Where might you see a member of the Dubliners one minute and a member of Led Zeppelin the next, an American Poet Laureate amid two Dames and an ex-priest passing an ex-prisoner? This might seem strange anywhere else but in the Listowel Arms Hotel when Writers’ Week is in full swing. The hotel is the nerve centre of the festival and where readers, writers, and passersby are welcomed with equal warmth. One side of the hotel looks out on the 160-year-old racecourse, while the other faces the square from windows where Daniel O’Connell and Parnell delivered speeches to crowds below.
The town, which seems to be built on words is buzzing with readers, writers, passive observers and active revelers. This is the 47th year of the festival and the organisers have clearly put a lot of thought into scale, it strikes the perfect balance between crowded and comfortable. As Colm Toibin – the festival president – told me, ‘There is an intimacy in how the town works.’ The image of modesty that the festival exudes, despite its international reputation, reflects the way that John B. Keane, the town’s most famous writer presented himself. Books are visible everywhere in the town from the windows of hairdressers’ to the shelves of John B’s pub. People can be seen stooped over laptops outside cafés and scribbling over verses in foolscap pads, fresh out of workshops by the likes of Michael Harding (memoir writing) and John Spillane (songwriting).
It is a treat to see exchanges between writers of different generations. Eimear MacBride opens her conversation with Edna O’Brien by telling her how reading her work at the age of thirteen provided the impetus for her to take up writing. There is a feeling of passing the baton at this and other events where writers of different generations are paired together; Michael Longley and Colette Bryce, Mary Morrissey and Sally Rooney.
Eimear MacBride told me that being at the festival, ‘Is a writer’s dream, like being in a book-covered Nirvana.’ Gary Cunningham, the chronicler of his time in prison in ‘Joys of Joy’ is buzzing before his conversation with Carlo Gebler, telling me, ‘I class Listowel as my spiritual home.’ Strange words to hear in a Dublin accent, but with so much music, stories, poetry and prose in the air, it is easy to see why so many writers are so eager to come every year and so reluctant to leave.
It is a festival for everyone, variety has clearly been carefully considered. Events are held for all ages and preferences. Not just book launches and readings, but a passionate discussion on The War of Independence and its legacy sparks debate on the Saturday, while a political conversation chaired by Vincent Browne about the absurdity of Irish politics is one of Sunday’s highlights. Burgeoning writers can get valuable time to talk with publishers and there is Poetry Pharmacy with William Seighart who promises to ‘find a poetic cure for every condition’.
The morning walk on Saturday morning was far more than a tour of the town. Mary Cogan starts the walk by saying, ‘we want this walk to be entertaining.’ This goal was certainly achieved with fascinating insights into the history of the town as well as songs, stories and even a performance of a scene from John B. Keane’s Sive in front of Listowel Castle, which we are told by a local historian is now one-third of its original size.
Both virgin and veteran performers are welcome to Christy’s Bar at night to take part in the Poet’s Corner where laughs are bubbling out onto the square at times and you could hear a pin drop at other moments of perfectly punctuated poignancy. Apart from the odd thundery downpour, the weather stays just right to facilitate outdoor poetry readings and performances in the amphitheater outside the Seanchaí – Kerry Writers’ museum.
With 47 years experience, the organisers of Listowel Writers’ Week have learned how to pitch a literary festival to a broad audience, to be inclusive and open to all. In doing this, they have avoided the pretention that is inherent in other such events. They give attendees enough to make them feel satisfied with everything that is being provided, but still wanting more; next year it is.