Hay Festival Kells 2015 – Another Resounding Triumph

Hay Festival Diary
It’s that time of the year again, when the good people of Kells welcome writers and bookworms, poets and philosophers, historians, politicians and activists, musicians and comedians…all human life is here in Kells for Hay Festival 2015.
First stop is Fintan O’Toole’s lecture about three different Irish heretics; Pelagius, a 4th century Irish priest, John Scotus Eriugena a 9th century Irish theologian, and John Ireland, a famine emigrant from Kilkenny who became a priest in Minnesota, all who were officially branded as heretics by Rome.
Leaving Rome, it’s next stop Turin, as Brian Eno tells Sean Rocks about his musical installation in Turin’s Venaria Reale. Ben Okri is also being interviewed in this live broadcast of RTE’s Arena programme. Elsewhere, Michael Harding beckons. Reading from both of his recent memoir volumes, he holds the packed audience in the palm of his hand with his wit and his honesty and his irrepressible joie de vivre.
Later, comedian Fred Cooke performs in the Headfort Arms and there’s poetry at the Railway Bar but it’s home for me with the promise of a bright new Saturday.
Saturday is not bright, however. It rains heavily but nothing can dampen the spirit in Kells this weekend. Ronan Fanning, Mitchel McLaughlin and Jeffrey Donaldson discuss with Myles Dungan how best to commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Rising. The venue is jammed, and considering the subject matter, this might be a hot potato. Instead it is civilized and respectful. I am particularly moved by listening to Donaldson and McLaughlin – two political polar opposites, emerging from a history involving centuries of hatred and fear – using words like “reconciliation” and “healing”. Inspiring words in an inspiring discourse.
Later, we hear more about the Rising, although in a completely different context, as Roy Foster, biographer of Yeats, discusses his book “Vivid Faces”. Drawing on an extensive cache of letters and diaries from 1913 to 1923, Foster discusses how our young revolutionaries believed in socialism, secularism and supported the suffragette movement. They were surprisingly anti-clerical, and only in 1918, when the church decided to support Sinn Fein and continued that support, did what he calls the “clericalization of the State” begin.
In Kells Theatre, Anne Enright reads passages from her best-selling novel, “The Green Road” and the audience ends up in animated discussion during the Questions and Answers. One lady fires questions like a machine gun, questions which only could be answered by actually reading the book. Ms Enright, gracious as always, is too polite to point this out, so another audience member points it out for her!
I bump into Sara Baume, author of the exquisite “Spill Simmer Falter Wither” and I wonder if I touch her garment, in some biblical fashion, might a bit of her wondrous talent rub off on me? I’m too chicken to do it, so I try talking instead. She chats amicably about how much Anne Enright has helped her. So then I think about maybe touching Anne Enright’s garment in a biblical fashion, but the clock keeps ticking and it’s back to the Headfort Arms to witness Paul Durcan in full flight.
Mr Durcan is reading about a goldfinch in full flight as it happens, along with a generous helping of fourteen other poems, most from his newest collection, “The Days of Surprise”. In this new volume, we are treated to Irish Life as only Durcan sees it, one moment in profound despair and the next in unfettered joy. His description of RTE’s weather forecaster Jean Byrne in his poem “The Azores High” has the packed venue rollicking in mirth, while his tribute to Seamus Heaney moves us all to reverent silence.
On Sunday at lunchtime, Marian Keyes talks to Sean Rocks about frizzy hair, Irish mammies, her recent baking obsession, her brushes with the demon drink and how she became a writer. Ireland’s best-selling living novelist, she outstrips any competition and transcends the mediocrity of chicklit with acerbic wit and a keen ear for dialogue. She informs us that she’s got a chip on both shoulders, making her a well-balanced Irishwoman.
Martina Devlin later discusses her research for her latest novel The House Where It Happened, about the witch trials in Carrickfergus in 1711. Eight women were convicted on the word of one unstable teenage girl, and those women were never pardoned. Her novel, based on fact, has taken on a life of its own as local councillors in Antrim are planning a commemoration plaque in their memory.
Roddy Doyle – later on again – talks Roy Keane, the Barrytown trilogy, his parents and his days as a schoolteacher to a delighted and thronged house. This is probably the biggest event of the entire festival, and the crowd is not disappointed. He brings the house down.
Colin Barrett, by contrast, seems shy as he reads from his sensational new short story collection “Young Skins”, a gritty volume of tales about life among the post-boom generation. Barrett is a new kid on the block of Irish literary fiction, already making a significant name for himself – he will be big.
My journey through Hay Kells 2015 is rounded off with a small, intimate audience listening to a reading of Deirdre Kinahan’s sublime play, Halcyon Days. It’s a beautiful winding down to a whirlwind weekend of fiction, poetry, history, music and so much more. Hay has been a resounding triumph yet again.
Throughout the weekend, I am struck by the good humour of the large numbers of volunteers who make this event possible. In particular, I’m heartened by their helpfulness in the face of long, hot queues and some fuddy-duddy visitors who would strain the patience of Job. These volunteers remain courteous and cheerful throughout, and the town should be very proud of them, as it should be proud of the Hay committee. Each year this festival grows, and each year the town of Kells rises to meet the challenge, surpassing itself every time. Roll on Hay Festival Kells 2016!

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