There is something in the air in Listowel. For me, it was the smell of wild garlic and the way the leaves hanging over the River Feale caught the light.
The tiny town located in Ireland’s South-West has a population of under 5000. But it has produced John B Keane, Brendan Kennelly, Bryan MacMahon and a host of other women and men of literary as well as musical note. The writers’ festival was a glorious excuse for a reunion with two schoolfriends.
On the first morning, we took a walking tour. Our guide – a spirited and brilliant man of advanced age (the son, incidentally of the late Bryan MacMahon) – brought us to the Garden of Europe. The grounds, dating back to 1995, feature a monument to John B Keane, as well as Ireland’s only Holocaust memorial.
Gesturing to the impeccably-kept lawns behind him, the guide said: “This used to be a dump. A place you’d come to shoot rats.”
It didn’t matter if it was true or not. It was about the twinkle in his eye and the implication that the town had stayed humble.
The line between fact and fiction is appropriately slippery in Listowel, where the truth lies between the lines. Perhaps this is the reason that so many of the writers who came said it was their favorite literary festival, by far.
Or perhaps they like it so much because it is a place where they are allowed to exalt the ordinary. During a tea party hosted by none other than Colm Tóibín, he described a conversation he had recently overheard between an older person and a staff member in a Vodafone store.
“Now, I don’t want to send texts. But I want to receive them. Now, if I just turn it off, it can’t do anything, can it? It won’t ring, will it?” The utter terror of technology, Tóibín said. He wants to put it in a story.
For me, the days in Listowel were characterized not by terror but by awe. There was the surreal moment at a panel discussion when I recognized the shape of Margaret Drabble’s head in front of me. Later she turned around, and the man beside her (my former English teacher, who would be interviewing her later) introduced us. “I taught them very little,” he said, typically self-effacing. “Well you instilled a love of reading if they’re here,” she said, not missing a beat.
I sat beside the extraordinary artist Pauline Bewick during another event. She had a notebook open on her lap, full of striking, colorful sketches. Beside her was her daughter Poppy, herself an artist who, unlike her mother, works slowly and produces work that is startlingly life-like. They were a beautiful pair, gazelle-like, other-worldly and unassuming despite their huge success. I told Pauline about how our English teacher had inspired us to love literature. “You know that leaves me with a lump in my throat,” she said. “It really does.”
Another highlight was the poet Colette Bryce, who – to my shame – I’d never heard of. A Derry-born wordsmith, there was something about the gentle strength with which she read that lured me in. I bought her selected poems and was giddily excited when she looked up after signing it and said in a Northern lilt: “Thanks for coming, Kate.”
Edna O’Brien, of course packed the room out. I couldn’t even see her from where I was sitting. But I could hear her distinctive voice, and felt its warmth. “Enchantment is the novel’s most important quality,” she said. “It’s what matters most.” A literary titan whose work Ireland once banned, she would know.
On our last night, we went to see Forgotten, a one-man show written and sublimely performed by Pat Kinevane. It took place in St Johns, a church on the town’s main square converted into a theatre.
My friend, himself a playwright, was seeing it for the second time. It was an intense, exhausting, brilliant performance. When it was over and we filed out of the church, the sun had gone down and the last of the light stretched across the sky.
I noticed my friend had a certain glow about him; a kind of exaltation was written across his face. “This is what good theatre can do,” he said as we waited for the 11 o’clock bus back to Killarney. “It’s what Edna O’Brien was taking about,” he said. “A piece of art can enchant.”