Irish Writers Centre Members Christmas Party December 2019
The Christmas party for members of the Irish Writers centre in Dublin was a delight. I am a big fan of wine and nibbles, but also of evenings full of excellent writing, not to mention the opportunity to read my own work. There was nothing not to love. As we found places to sit we noticed that there had been quotations left on people’s seats. Mine read ‘There is no love sincerer than the love of food- George Bernard Shaw (Man and Superman)’. Appropriate, I thought, clearly this is my seat. But, as I sit now to write this piece about the party, food comes to mind again. I don’t want to just write about the ingredients of the evening, the recipe of it. Really I want to tell you about the stew.
It’s cold. I arrived in Dublin to find a protest about homelessness taking place. Inside the Irish Writers Centre the speaking-out continued in writing about Ireland and writing about the homelessness crisis. My own reading, taken from my novel A Good Hiding, was about a young girl who runs away from home when she finds she is pregnant. I couldn’t have known that it would be a theme in Dublin on that day, but at the same time it’s not the first time this year that I’ve shown up in the city and found myself surrounded by people demanding better for their citizens, on the street and in the writing. If there was an overriding flavour to the event I would have called it difference. There was a sense that writers really want to embrace and express their own culture (Irish, Ukrainian, Brazilian, Irish), but also to rage about the recklessness of a societal system which oppresses other people. So, poetry and prose about unrequited love, drag queens, online dating, the Irish language, sat well with work about homelessness, the elements, religion.
Jack Harte himself announced this year’s winner of the Jack Harte Bursary, Irish language writer Micheál Ó Conghaile. Where I live, in the North, casual bilingualism is not at all common at events like this. With things being the way that they have been, people might be wary of how breaking out into Irish will be received in mixed literary audiences, and if it is done, it is done briefly or in a specific context, sometimes with an explanation. I listened with interest to one of the Marian Keyes Young Writers group who read from a literary essay about bilingualism. How does Irish sound to someone who does not speak it? She wondered. I can tell you, I thought. It sounds both foreign and familiar, and full of lovliness and a bit of sadness. As I got up to speak I found myself explaining that the main character in my Christmas-time book was named Nollaig, firstly because I liked the sound of it, and then, later, because I learned the meaning of it. Protestant children in Northern Ireland still don’t get the opportunity to learn Irish in school, unless they go to an Integrated school. The majority of them do not. Many of our politicians still frequently tell us that themmuns have politicised the language and so they cannot speak it, because someone stole the meaning of it. It’s not this belief which makes us pathetic, it is the inertia- the unwillingness to change a situation. Like saying that you simply can’t breathe anymore because someone else said the air belonged to them. So the significance of my Nollaig’s name is lost to half the country that I was born in. How lovely, then, to be the welcomed outsider in a context where many readers drop in and out of the Irish language throughout the evening, acknowledging the importance of the medium of communication and culture as much as the things they were telling us about.
After the readings and addresses I spoke to a few people who I hadn’t met before. One man, a writer from Köln in Germany, told me that he had figured out the secret of politics- the best politics- the best way of life. ‘It’s just to love people,’ he said. It’s the sort of thing that, right before a Christmas election, might make you want to switch off the TV from whatever awful advertisement was trying to sell you something expensive, unnecessary and environmentally unsound. But, to be honest, here, at the Irish Writers Centre, where frequently art and social awareness seem to be interlocked, it just seemed like a kind of ordinary and important wisdom. Nollaig shona dhaoibh, then! From someone who struggles to speak it but it always happy to hear it.