Welcome to Beirut

After an epic dodgem like drive through the streets of Beirut following ten hours of travel, we arrived at the hotel, Le Bristol, to be greeted by top hatted door men and shiny glass doors. We entered an echo chamber of lurid purple, ornate furniture, mirrors and marble floors. Heavy metal and Lebanese Red popped into my mind. The reception staff were austere, with wide painted mouths and long faces, but they were helpful, and occasionally, they would smile.

Our room was more muted, grey and pink, a vast white bed floating in a sea of mauve, and green pillows. As we pushed open the door, there, on the brown glass table, stood a bottle of Lebanese white, a large slice of chocolate cake and a card to welcome us, ‘Mama and Dada, Happy Anniversary, love Róisín’. We found the culprit on the roof, stretched out by the pool, itself a sun rippled square of blue. Around us zoomed tower blocks of curved glass and white concrete. Car horns tooted below. We poured three glasses and toasted each other. “Welcome to Beirut.”

Róisín had, that day, been on an Alternative Walking Tour, so felt she had grasped the lie of the land. She took us by the hand, and guided us through Hamra to Down Town, past the lit-up palace, many militia points, the Christian Church, Mosque, both minaret and steeple touching dark skies, vying for glory, side by side. Beautiful.

The traffic was mad: It careered, braked, screech stopped, raced and dodged, hooting horns. Beiruties don’t walk, and park where they like – in the middle of the road, but at the same time are courteous to pedestrians. If you step out, they will perform an emergency stop, and wave you across.

We ate that night at restaurant City Chef, recommended because its cheap and famous for feeding the poor. The food was simple but fine, like the Lebanese wine. After dinner, we wandered around the trendy Gemmayzeh bars, tasting cocktails. We watched and gazed, welcomed everywhere. I tried out my French, but because of the Mandate set up after the war, everyone speaks English. They want to know why we are here and are filled with disbelief and delight when we say we are tourists. Welcome.

The next morning, I got up early for a refreshing swim, plowing up and down amongst the top of deserted buildings. Then out to explore, find breakfast and a walk to the national museum. Róisín and I set off, following the blue dots of google. We were staying in the Hamra neighbourhood, mental with banks and high-rise towers, many empty, with no windows. There were also beautiful houses, broken and ruined, ornate brickwork and tumbled down balconies, laced with bullet holes. The streets are a maze of concrete and dust, cars and lorries, but every so often, I caught a glimpse of the old world, the faded glory. We crossed the Green Line (now a highway) into the Christian side where life is less tumbled. It seems hip, richer, less noisy, trendy with shops and restaurants – though all of Beirut thrums with neon fast food.

We came across the Jewish cemetery, an oasis of silence, and a ravaged building held together by bullets, now an arts centre, but it was closed. We drank citron pressé through glass straws in a tiny French café by the museum.
There, I discovered death and destruction, necropolises and resurrection. The Phoenicians, Egyptians, Romans and Turks, tombs and sarcophaguses, bowls with the burnt human bones, mummies and mosaics – all magnificent. You are welcome.

We then walked the Corniche, a prom by the Med, edged with tall tower blocks of apartments, presumably with fabulous views, but burnt out, devastated, empty. Occasionally, there was a period house, or a new building that I loved with straight, clean lines that reflected a truly gorgeous horizon. Sadly, as the huge red Middle Eastern sun set, it was on hillocks of litter on pebbled beaches. It was plastic bottles on rocks that glittered. Beirut has a huge issue with its collection of rubbish. We were told it was because of political corruption. You are welcome.

For dinner, that evening we met Aisha, the daughter of an old friend, who lives in Beirut and works with Syrian refugees. Over tapas we talked of the Middle East, its joys and difficulties.

The next day, we met Ali, a taxi driver, who drove us across the mountains behind Beirut to Baalbec in the Beqaa Valley. Here is the Quaa – a wondrous site of temples and ruins dating back to 37 BC. Welcome. The first temple was completed under Nero in 36 AD, and more were erected over the following centuries by different peoples. It is truly amazing that, despite the invasions over the centuries, the bombing by the Israelis that these magnificent stones still stand, glorious and breath taking. It was amazing to be able to scramble and perch our bums, run our hands over columns and temples created by people over thousands of years ago.

Back in Beirut that evening, it began to storm: flashes of sheet lightening and bulbous drops of water exploded, drenching the city and us in seconds. We ran to a bar full of hubble bubble and cushions, ordered wine and tapas and settled down. Welcome.

The next day, Róisín was gone and I set off to do her recommended Alternative Walking Tour of East and West Beirut. I took an Uber to the meeting place. The driver was concerned that an older woman alone was going for a walk in the city on her own. He tried to persuade me instead to walk the Corniche, where he said it was safe. Eventually, he dropped me where I wished, at the bottom of the steps of St Nicholas. Welcome. The first person I met was also Irish, from Kildare, but living in Tyre. In the end, there were sixteen of us – Spanish, Italian, Australian, French and Swiss. Mustapha led us through the Christian district of Sodeco, through a well-tended garden of one of Beirut’s oldest families. It seems there are very few such houses left in Lebanon. Only 30,000 exist, not bombed or abandoned. Welcome

As I mentioned, the tour was ‘alternative’ and group hugs were encouraged (partly to protect us from the traffic) and politics discussed. Mustapha regaled us with economic facts and stories of corrupt politicians, the high cost of living, the soulless new build built by Solidaire, (the Dublin Docklands equivalent). He went through the history of wars and incursions, his home being bombed by the Israelis in 2006 and him rescuing his mother, brothers and sisters, and how his mother is still a refugee. She will not return from her sanctuary; I think it is in Jordan, but I could be wrong for he had so much to say, so much passion, arrogance and anger (he was young).

That night, Jerry and I booked a table at an Armenian restaurant, the Mayrig, and dined in splendour, surrounded by shrubs and green leaves. After walking the streets and dodging the traffic, the peace and Lebanese wine was a wonderful relief. Welcome

Food has been a joy on this trip. I’ve had chick peas that melt in your mouth, meat that falls apart on your tongue, cheese and spices that explode with taste, peppers, beetroot, tomatoes, chili hors d’ouvres that have been really delicious.
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On Sunday, in Down Town Beirut we went to The Egg, a bombed out building, the shape of a dome, perched in the midst of the soulless new build. We were visiting an exhibition, Plastic, by an unknown artist who wishes to remain incognito. His/her art displayed the penury of cult. There were video portraits of famous people, graffitied, exposing their shame. It was clever and got great acclaim.

Our last day, Ali took us North to Biblos – where humans have lived for the last 7,000 years. It had a tiny harbour, full of boats, and a castle, a lovely fish restaurant and expensive souks. On our way, we had planned to cable car up to Harissa, where the Virgin Mary looks out over the sea. But the cable cars were being repaired, so Ali drove. There stood the cathedral on top of a mountain whose roof rippled like waves in the sky. I stood and looked down on Beirut, spread like a banquet, a city of white, full of friendship and history, of people with troubles, and knew that one day, I would like to return.

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Exploring The World

Cyprus, Limerick, Dublin, London, Connemara, Sheffield and, of course, the Farnham Estate, Cavan have been my points of orbit this summer in what has been a hot, dappled, yellow sun, blue sky, fluffy white cloud event, smelling of burnt concrete and metal.

In Cavan, every day, Poppins and I walk the woods, meander the lake, stroll the golf course but, actually, I am traversing the streets of Dublin, listening to the poetry of Ulysses, the unabridged version read beautifully by John Lee or I am in Ethiopia, New Zealand, Iran, Russia or Chicago listening to the Guardian’s Audio Long Read podcast https://www.theguardian.com/news/series/the-audio-long-read . So far, I have learned about how Silicon Valley are buying up New Zealand, the Rise of Russian Neo Nazi Football fans, Homaro Cantu the genius chef who cooked exploding cigars and more. I also like The Inquiry which has informed me why every morning in school Iranian students, shout Death to the English, whether we can understand how animals work, and how we eat our way out of climate change. And, as I listen, I wonder about what I’ll cook for dinner, how to strengthen the first paragraph of my short story, feel lonely in my routine and smile at Poppins leaping through long grass.

It’s been a good summer despite Jerry and I losing our mothers in the last six months, but both women seemed ready to leave the planet. If you have read Threads, my second poetry collection, you may will know what an unhappy parent grappling with old age and dementia presents to a child. My mother’s death left a gap in my life and I think of her often, but a calm, deep blue sea has filled it. My response to my mother in law’s death six months later was different. At her funeral, I wept in a way I could not for my mother. I wondered if these were tears in disguise, but I don’t think so. I was happy for Margaret’s life and sad to know I wouldn’t see her again. But death is death, and the loss of a parent has a rippling, unnerving impact, so the walking and listening to podcasts this year has been restorative.

And I have also been reading some fabulous books: Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Outline by Rachel Cusk, Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman, the Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Dias (I learned about him from the World Book Club podcast) Ta-Nihisi Coates Between the World and Me, Borges, Flaubert, Tóibín, Strout, Rachel Kushner, JG Farrell and more recently David Parks and John Boyne. I have been picking up books recommended on podcasts and sold at the various festivals I have attended this summer, most recently the John Hewitt Summer School, others of which I have already blogged about.

I am a lucky woman. Blessed, my mother in law would say. Yes, I think this as a I walk each day. I am. And I try to keep creating such blessings coming. This has been made easier by my mother who left me a little money. So, I go to festivals, buy books, organise trips to the theatre, visit friends, order more books from Amazon and plan poetry workshops. My poetry and creative writing workshops, and my literary evening, AT The Edge, Cavan keep my ‘what for’ at bay.

Now I am excited because yesterday I planned a trip to Beirut this October. Beirut was the war of my childhood. It was the focus of the news which I watched at 6 o’clock with my mother. Then the Lebannon was a war torn, bombed out place, full of factions I didn’t understand: Christian Militia, Druze, Shia and Sunni – and I want to visit it now to see a thriving city, explore its treasures, enjoy its cuisine, and meet its people as I hope maybe my own children may be able to visit Damascus in the future.

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The Miracle of Loaves and Fishes

As I sat in the car, outside the pretty church of Carrickatee, perched on top of hill in Co. Monaghan, a perfectly arched rainbow dispersed its glowing colours between the slow rotating blades of the wind turbines of the Mullananalt wind farm. Ahead, tall, dark green, pine trees nested into the side of a drumlin. The sky was a bruise of purple and grey. Behind me, golden rays of the evening sun fingered the car, the white strands of dog hair on the car seats, showing up the grime on the window panes. Still, it was a glorious evening.

Over the next twenty minutes, battered 03s, 99s and polished 17s began to climb the hill towards us in a steady procession. The vehicles parked at the top, between the white painted lines, and then having to squeeze on to the grassy verges. Old wrinkled, ruddy faced farmers and well dressed, middle aged women got out to walk the last few steps into the church, chatting as they went, pausing at tomb stones on their way in. Bells began to chime for eight o’clock mass. “Come on, time to go.” Jerry, my husband, said to me.

“There’s Michael, Mags and Andy,” I said, pointing to three of Jerry’s brother and sisters over from England. They had parked at the bottom of the hill and were walking up. We waited for them.

We were there for my mother-in-law’s month mind mass. She was buried in Sheffield last June. Margaret Fitzpatrick, nee McGahey (1918-2018) was reared in Creeve, Co. Monaghan, studied in UCD, taught in Southampton, married and reared seven children in Sheffield.

Margaret was a matriarch. During her hundred years on this earth, she was a force to be reckoned with. She was interested in everyone and, over the years, would demand to know every detail not only about me, but all my friends, most of whom she never met but would always ask after. She had bright blue eyes that accompanied a voice that would tell me how to make scones, what not to call my children, how to not take a blind bit of notice, not mind this or that, instruct and praise, show and tell. She was a woman who engineered conversation and debate, delving into history, politics and religion, but always through people – her brothers and sisters, her children, her grandchildren, her cousins, her friends because there was always someone she knew or knew of who had done or said something interesting which needed reflection and discussion.

As I stared at the rainbow, waiting, it occurred to me that Margaret was her own meteorological phenomenon: a web of colourful connections, reflected and refracted through her own ball of energy. We were the rainbow of colours radiating in her slip stream. All these people streaming up the hill were her refracted droplets.

When Jerry and I and our two children moved to Ireland in 1994, and indeed, Cavan in 2001, we were drawn into her world of Creeve, her cousins, her neighbours, her school friends, her best friends, her cousins’ children, her neighbours’ children and the friends of her cousins’ children. I could only keep abreast of so many. But here were more, streaming up the hill to gather and assemble for her month’s mind mass. It was an extraordinary sight.

Damn, I thought, I should have known better. I began to realise I probably hadn’t ordered enough sandwiches, nor baked enough cake for the after refreshments we had arranged in Lough Egish GAA social centre. And I was right. When Jerry and I got down to club after the service (and we left the church quickly), the room was full and the sandwiches and cake already half gone. Two trestle tables had to be multiplied into four, the room extended, and more chairs found.

Funnily enough, at the service, the priest’s sermon featured the loaves and fishes miracle, and people now took heed. As the tables lay bare, cousins rummaged through their car boots and found packets of biscuits, boiled fruit cakes, and cocktail sausages. The bar was opened, and the thousands were fed. It is the first time I have come close to believing in the word of the Lord.

Margaret, despite her absence held court as usual. In fact, she dominated proceedings, introducing strangers who shared stories, laughed at memories, described homeplaces. New connections were made, more stories regaled and all the young people were interrogated as to their hopes and ambitions. The room was a babble and, following her lead, her sons and daughters made their way around the tables.

Coming up to midnight, the older folk began to leave, guided by their middle-aged children, while the younger ones planned the next foray into the night.

When we got back to Cavan, gone midnight (my in-laws were staying with Jerry and myself), we sat for another hour or two, marvelling at Margaret’s broad church, her tenacity, her love of people. We were proud of the success of the evening, laughing at the miracle of the loaves and fishes, and getting more and more sentimental. At 2am I heard her sharp voice in-tone
“Ridiculous! Its time you were getting to bed.”
Margaret Fitzpatrick nee McGahey Photo

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A Blooming Day Out in Dublin

ulysses
The staged performance of Ulysses at The Abbey,was pure vaudeville. It was colourful, bawdy, and humorous – perfect, it seems, for a drama adaptation of the book, not that I have read Ulysses. I am one of the playwright, Dermot Bolger’s, target audience: one of those too intimidated to read the book. However, I loved the theatre production and think Bolger was probably the right man for the job. I could almost feel his hands playing the puppets and shaking the pages so the themes would fall out midst the chaos of the chatter.
Because I haven’t read it, I cannot comment on how faithfully the play renders the book, but from what I hear about Ulysses, a faithful rendering would not work. What I loved about this performance was its stark chaos and colour. The stage set was excellent with some of the audience sitting at bar tables on the stage. The main props were Molly Bloom’s bed, a bar, and the use of grotesque corpse-like puppets to flesh out Joyce’s world – brilliant.
It was a challenge to assimilate the first fifteen minutes. I didn’t have a notion of what I was seeing before me, so it took a while to settle into the vaudeville style of the play. Soon, lines of speech, wonderful words, pieces of script were hurled around the stage, and it was a pleasure to be assaulted by their humour, vigour, and the honest reflection of humanity at its best and worst.
I found the themes to be sex, death, love, religion, nationality and drunkenness – in short, the secrets of honest human depravity. And I thought the vaudeville nature of the play worked very well. It was like watching a series of Shakespeare’s sub plots, one after another, with no real string of attachment to anything, just a passing character. I was very impressed.
Bloom and Molly Bloom were excellent – hats off and standing ovation. All the cast were good, absorbing the audience and themselves into the madness of the moments. The direction by Graham McLaren was very clever. I was a little confused by the minor role of Stephen Dedalus. I have always understood him to be one of the central characters in the book, but, I assume, Dermot Bolger wanted to reflect the themes rather than the dialogue and I am also guessing Dedalus was a foil to Bloom. I may be totally wrong. I say this because just before Molly’s final soliloquy, the other characters stood in a circle and batted questions and answers as to who did what when and Dedalus’s actions seemed to have greater significance. I am not sure this ploy worked; it felt a little like Dermot Bolger knew he had to finish it up. But, I didn’t care. All I knew that my senses had been assaulted and I had really enjoyed the production. I will have to read the book.
Going to see Ulysses was the finale of my own day out in Dublin, which, needless to say, was not as engaging as Stephen Dedalus’. My first excursion was to Michele Boyle’s exhibition in the Axis in Ballymun. I loved the portraits of her adopted parents and herself. They capture the grimace and worry through the flesh and wrinkles of the face. It is a total contrast then that the paintings of her adoptive family, brothers and sisters, are blurred in a defined but confused background. I liked the exhibition, and the Axis is a lovely community venue.
I used to work occasionally in Ballymun. It is different without the tower blocks. It doesn’t feel like it has found its own identity yet. The mix of architecture is strange; there are still sweeps of open (now burnt and brown) grass wasteland and a massive main road running it through it. There are people sauntering and sitting around, listening to big boom boxes of music and dogs pottering about, but there was a feeling of not finished, a sense interim about the place.
My next stop was to be the Seamus Heaney exhibition in the new Bank of Ireland Cultural Centre in Dublin but the tall, intimidating entrance wooden doors were firmly shut and locked by the time I got there at 3.50. I did get a quick look at the rather fabulous banking facilities when I went in to ask where the exhibition was for there was not a trace nor reference to it by the Columns where it was supposed to be, but that was little compensation, and it jarred on me that Seamus is forced to keep banking hours.
Instead, in the end, I had to repair to the Bailey Bar on Duke St to enjoy a few glasses of wine in the sunshine, and people watch. It’s a different Dublin to the place I worked twenty-five years ago, but honestly, I think the themes of Ulysses still wend their way through the inner city streets and they probably always will.

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Unravelling Skins in The Hinterland

Each reader at The Hinterland festival in Kells is given an ornamental Alium at their end of their event. It is tall, graceful, white blossomed stem which looks like the perfect dandelion sprayed with l’Oreal. It belongs to the onion family which is appropriate because Hinterland is like an onion, each event another unravelling of a skin.

For me, Hinterland began with Sinead Gleeson in the Presbyterian Hall. Sinead is petite, with delicate features and she looked rather alone, sitting up there on a plinth, one chair, one mic. She had me bowled over with her easy-going, articulate and knowledgeable manner. I had seen and heard Sinead interviewing a series of literary greats, but I was interested to see what she had to say for herself. It was a lot. She was honest, open, encouraging and totally disarming. She talked about the women writers in The Long Gaze Back, the importance of the female Irish writer, their discrimination over the years, and suggested authors to read. She was interested in her audience and asked questions of us – a tip other presenters and interviewers might consider. Sinead also discussed the rise of the Essay in Ireland, as well as in the UK and US. I am interested in this. Is this a literary reflection of the increasing obsession with the ‘me’, the ‘I’ that social media has spawned. What is an essay? Is this blog an essay? Too often, I have found essayists to be too erudite for me to appreciate or understand what they are saying. So, I asked Sinead whether an Essay needed to be erudite. Not at all, she said. An essay is an exploration of a subject you are interested in and want to discuss. That’s good, I thought. I can’t do erudite. I guess the literary, educational, or humorous nature of the essay depends on how skilled a writer you are. Anyway, Sinead is running a workshop on it in Waterford in October. I might go and find out more.

Gerry Adams has a thing about hair, he told us. He dislikes having his hair cut. He’d prefer to have it ‘done’, like a woman. I remembered the caustic remarks from the past about him dying his hair from people who disliked his politics and/or activities and wondered why a man dying his hair is an insult. What I found stranger was that here, sitting before me was a man who has been a presence throughout my life (albeit through the media), a man of great courage with a strong commitment to the rights of people, a powerful man who fought for what he believed in, a leader of an army, who also came from an abusive background, a man who seems to have humility and who must, at this stage of his life, have a deep understanding of the human psyche yet he is a man who talks and writes in such a pedestrian manner. It was as if his public persona has taken him by the throat and throttled him. Or maybe he is just getting old, like the rest of us.

Frank McGuinness displayed no such frailty while reading from his novel, The Woodcutter’s Family based on the characters of the Joyce Family (James Joyce) about whom he is obviously obsessed. I say it’s a novel, but clearly it is much more: it a performance, a play, a poem. He certainly brought the book alive through the dialogue and his passion and has inspired me to not only read more Joyce but to read his biography. Frank McGuinness was fabulous. He deserved an Oscar.

Unlike John Banville who, in another of life’s ironies, received the first Hinterland Award for what…greatness? I think not. Apparently, four people are to be given an award by the Committee this year. I bristled at this. I had donated to Hinterland to keep it going and was delighted when it raised enough money for the brilliant committee to keep running an excellent, diverse and interesting festival. Therefore, I think I have a right to say that I don’t think festivals need to hand out awards. And they should not be given to writers who clearly don’t value the opinion of others, for, as he said himself in his interview, Banville is not interested in other people and doesn’t care what they think. I hate to think of my precious pennies wasted.

So back to the interview. I have read and enjoyed most of Banville’s books and I look forward to reading his latest, Mrs Osmond which is a sequel to Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. I loved that book when I was twenty, and it struck me that Banville was probably the best author to write in the flowery but stringent James manner. Anyhow, as the interview went on and Myles Dungan and John Banville entwined their own vine-like way up the tree of self-absorption, I lost the will to breathe and I left the first day of the festival irritated by his arrogant and egotistical manner. I hope John Banville doesn’t turn to writing essays. No doubt, they would be erudite and, I think, I would find them unreadable.

While John Banville was turning his hand to Henry James, Colm Toibin (the author of The Master, the story of Henry James) was setting out to humanise the legend of Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra, their son Orestes and daughters Iphigenia and Electra, protagonists of the Iliad. I’m not great at the Greek myths, and, aside from Orestes whom Toibin fleshed out beautifully, for me, the characters did not escape their legendary status. I asked him if he had found it constraining to work with characters already well known. He said he was trying to write about the relationships between the characters. Maybe, I was too intimidated by the Gods to enjoy the book – though my favourite part was Clytemnestra’s rejection of said Gods. I didn’t have any of these concerns with Testament of Mary. Maybe it was because Colm Toibin was the first person to field Mary with a personality and thoughts that I found humane and interesting. Colm Toibin is always a pleasure to listen to and watch. He is passionate and witty.

Sean Harnett (not his real name) is the author of Charlie One, a book that describes his experience of being a part of the British Army surveillance team in the North. The author is Irish, from a Republican background, and the interview was conducted in darkness over a skype connection. All we could see the skimpiest outline of a figure amongst the shadows and darker shadows and Myles Dungan brightly lit on the stage surrounded by hi tec. This man is clearly one for the lime light! Anyhow, the interview hyped the usual dire warnings about surveillance, but after hearing Misha Glenny earlier in the month at Borris discussing cyber war, it was like water off a duck’s back.

The literary event of questioner, interviewer is apparently an Oxbridge concept. I have to say, I agree with Lisa McInerney that there must be better ways to do this. Like Sinead Gleeson, she was up on the stage alone and she performed well, but wasn’t at ease, and kept checking how much longer she had. Lisa was discussing the class divide of writers and how so few of her fellow working class comrades are given the opportunity to write. She talked in brogue, with an accent as broad as Cork, and her readings captured well the drugs, sex and rock and roll dynamic of life in the every day. I hope her publishers are working hard to get her in to schools and on the streets to get her read by those she is writing about, to encourage more writing from people who are not provided with such opportunities.

It is interesting to consider how festivals might change their routine of interviewer, interviewed, writer, reader. Sinead Gleeson asked questions of the audience, as well as answering theirs. That was good. Maybe there needs to be more engagement. But writers can be solitary creatures and that might not work. John Banville certainly wouldn’t be interested.
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A Homage to the Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas

Last Friday night, a huge red orb, pulsating orange at its edges, was setting in Carlow. It looked like an African sun – too grand to sink behind the horizon. If it wasn’t for the mountain rising to meet it, I felt it would have pulsated there forever, spreading flame fire and destruction across the earth.
We were driving from the Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas to Graiguenamanagh, the small town where we were staying. My rather apocalyptic thought was no doubt a result of the evening I had spent immersed in discussion and debate with Margaret Attwood and Misha Glenny (he of McMafia fame) in Borris.

We were delighted with our front rows seats. I gazed with admiration and reverence at Margaret Atwood whose writing combines the love, desperation, greed and power of humanity to create what are frightening futures, but her scenarios are very much harnessed to our every-day realities. In her interview, Margaret Attwood was sharp, attuned and astute but relaxed. I was interested that her responses appeared to destabilise the usually direct and assertive Anne Enright asking the questions. Occasionally, from my bird’s eye, front row view, I thought could hear amused, ironic sparks crackling between them. The two women had a wonderful, eclectic, inchoate discussion ranging from women writers in North America, to Playtex bras and panty girdles, from women writing men (how do you check for accuracy?) to the crisis of masculinity; from a Christmas tie murder to totalitarianism, from Jung to writing for the unknown reader.

In the next session, Misha Glenny and Luke Harding discussed the rise of totalitarianism, and the increasing prevalence of organised crime in democratic society. The first question Misha was asked was what to do about it. Ask Margaret Attwood, I thought, she’ll be able to show you the inevitable answer and she would have been more articulate than Misha Glenny who fudged the question. But in his delivery, he was passionate, and extremely coherent: our democratic governments, our society is riddled and increasingly dependent on corruption, greed and guns, ruthless murderers and heads of state, like Putin. The collapse of the Soviet Union, Thatcher and Regan’s deregulation provided the drug lords, the gun runners with a laundering service second to none. Wars and porous borders now facilitate easy movement of cargo – whether it be drugs, guns, or sex slaves – and the increased enslavement of populations through either addiction, poverty or war. Time for wine.

At home, over supper and a glass of two of New Zealand wine, inevitably, we discussed the point of life and wondered why we were here, on earth? My answer? Sex, drugs and rock and roll – literally, it is what makes the world go around. We should do more of it…pass the wine.

On Saturday, the garden of Borris House bathed in the sun. Blue skies lorded over mountains and meadows, and trestle tables were long havens of chattering happiness; there were stalls of lobster, burritos, lamb kebabs and market produce. I was having coffee and brioche with raisins and cream when I spotted an old boyfriend from London making haste to the book stand. I called him over. He came and looked down at me inquiringly.
“Hello, my name is Kate Ennals, we used to go out together.”
It was amusing to watch the confusion on his face. I saw his forehead furrow. I could see him back tracking through his memory, his long fingers flicking through the years until he came to me, then he laughed, sat down, pleased to see me. It was a good start to the day.

Then we went to war – cyber war with Misha Glenny, journalist, Ben McIntyre and historian, Margaret McMillan. Here I discovered that the world is not as it seems. We are all infested with viruses, lurking, trawling through the Internet of Things, waiting to be unleashed by the dark, hidden and hooded figures of the Chinese red army, the Russian mafia, the CIA and Mossad. I had a vision of all the hoovers in Europe, leaping into action, hoses sucking and snorting, battling to retain a semblance of dignity as they cavort uncontrollably around our homes. The thought of such mayhem, chaos being at the finger tips of armies is alarming. I wished I could do something, but what? One really feels quite inadequate. What I need is Mary Poppins and her finger clicking abilities, I thought to myself.

What I got, however, was young Raoul Martinez saying (in a six-hundred-page book) that what we need to put the world to rights is empathy. It seems he had a moment of eureka and enlightenment as a teenager, when he realised that we are all merely products of our own up-bringing and that if there was more empathy in the world, there would be more freedom.
What shocked me was that he seemed to think that ‘responsibility’ needed by people was to self, not to society. It was the responsibility of the individual to hoick oneself up by the bootstraps and therefore we needed empathy, to appreciate his background. I was impressed with Michael Harding who was gentle in his attempt to probe Raoul as how this empathetic approach might work. If I’d had the chance, I would have asked Raoul two questions. I) Had he now succeeded in throwing off his own male, middle class, educated identity? 2) To describe the exact ‘freedom’ that his empathy had achieved for the people less well off than himself.

Brimming with knowledgeable irritation, which is always a satisfying feeling, I went to listen to Elizabeth Strout and was instantly calmed by her relaxed manner. Her philosophy (of which I approve) is that books make us feel less lonely, enable us to reflect, and allow us to share our lives. I loved her book, Lucy Barton which is about a relationship between a mother and a daughter, a daughter who was raised in poverty but who escaped its ravaging claws. I was struck by her comment that every sentence she writes is the most truthful sentence she can write. Even fiction must be told with truth.

And poetry. I was as happy as a pig in shit to hear Billy Collins read next. I love how he distils the truth. I felt like I was wallowing in pleasure. I adore his humour, his simplicity. He told us that it was important to listen to the poem being written, and I was very pleased to know exactly what he meant. I do listen to my poems, that’s why mine take so long to emerge because they keep changing their minds and telling me different things!

I have never been star struck before, never drooled over actors, or musicians but I made a holy show of myself asking for Billy Collins signature.
“You are my top favourite poet, I think I am going blub.”
I honestly felt close to tears. He regarded me with a straight look, saying nothing. The man queuing behind intervened and suggested that instead of crying, it might be better to have my photo taken with Billy. So, I did.

Now, meeting Billy was traumatic, so I grabbed a glass of red to recover and went to the Chapel to hear what Alan Hollinghurst and Philip Hensher had to say. I like Alan Hollinghurst’s books but I don’t adore them. They are very English, male and literary and not surprisingly, so is he. I left and decided to eat something. As I walked, munching on a delicious Korean Burrito, I got snaffled up by a happy, drunken American woman who insisted on dragging me for a cigarette “to the toilets” and then proceeded to get us thrown out of the White Garden (next to the toilets) for being too loud while she was telling me about the Airbnb she was going to set up in the house she was going to build in Borris. After that, I decided to call it a day.

That night, Steph and I had a picnic supper, a bottle of wine, and sat outside next in Graiguenamanagh, next to the tractor, under the stars and read poems but I was literary exhausted and we soon retired to bed. When I awoke at 6am, I headed out for my morning constitutional.

Graiguenamanagh is a well-kept Carlow/Kilkenny secret. It is crowded with five-foot concrete monks holding sheaves of corn, books, or pens. The monks await you on the tow path, the street corners, in the woodland walks. They are all made in China. Apparently, for three thousand quid, you can order one to be made with your facial features. The beautiful stone, five arched, bridge in the dip of the town is an architectural joy. Through the arches you can see the delights of summer reflected in the clear, golden water of the Burrow River: Boys diving, headlong, and flipping from traditional bouncing diving boards, canoes readying themselves for the day ahead. It was like a scene from an Enid Blyton book

Sunday morning, we went to breakfast with Claudia Roden and Darina
Allen. From her own account, Claudia Roden was hand reared in in Egypt in an minestrone soup of nationality (they were Arabic Jews from Turkey with a strong French influence). As a child, the food she ate was sutfadi (which has a strong Spanish Moor influence) and Italian, as her nannies were Slovenian. She went to finishing school in Paris, (btw, I think I am finally ready for finishing school), and then on to art school in London. During the Suez Crisis, her extensive family was forced to leave Egypt (as indeed were my parents who were working for UNESCO at the time) and they all descended on her in London where she gathered thousands of exiled recipes, full of love and farewells before they scattered the earth. Darina’s story was simpler: lots of porridge, gooseberries, roast chicken, and butter making.

Sutfadi would have been food to die for in California’s correctional centres where both life and death have bleak outlooks in the American justice system. Rachel Kushner was clear and concise. She described an up-bringing trimmed with crime and chaos in ‘Sunset’ as she knocked around with kids from a background of poverty and deprivation, destined for a life of police and imprisonment. Herself, a child of well educated, strong, engaged Beatnik parents, “my destiny was different”.

To write the book, Rachel immersed herself in the prison system in a different way – she succeeded in becoming a part of a ten day interactive tour of California’s prisons for future correctional centre staff, and she has many incarcerated friends, one of whom is serving two consecutive life sentences. In her talk, she described the strong oily, floral smell of cell block 64, the cleaning solution used in the penal institutions, the garden grown from seeds in the bird droppings gathered by one woman prisoner, the friendships, the ice cream sandwiches shared by women through the toilet system, the smell of the testosterone of 4,000 men. She talked of the ‘ecology of suffering’ and the ‘treacherous moral landscape’. The book, The Mars Room, is a homage to the people Rachel grew up with.

Rachel’s talk may have contributed to the tears gathering and wiped from my eyes with hurried embarrassment as Michael Longley read his poems. Indeed, he struggled himself to get through one poem, a recent one he wrote for Seamus Heaney, but as he said, ‘if we are not moved by our own poetry, how will others be?’ Michael Longley has an exquisite dexterity and can pluck and play with words that wallow in the back waters of the dictionary. He finds leverets, fire seeds, sand pipers, warblers. He claims, “syntax is the bones of a poem”. Maybe, but words are his bloodstream.

Finally, I laid out in the sunshine with Cillian Murphy, stretched out. I listened to him, Max Porter and Enda Wyley discussing grief, crows, fathers, sons. My eyes closed while their still boyish laughter ricocheted through the open ball room French windows, across the green grass and out into the meadows. I smiled at the thrill of their happiness and breathed a sigh of contentment.

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Do What You are Told – Rebel!

Do what you’re told, Rebel! said Bernard McClafferty, describing a line of graffiti in Belfast back in the day when he was at the Cuirt festival last week. I think it was one of my favourite lines of Cuirt because it captured both the loss of independence and the silent wit that exists in the pages of Irish literature. Interestingly, it was a theme picked up by other Cuirt performers. Declan Kiberd, earlier that day, had suggested that Irish literature was an early warning system. Keats, Edna O’Brien, Beckett, Heaney, Friel, McGahern, Boland all flagged the future social issues of Ireland in their writing and the loss of Irish sovereignty through colonialism, religion, emigration, market forces and, more recently, austerity. Kiberd also discussed the demise and ‘privatisation’ of Irish public spaces. He cited the disappearance of the Irish pub scene, particularly in rural Ireland and suggested that we learn how to use public spaces from other countries to enhance and expand our culture, culture being a stake of revolutionary struggle and space being essential to a shared voice.

Bernard MacLaverty re-iterated this later when he talked about the importance of detail in writing. He said the more local you are, the more universal it becomes. Like the Irish Pub which, ironically, while closing, also went global. This link between local and universal, public space and literature struck me again while listening and reading the poems of Imtiaz Dharker who was born in Pakistan but lived in Glasgow, India and now London. Yes, I thought, the sharing of culture, in a public space provides backbone and energy to society. Exchanging culture is a way of understanding and talking to each other. Yet, so often, all we get to read and or see is the graffiti in the wall, graffiti which says ‘Do what you’re told… Rebel.’

However, it must be said, graffiti can work. Everyone loves Banksy. Graffiti can sum up effectively in one sentence what some essayists can take twenty pages to say. Generally, I like reading essays, if they are pertinent, and have a point. I think Montaigne was one of the best essayists. Interestingly, he wasn’t mentioned at the Essays and Ideas event at Cuirt. I’m not sure that essays work when they are read aloud. I find it hard to focus on the thread, if I have understood it in the first place, and I can find myself disappearing up the writer’s back passage, along with them.

Bernard MacLaverty also said he thought that short stories are a place of loneliness while the novel is a public place. For me, that feels right. We each need our place of loneliness, but we also need those public spaces to share our voices. So, I think I’ll finish this with a poem by Imtiaz Dharker, the treasure I unearthed from Cuirt, because I love the magic of poetry and this poem, I think, captures succinctly what I am trying to say in this blog (it is not an essay). And, I like its title because it refers back to my own collection of poetry, Threads, which I published last week just before going to Cuirt.

This Line, That Thread

Draw a line from finger to heart
Draw the water from well to mouth
Place a mark where the words were said
Map the distance from North to South.

Take it apart and start again.

Look out of the window at your neighbour.
Look in the mirror at your own face.
Breath on the glass to blur the border,
Watch it become an unowned space.

Wipe it away and begin again.

Hold the end of a single thread,
Loop it to others, weave it to lace.
Spread it out to see if the holes
Are an imperfection or a kind of grace

With their open heart, their otherness. (Taken from Luck is the Hook).

I had a fabulous few days at Cuirt. Our use of ‘public space’ may be being privatised but Ireland is a wonderful country for literary festivals, and these are very important public spaces to share ideas. I now can’t wait for the Borris Festival of Writing at the start of June. Photos are Imtiaz Dharker, Declan Kiberd, and Bernard MacLaverty

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