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Listowel Writers’ Week enjoys such a reputation that major figures are more than happy to be invited, says Carl Dixon

REGARD for Listowel Writers’ Week enables it to attract a high calibre of participant. This year, the festival, a mix of readings from high-profile writers, workshops, book launches and theatre, will run from May 30 to Jun 1.

Also included in this year’s programme is the Kerry Group ‘Irish novel of the year award’ with a €20,000 first prize, a literary walking tour entitled ‘walking in the footsteps of John B Keane,’ and a documentary filmed at last year’s festival. Expect, also, the informal and friendly atmosphere which remains such a big factor in the festival’s enduring popularity.

The festival chairman is Seán Lyons, a teacher, a poet and, he says, the first Mayo man to have filled this role. As a writer, he appreciates the distinctive heritage of the festival.

“There were a lot of great writers from this part of Kerry, including Bryan MacMahon, Brendan Kennelly, Gabriel Fitzmaurice and Maurice Walsh but, I suppose, even ten years after his death, it is the spirit of John B Keane that is most evident here,” Lyons says.

“There is, of course, the statue, the bar is still there with the name over it and it is still run in the same way by his family. His memory lingers in every corner of the town. This year marks the tenth anniversary of his death and the inaugural ‘JB Keane lifetime achievement in the arts award’, which recognises an outstanding contribution to Irish literature, will be presented this year.”

A huge amount of organisation is required for the festival and this process begins soon after the previous festival ends. “There is a big committee of 25 to 30 people who make a list of what they would like to see,” he says.

“A smaller literary committee then breaks that down further and tries to make sure there is a good mix of writers and events. Then, the laborious process of contacting people begins. In reality, Listowel is so well-known at this stage that most writers are very flattered to be asked and will try and oblige if they can.

“We also have to work within a budget, which has been tight over the last few years. We will pay a fee and travelling expenses for many of the writers, which is only fair, as even high-profile writers can struggle to make a living in today’s market.

“Sometimes, they will be attending another festival, such as Hay-On-Wye, and they can get here fairly easily. Generally, they aren’t too demanding and they often get seduced by the atmosphere and end up doing more than they had planned, such as giving informal talks or dropping in on workshops.”

Workshops are an integral part of the festival and as writers generally work in a solitary manner, the feedback can be useful.

However, could it not be argued that listening to some of these literary masters could be discouraging to those starting out?

“I suppose you could listen to some of those readings and despair that you would ever be that good,” he says. “But everyone has to start somewhere. I wouldn’t really call myself a writer, but I have read some of my own poetry and it is very intimidating. It is great to have an audience that appreciates how difficult the process of writing and reading work actually is.”

While an uncritical audience might be counterproductive, the support available at festivals such as this one can be hugely encouraging.

“Listening to someone like Colm Tóibín — who is one of the greatest writers of his generation — talking about the importance of writing is genuinely inspiring,” Lyons says.

“During the festival you will see people in corners of bars or cafes, or along the river, taking a few moments out from the festival atmosphere to jot down their thoughts or record moments of inspiration.”

The festival will be opened this year by President Michael D Higgins, who has been a long-time supporter. But, in his official capacity he may not be able to partake as freely as in the past.

“Of course, he is a fantastic writer in his own right and he has been coming here for a long time. We are always grateful for his presence, whatever his circumstances, not only as a writer but as very genuine person who cares deeply about the arts,” Lyons says.

Interestingly, numbers attending the festival seem to have remained relatively constant in recent years, say the organisers. Perhaps, after many years of cheap flights, people have become slightly bored with conventional weekend breaks and are now looking for something different.

“I think the idea of cultural tourism is really taking off,” Mr Lyons says.

“People are looking to gain knowledge or learn a skill; they are looking for an experience that has more depth, a sense of participating in something rather than just observing it.

“If you combine that with the distinctive atmosphere and the craic and banter at Listowel, you end up with a highly successful formula.”

Listowel highlights

* Germaine Greer has been a target of the festival committee for some time and the Australian feminist, writer and broadcaster can be heard in conversation with John Murray of RTÉ on Saturday, Jun 2.

* Irish heavyweights this year include Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Paul Durcan and Christine Dwyer Hickey, whose novel Tatty was was chosen as one of the 50 Irish Books of the Decade and long listed for the Orange Prize.

* High profile international writers include award-winning poet Simon Armitage and two writers whose works were nominated for the Man Booker prize, namely the Canadian writer Patrick deWitt for his novel The Sisters Brothers and Manchurian Carol Birch whose latest novel Jamrach’s Menagerie was shortlisted in 2011. Look out also for Yorkshire author Helen Dunmore, writer of A Spell in Winter which won the Orange Prize.

* Comedian Des Bishop will discuss his book My Dad Was Nearly James Bond and Paul Howard, aka Ross O’Carroll Kelly, will talk about his latest offerting, Triggs — The Autobiography, about Roy Keane’s famous dog.

* Travel writing will be covered by Manchán Magan, Brendan Harding and solo traveller Mary Russell who has been travelling around Syria for 10 years.

* Two established Australian poets, Petra White and Paul Hetherington feature, along with Macdara Woods, who has published 17 books and Geraldine Mitchell, whose debut collection World Without Maps was published in 2010.

* Media veteran Mary Kenny will talk with Peter Taylor who has spent nearly 40 years reporting on terrorism and political violence. On the subject of mental health it is worth catching psychotherapist and GP Terry Lynch whose fascinating book Beyond Prozac was published in 2001.

In a related field Dr Maureen Gaffney will give some insights into her new book Flourishing which looks at how to thrive in difficult time. Finally, there are a range of events for children.

Picture: Canadian author Patrick deWitt (The Sisters Brothers) will be among the visitors to Listowel


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