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Our City’s Inheritance: Joseph OConnor at the United Arts Club

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Rioghnach Ni Ghrioghair reports on Irish PENs fabulous night with international best seller Joseph O’Connor.

We don’t realise how much we have inherited through the decades. This is a thought I had leaving Joseph O’Connor’s talk for Irish PEN at The United Arts Club. He had recited three sections from his book Ghost Light, which won UNESCO’s “One City, One Book” award and explores the relationship between Synge and Molly Allgood. He followed up with some questions regarding writing technique and advice.

In the heart of Georgian Dublin, The United Arts Club was a wonderful location for such a reading. Joe read to a group of writers and literary buffs. It was hard for those there not to be captivated by his depiction of a 19th Century romance in Dublin, how he accurately and passionately described Kingstown, Sackville Street, The Abbey and all the wonderful and legendary people that had walked around and worked among this city. It’s an incredibly lyrical book about the time and the romance of both that between Synge and Allgood and of living in Dublin in a rich literary and cultural time.

The writers in the room addressed the subject of his process, his techniques and how he feels about writing, his writing. He pointed out that John McGahern had once said that writing is not a style, a knowledge or manipulation of language but simply a way of seeing things, that if you can articulate the world in the way you see it then that is what you need to be writer. He beautifully compared the process of entering a world he is writing as “the gods allowing” him see these characters and these worlds floating above in the stratospheres and being able to “reach up through the clouds” and carry their stories back to earth. He stated also that writing is and always will be the “search for empathy.” I related to the feeling of trying to be a person that can astutely identify and articulate a world and giving a reader access to that world. That is what we writers will always try to do, provide the world with an empathy for characters and existences that only you can see, like we are fundamentally special and gifted indivudally for being able to see them.

I’m an avid structuralist so stream of consciousness or descriptive writing doesn’t appeal to me by nature but the book is a very shrewdly woven tale that represents the “texture” that Joe described in his work. Chapters in the book are written from point of view of different characters with a chapter is written in a play format. This adds to what he expressed as a text “arguing with itself” in order to create a heavily textural and visceral feel to the work.

After the talk, I felt compelled to take the long walk home through Georgian Dublin and eventually wandering into the city centre itself. What I didn’t realise is that I need reminding as to the reason why I am living in Dublin, struggling post-college and umemployed yet trying to make it as a writer. There is a distinct reason that I haven’t joined the mass exodus to find work in the arts abroad like many of my fellow graduates. Ghost Light and Joe’s talk made clear to me that I was living in a city that had inherited so much culture and a past of literary greats. For all its present faults and economic struggle, Dublin still echoes the works of the ghosts of these writing titans. The book presented me with a different interpretation of Dublin, of one of a city alive with romance, culture and a heritage to be proud of.

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