"...stories birling through my mind..."
A literary journey
"...stories birling through my mind..."
The John Hewitt Society International Summer School
Here I am in Armagh, in voluntarily exile with nothing but a suitcase and a notebook, assigned to a dorm, a world away from my job, my husband, my children, my king-sized bed and all my inhibited freedoms.
I think of my responsibilities from time to time. They roll through my mind at the speed of steel bowls as I meander through the narrow streets, and they clock against my ears like wood on leather as I pass the cricket pitch on the Mall, but the itinerary is tight, the talks and entertainment uplifting, the friends giddy, and so, I walk each day in selfish sandals in the heat of a rare Ulster summer to the Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre in Armagh.
I could write about all the talks I’ve attended and all the people I’ve met, but the reader would see only a blur of names and not the essence of the John Hewitt experience: the wonder of first-time writers, the humour of those who ‘dabble in silly rhymes’, the swagger of outspoken critical thinkers, the idiosyncrasies of spacey poets who talk of other dimensions and the calm aura of the odd bestselling novelist who had no intention of ever becoming a writer at all.
Whilst the talks, readings and conversations are enthralling, some of the most meaningful exchanges occur in surrounding cafes, where tips are given freely and friendships blossom. I studied French at university and always wondered if I’d ever find my Rive Gauche. I didn’t expect to find it in Armagh.
I befriend a local writer called Byddi Lee, a fellow member of Women Aloud and author of ‘March to November.’ Her gorgeous Goldilocks curls come bouncing into my life as she utters a sentence that fills me with hope and fear in equal measures: ‘I’m reading Snugville Street.’ I laugh and assure Byddi that my novel about a French exchange set between Belfast and Paimpol is mostly fiction.
Byddi Lee points to her childhood home on the market place and gives me an insight into her upbringing, a precious window into the soul of a city. You see, Byddi Lee and me, we are as two Cathedrals, raised on opposing plinths of old battle lines.
I take a moment to read a short story Byddi has written at the John Hewitt School. It’s an unexpected yet beautiful piece based on the train crash of 1889, a tragedy intrinsic to the narrative of this city. Later, I walk to the statue of the little girl with the bucket and spade on the Mall and run my hands across the etchings of 80 names of children and parents who died on a Sunday school outing. My heart stows away a small piece of Armagh.
Identity is at the core of the John Hewitt International Summer School, a writing conference dedicated to the memory of an Ulster poet who, like me, felt Irish, British, and European. In this city of saints and scholars, identity sweeps unassumingly though place names like Scotch Street, Irish Street and English Street, and is bound up in the bricks and mortar of two odes to the patron saint of Ireland.
Complexity and simplicity are words that I hear uttered by speakers time and again. In passing, a former politician mentions the Irish language as a discrimination issue alive in Northern Ireland today. The subject is close to home for me. A year ago, I set up an Irish class in Larne. Like Hannah in Snugville Street, I always thought it was strange that I didn’t get to learn Irish when German, French and Spanish were all mine. Today, the class takes place in the Methodist church and is made up of Catholics, Protestants and non-believers who subscribe to the words, ‘Love thy neighbour.’
As I converse with fellow writers, they are curious to hear about the Protestants learning Irish in Larne, and when I tell them about the history book I’ve written on the tens of thousands of Protestants who have Irish danced in Orange halls and Parochial halls since the 1920s alongside their Catholic friends, there is surprise.
None of us intends to talk about religion or identity during our time at the John Hewitt International Summer School, but we do, accidentally, and respectfully, in small groups; sometimes with the demeanour of 1930s Parisian existentialists, but mostly with the laughter of women let loose as school girls during a recess from living.
I have a notebook filled with highlights and quotes from the speakers throughout the week, but, like a novelist who knows when to stop referring to her research and to stick to the plot, I’ll end by saying thank you to all the volunteers at the John Hewitt International Summer School for providing a forum for thought, community and writing, and to the Community Relations Council for the bursary that allowed me to attend.
Au revoir Armagh, my Rive Gauche, my Paris, my friend.
Angeline King is the author of:
"An enjoyable coming-of-age tale with a Belfast twist" (The Irish Times)
Click here to buy
A Belfast Tale
“Uniquely, authentically and enjoyably Belfast" (Tony Macaulay, author of Paperboy.)
Click here to buy.
Children of Latharna
Lyrical and nostalgic; wistful and humorous, Ian Andrew, author.
Click here to start reading.
Irish Dancing: The festival story
A history of dancing in Ulster with a focus on the festival tradition of Irish Dancing.
Scene from Snugville Street
The Wedding Wisp
82 Waterloo Road
The Teacher Voice
The Children of Latharna
The Band Stick
The Bully up the Brae
History & folklore
Language Blog I
Language Blog II
Language Blog III
Language Blog IV
The linguist behind Ulster Scots.
Kailyard & Dusty Bluebells
Jean Park of Ballygally
Fiddles and Melodeons
Martha Taylor's diary
Jean McCullagh at 104
Ballymena & the McConnells
Arms in Irish Dancing
Catholics & Protestants in Irish dancing
Irish Dancing: The Festival Story
The Protestant in Irish Fiction.
The Protestant in Irish fiction II
Ulster-Scots in Irish Fiction
An author in Wonderland
Dancing in Victorian Ulster
Learning the Irish Language.
John Hewitt Summer School
Lesley Allen & Helen Nicholl