John Hewitt International Summer School 2015 – A Retrospective

When the email arrived announcing I’d been awarded a bursary to attend the John Hewitt Society International Summer School, I was thrilled. The thoughts of being immersed in such a wonderful LitFest (and IdeasFest, ArtFest, MusicFest, TheatreFest – they had it all) left me as excited as a child. I’d soon be spirited away from my “office” (my kitchen table) to be catapulted – temporarily at least – into the ideas of some of our finest writers, poets and thinkers. Oh, joy!
And indeed it was a joy, beginning with the official opening by Lord Rana and inaugural speech by David Steele, discussing the impact of difference within the European ideal. I guess “Vive la Différence” might have been the conclusion, the caveat being that mutual respect was mandatory. That’s in an ideal world, of course, or even just an ideal Europe. We live in hope.
The gravitas of the opening was quickly followed by the – er – ungravitas? of the delightful Ian Sansom, reading from his novel “Death in Devon”. I howled. Sansom is an extremely funny man, although beneath his mischievous exterior lies the heart of a renowned scholar, an English Lit professor at Warwick and a regular contributor to all sorts of academic periodicals.
The short story workshop I attended, facilitated by Heather Richardson, was another joy. Heather’s enthusiasm for the craft is unbounded, and so is her stack of clever hints. She gave us a new idea on beginning a story – “in medias res” – which I hadn’t heard of, although I’d heard Kurt Vonnegut’s version of roughly the same thing: “Start as close to the end as possible.” And I’d thought he was joking!
Bernard O’Donoghue talked about his memories of Heaney and O’Driscoll, and was an inspiration to listen to. A reception followed, and then the launch of the WJ McCormack’s biography of John Hewitt, called “Northman”. Later still, three Irish poets who have made their homes abroad read from their most recent published volumes to a full and reverently hushed house. Marvellous.
Another renowned scholar, C L Dallat, gave a thought-provoking talk on Tuesday morning, describing John Hewitt’s vision of an undivided society in Northern Ireland. Dallat’s cache of resources was in itself a thing of wonder, drawing from the works of Irish writers and poets north and south. His wry wit and upbeat tempo persuaded me to drop my pen and just enjoy it.
The slow, languid and glistening language of Hannah Lowe’s poetry afterwards was in stark contrast, as were the reflective tones of Bernard O’Donoghue’s poems, both poets reading from their recent volumes to an audience subdued with admiration.
Yasmin Alibhai-Brown kept us on the edge of our seats. A tiny firebrand of a woman, she railed against loyalty (explaining that family loyalty often perpetuates the barbarity of female genital mutilation), and also raged against fundamentalism in all faiths and in all circumstances. Ms Alibhai Brown is such an eloquent mocker of patriarchy and sexism, she made me want to clap and cheer and jump up and down. She is an inspiration and a force to be reckoned with. She later sat on a panel with Hannah Lowe and C L Dallat, discussing how Ireland and the UK is coping – or not coping – with cultural and religious difference.
That evening, a group of American students on a month-long residency in Armagh showcased their considerable talents, and later again Patrick McCabe read from his works, along with some whimsical musical intervals being provided by the hilarious and often tender songs of Colum Sands.
On Wednesday, Dr Myrtle Hill spoke to us about the heroic Margaret Taylor McCoubrey, a contemporary of John Hewitt, and an almost forgotten suffragette and tireless campaigner for the rights of the poor in the rapidly changing Belfast of the early-to-mid 20th century.
Poets Moya Donaldson and Iggy MCGovern later read from their volumes of poetry and I was particularly taken with McGovern’s poems based on the life of another mathematician and poet, William Rowan Hamilton. Even an innumerate like me could see the fun.
Christine Dwyer Hickey read from her latest novel, “The Lives of Women” and I realised that I’d not discovered this gargantuan talent. What rock have I been living under? I look forward to reading her with relished anticipation, I know I’m in for a treat.
Paul Muldoon charmed a packed house with his musings on life as Pulitzer prize-winning poet. It is refreshing to hear a man of so many accolades admitting to how little he feels he knows in the grand scheme of things. This was not any attempt at faux humility, but rather the considered opinion of one who has meditated on the complexity of life and has come to find his peace, instead, in life’s innate simplicity.
That night, Maria Connolly delighted us in her one-woman show “Two Sore Legs”. Written by Brenda Murphy, it’s a walk through the life of a single mother in Belfast, rearing a large family at a time when single mothers were considered sluts (not so long ago, sadly). Hilarious and poignant in equal measure, the entire production was a tour-de-force. Bravissimo.
Next morning Professor Paulo de Medeiros told it like it is. Europe is in crisis and our all- mouth-and-no-trousers Eurocrats are either doing nothing or making things worse. He discussed the “concentration camps” – and said he used the term advisedly – of the immigrants caught in limbo across the EU, of the unspeakable attitude of Ms Merkel And Friends to the Greek debt, of how the Mediterranean sea, formerly known as Mare Nostrum has morphed into the horrific and blood-soaked Mare Mortis, of how we have become everything that Derrida hoped we would avoid. And the shame, Dr Medeiros pointed out, is on us.
Anne Marie Fyfe later read from some of her most elegant poems, leading us gently in from the cold waters of Europe to the intimate temperatures of the heart. Tess Gallagher also read from her own work, and the Yin and Yang of their different poetic voices formed a perfect kind of counterpoint.
Mary Kennedy read from her debut novel, Academy Street, already a hugely acclaimed hit and spoke of her inspiration for Tess, the novel’s protagonist. Modest and unassuming, not unlike one would imagine Tess herself to be, this was a treat for fans like me.
In the afternoon, John F Deane made an impressive and eloquent case for his Christian faith and reminded me a little of C S Lewis, with his quiet, gentle surety. I doubt I was the only one there who envied him a bit. A life lived with spiritual conviction is, as depicted in his work, one full of whispering, mysterious beauty.
Horslips, Holy Ghosts, Paul Brady and newly-crowned Rock God, Paul Muldoon were far from whispering later on, as they turned their amps up to eleven and got rocking with some old songs, some new, almost all rhythm-and-blue, to a rapturous packed house, many of us who insisted on dancing in our seats. Although that was maybe just our age, I’m not sure. Great gig. Brought me back. Decades!
Alistair Moffat gave a fascinating talk on our DNA, next morning. We’re all African, as it turns out. Every last one of us. Human life as we know it originated there, and we mated with Neanderthals to become what we are now. I’m over-simplifying, of course, but this talk was a great leveller. And an eye-opener, although I secretly suspected I might always have been 40% turnip. I just never had the courage to admit it, until Alistair Moffatt made it public knowledge.
Colette Bryce and Niall Campbell later showed us how even us half-man-half-turnip creatures can, with the right amount of talent, create more beauty than the sum of our parts, as they both read from their recent poetry volumes.
Dermot Bolger, a master purveyor of the dark side within us all, was unexpectedly bright and breezy, but then it was my first time to see him interviewed, and to hear him read from his work. He is quick-witted and impish and uproariously funny.
Some summer school students read extracts of their work later in the afternoon, and there was lots of new talent on show. Before the closing of the Summer School, there was a panel discussion on how – or even if – we can learn to live with, and embrace, difference in Ireland north and south.
In conclusion, it just remains to say I cherished every minute of JHISS 2015. I made new friends and I even mustered up the courage to touch Paul Muldoon’s garment in a kind of biblical gesture, hoping that some of his talent might rub off on me, although no signs yet.
A huge thanks to the John Hewitt Society, to the committee, sponsors, Friends and volunteers who enabled me to have – literally – the time of my life.
Anne Cunningham. August 2015.

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