Sometimes you get to thinking about Waterford arts events and how do they measure up to similar festivals elsewhere. So, with this in mind, after the local Sean Dunne I decided to visit a similar writers’ festival in Belmullet, Co. Mayo. Now in its 18th year, the Force 12 Writers’ Festival is a weekend event of readings, workshops, discussions and the usual get-togethers of like-minded people. There was a literary publication in the Northwest called Force 10 and that became the basis for a festival that was Force 11, a year later and settled on Force 12 until now.
The opening event was set in the Inis Gluaire Arts Centre, part of a purpose-built building of offices, a small theatre, a county library, a gallery area, some meeting rooms and Co. Council offices, completed this century.
The opening speech by a local councillor was vague about the arts – I do admire the work ye do and ye people like to travel. Talking point at the reception was the controversy about an article in a Mayo paper (a free-sheet) about gay perversion in a popular recreational spot in Castlebar. A popular website – castlebar.ie – was shut down because the editor of the said paper said the mostly anonymous comments or blogs were – unacceptable, untrue, or completely defamatory. The bulletin boards of this community run website had about 3.8 million hits last month. Incidentally the most played song on Mid-West radio was Get It In To Ye Cynthia.
The running of the festival was given to facilitator and publisher of Salmon Press, Jessie Lendennie, a wonderful inspirational woman. At the opening Friday reading, Seamus Cashman read from his last collection and his poems about Palestine were thought-provoking in contrast to a quirky poem about a Sikh guru who rolled on his side for about 2,000 miles in India for peace. An interesting allegation was that the cement used by the Israeli builders who built the divisive wall in Palestine, was from an Irish supplier.
Gerald Dawe told about his early journeys in the 70s from Belfast to Galway university. Anne Hartigan touched a redemptive nerve with her performance of her play/poem La Corbiere about sex-prisoners on Jersey. Lorna Shaughnessy, whose first collection was reviewed in this newspaper recently, read and was well received, especially for her Belfast memories.
Jessie Lendennie likened poetry to storytelling and she inspired and enthused the gathering with her vision and poetry.
On the Saturday I visited the Ceide Fields and Rossport, where the Shell To Sea protests took place, and attended a discussion about the need to be a self-promoter to get published. The season was moderated by Maurice Harmon. However, the event ended with one proposal – that the Co. Mayo Arts Officer, Ann McCarthy, should write to newspapers and deplore the lack of space for poems and literary work.
That evening the readings, in which five poets read for about ten minutes each, were moderately attended. Alan Hayes of CLE and Arlen House Publishers had organised a fine book stall of contemporary writing and not just the writers attending the festival.
Joseph Woods of Poetry Ireland spoke in memory of festival patron, the later Barbara Ennis Price (sister of piper Seamus Ennis). Her daughter read a lost poem she found on her mother’s laptop. There was a thread of mordant humour at this reading with Patrick Cotter, the Director of the Munster Literature Centre, reading from his new collection, Perplexed Skin. I loved his singing dog poem about an arse-sniffing dog who sings Rufus Wainwright songs. His Song Of An Urban Youngfella was fine work.
Kevin Higgins, who came to Galway fame from Slam poetry, created funny out of underpants experiences about Sinn Fein, daiquiris and slippery nipples. Geraldine Mills read from her short stories of family memories and sadnesses. The American-born wife of Kevin Higgins read from her amusing first collection – Big Pink Umbrella. Susan Millar DuMars acknowledged the domestic challenges of being married to a poet and I loved her tickle-bellied American pop-rhythms.
I didn’t attend the Sunday morning reading out on the Mullet peninsula and instead listened to a harrowing MidWest Radio broadcast of Take Me Home To Mayo, about the sacrifice and funeral of hunger-striker Michael Gaughan in the early seventies. The descriptions of barbarous force-feeding was not lessened by the passing of time and put a sadder perspective on poets who wanted letters written to newspapers.