Something I learned when writing my first book was how much things change as you’re writing.”

I’m not much of a crime reader, but after seeing such an esteemed group of bestselling writers in person, I can’t help but feel that I’m missing a trick by not taking advantage of what appears to be some of the most compelling contemporary writing out there.

Day 8: The Snowden Files (with Luke Harding)

After a work-enforced break from festival proceedings (damn you, financial commitments!), I returned to action, live-tweeting again, this time from the Smock Alley Theatre. This was, by far and away, my favourite event of the week.

Luke Harding, journalist with The Guardian and writer of “The Snowden Files”, captivated the large audience; not only with the description of his book, but also by providing insights into one of most intriguing people in the world, Edward Snowden.

For those who don’t know anything about Snowden (how was that rock you were living under?),he is, essentially, the person who exposed the NSA for the sneaky, underhanded, corrupt, shady organisation we and Hollywood think they are.

Over a number of months, Snowden, who had worked at the NSA, leaked important documents to journalists, all of which detailed that ‘Mericaw was not only spying on potential terrorists, but also its own people.

In this absorbing discussion, Harding, an eloquent speaker and all-round nice fellow, described Snowden’s journey from high school dropout to one of the most wanted men in the world.

What was most interesting was discovering that, although Snowden’s acts were bound to attract headlines, he was not like Julian Assange, the world’s most prominent “platinum-haired” whistleblower, in that he did not want to be famous; fame was thrust upon him.

I think it’s fair to say that those in the audience would have stayed listening to Harding talk for hours more – and his book, “The Snowden Files” is sure to be one of the most sought-after texts when history eventually examines these monumental events.

Day 9: Johnny Vegas in Conversation

The headline is misleading. This show was not about seeing Johnny Vegas in person. No, it was, in the end, about something much more profound, much more absorbing – and much more real.

On the last night of the festival, with live-tweeting privileges bestowed upon another, I was able to focus on what turned out to be one of the strangest events I have ever been at.

Johnny Vegas did not show up, primarily because Johnny Vegas is not real. He is the alter-ego of Michael Pennington, a very funny, very warm man, who created Vegas to confront his own fears and I haven’t read Pennington’s book yet (“Being Johnny Vegas”), so I hope I am not horribly wrong when I suggest that Pennington’s creation came about as a result of serious inflictions on his childhood. Although Pennington never used the term, “clerical abuse”, nor the word, “schizophrenia”, they are topics at which he heavily hints in his efforts to explain the story behind Vegas’s existence.

Interviewed by the (frankly, annoying) Pauline McLynn, Pennington proceeded to explain how Vegas became a part of him when he was at his most fragile. It is not Pennington we see on stage, but Vegas, a much more confident and indomitable personality than he.

Although the event was marred by some disruptive interviewing by McLynn – and the double sleeping couples on either side of me – it achieved its purpose. What I thought was going to be a run-of-the-mill comedy session was actually a much more insightful look into the psyche of a person whose worst experiences brought about the arrival of someone who gave joy to so many people. I now want to read Pennington’s book, something I would never have thought before I arrived at the National Concert Hall that night.


Nothing worth having is easy, which is why the Dublin Writers Festival must be commended. To co-ordinate such an array of writing talent all around the city, all within the space of nine days, could not have been a simple task. I was not involved in it as much as I would have liked, but what I saw, I loved.

The fate of Irish writing lies within the people I came across during the week – and I know that we have nothing to fear in the future. We have Yeats and Wilde in us, but festivals like this instil within me the belief that there will be more Irish names on the tips of the tongues of future generations.

Watch this space – and come back for more next year.

By David Rafferty

Mark Graham’s Year of Festivals in Ireland

If you’re a fan of festivals, you’ve probably heard of Mark Graham. You might have read his column in the Irish Times or come across his blog online. He’s the guy who spent a year going to three festivals in Ireland every week. Graham, who is more hipster than hippie, was in Culture Box last week to talk about his book A Year of Festivals in Ireland. The idea came to him after a rejected mortgage application. He had managed to get the 10% deposit together and was told his application might be considered if he had 20% deposit. Disappointed and angry, he asked himself why was he letting a financial institute with a worse credit rating than his own tell him what to do? Instead of taking the bank’s advice, he bought a fourth-hand VW camper van and decided to see if it was possible to go to three festivals a week in Ireland, every week, for a year. He also started to write about it – first on the blog, then he was asked to write a column for The Ticket in the Irish Times, and then the book for New Island. Graham said that he had never written anything before starting the blog, and one of the joys of writing was that he discovered how pleasing a well-chosen simile could be. Talking about doing the pilgrimage on Lough Derg he wrote “Donegal in June has all the warmth of Twink with a hangover.”

Although he found the writing satisfying, the real joy was the project itself. Graham enjoyed travelling around Ireland and meeting new . He found lots of people doing small but amazing things to make their communities a bit more fun. He took in an eclectic mix of festivals from the All Ireland Culchie & Egg Throwing Championship in Co. Leitrim, to the Hen Racing Championships in Co. Waterford and the National Ploughing Championships in Laois. There was match-making in Lisdoonvarna, cloud appreciation in West Cork and story-telling on Sieve Bloom, plus a host of music festivals from Dingle’s Other Voices, the Fleadh Ceol in Derry and the biggies – Electric Picnic, Body & Soul, etc. And of course of own Dublin Writers Festival.

Graham is a man who likes a drink and talked candidly about the relationship between festivals and alcohol. He admits that some festivals are enhanced by having a few drinks; you wouldn’t have same experience, the same conversations or even encounter the same sort of people if you were not having a pint with them. He also mentioned Buckfast as the festival drink of choice because of its caffeine content, and shared a few Buckfast recipes which all sound fairly lethal. The Craggy Island Iced Tea, for example is equal parts Buckfast and Bulmers.

But there are over 850 festivals in Ireland, including 65 walking festivals, and it’s possible to meet odd and interesting people at all of them. As Graham says “It’s impossible to walk up a mountain with an Irish person without them finding out everything about your life”. For him, the people are really what make festivals in Ireland special. A festival allows like-minded people to come together, they create a shared sense of community and it gives people a chance to let their hair down. He cited this as reason why big businesses are still keen to invest in festivals – they know they can make money because festivals are recession proof. People want to escape the depressing reality of the economic doom and gloom but they can’t afford a week in sun. Instead they’ll make do with three days in a field with a bottle of Buckfast or a weekend climbing up a mountain. Festivals provide an escape and the Irish are good at making that escape special.

His year travelling the country has left Graham optimistic about our prospects as a country. His enthusiasm in describing the festivals he’s been to is pretty infectious. Asked for his top festival picks, he said the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival was hard to beat for sheer feckless abandon and he thinks that Failte Ireland is missing a trick by not sending tourists to the Ballinasloe Horse Fair.

A Year of Festivals in Ireland, which sounds like a very positive and life-affirming read is available from The Gutter Bookshop, Amazon and New Island.

Selina Guinness’s Interviews John Carey

If you know John Carey your heart beat a little faster when you heard he was coming to Dublin for the Writers’ Festival. If you don’t know John Carey you haven’t been paying attention.

Professor Carey is a literary critic, author, and Merton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford. He has chaired the committee for the Booker Prize, reviews books for the Sunday Times and is a frequent guest on television and radio. In her introduction, interviewer Selena Guinness (author of “The Crocodile at the Door”) described her guest as an iconoclast writer and figure in literature. All true. Yet in person he isn’t at all what one expects. An iconoclast ought to be gigantic, imposing, a bit, well, in your face. Not so Professor Carey. He is softly spoken and genial. His intelligence and critical skills hum like a dynamo in the background, but are never showy. In many ways he is a perfect example of his message, which is: the real worth of anything, whether it’s a human being or a work of art, is not always immediately apparent to the casual eye.

For a man who has spent his career challenging elitism both in terms of class and of education, Professor Carey sadly admits that some of his own literary heroes were elitists. Carey cites a letter D.H. Lawrence wrote in 1908, in which he fantasised about building ‘a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace’ for ‘all the sick, the halt and the maimed; I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the band would softly bubble out the “Hallelujah Chorus”.’ Lawrence further suggested that ‘All schools be closed at once’ because ‘The great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write.’ Carey sums up this philosophy, saying, “His ideas lead straight to Auschwitz.”

Other greats of the modernist period, Woolf, Eliot and Pound, were also intellectual snobs and it is this sense of the perceived superiority (by themselves, at least) of the elite that raise Carey’s hackles. And yet, he tells us, one can enjoy the works of Lawrence or Woolf yet remain appalled by their elitism.

Carey related a story about fellow university student, Sir Roy Howard, who once dismissed him as ‘nobody’. The term rankled and, one suspects, continues to wound. It was this elitism both in terms of class and of education that has made Carey a determined advocate for art that speak to everyone. It was a philosophy he brought with him to Keble University, where he first taught. He made it his mission to bring in grammar school children rather than those who had been nurtured exclusively in public schools. This attempt to change the class system met with some degree of success, Carey says matter-of-factly. That such actions should ever have been considered extraordinary seems bewildering now, decades later.

In books like “What Good are the Arts” and his current work, “The Unexpected Professor: An Oxford Life”, Professor Carey has removed much of the mystique from both the institutions in which he functions and the artists he has spent his life studying. Art, he tells us, should be accessible to all. Taste is relative and is determined by education and background, by what we’ve been taught.

He denies that it is impossible for a work to be both literary and popular. “Lord of the Flies” was popular with 20m copies sold, he says. But it also won the Nobel Prize for Literature. What better example of a work that is both literary and popular? He adds that many people consider Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to be major poets.

The sum of the event served as no more than a teaser for John Carey’s work as an erudite and highly educated man whose life’s mission is to make art accessible to all comers, regardless of background, education or social status.

Interviewer Selena Guinness did a fine job of introducing the audience to the professor’s life and career. They share a history and an easy rapport. One in of her final questions was obviously designed for those students who were present. Ms Guinness posed a question about heuristics touching on Barthes and New Historicism. No doubt the students were delighted. Still, it was evident more than a few of the non-elite members of the audience were bewildered by the question.

Oh, the irony.