It sounds very gauche to say that this was my first solo holiday, especially in a time where everyone seems to be heading off to India or Bali to discover themselves. But there you have it: ‘twas just I, my trusty fiesta, a 2-litre of water and a hastily scribbled set of directions. It would be great to paint a Hollywood-style picture by saying the rooftop was down, the stereo blaring and a Grace Kelly style scarf was wrapped o’er my golden tresses. But alas the reality was different. An immoveable roof, exasperatingly awkward roll-up windows and dodgy radio signal meant that good auld Radio nEireann provided the soundtrack to my journey. More easy listening tunes than rebellious road-warrior rock anthems.
And all went well – to a point. I had successfully navigated my way to the outskirts of Listowel for the 2009 Writers Week but was faltering at the last hurdle (actually it was the sight of a Lidl that threw me. My misty-eyed image of Listowel didn’t allow for the presence of a German discount store). So pulling up alongside one of the locals I asked if I was close. He looked at me and laconically pointed across the road at a sign clearly stating ‘Listowel Town Centre 1 mile’.
“Well you’d be headed the right way all right”.
His mirth would have been imperceptible to the average tourist but, native-to-native, I knew he’d be telling this one over a few pints later.
It was opening night, and along with the masses, I ended up at John B Keane’s pub. Jammed with writers, poets, comedians, teachers and actors it was the essence of Writers’ Week distilled into one tavern. At this stage, everyone had had their “Gabriel Byrne moment”, be it at the bar or walking through the Square. If not with Mr. Byrne then it was with one of the other luminaries in town. Eager to have my moment, I was delighted to learn that Colm Tóibín was in the bar. I would be coming face to face with literary greatness. If anything it would be a fantastic story to tell in later life. Unfortunately it didn’t quite pan out that way. The reality was a cringe-fest of the highest order; a car crash moment that took some bolstering to get over.
“You’re Colm Tóibín!”
His intense brown eyes fixed upon the source of the squeal (me) and deadpan as ever he replied: “Yes, I am.”
All bravado diminished (because let’s face it where do you go from here?) I meekly retorted: “That’s great.” The gang’s laughter mingled with his as he disappeared into the crowd. Not the impression I’d hoped to make. Nor did I have a hope of redressing this impression. My embarrassment ensured that I spent the week avoiding Mr. Tóibín, the festival’s president.
The Listowel Arms was the other nucleus of this literary microcosm. It had it all; lone mysterious diners, the token “Yank” at the bar guffawing amid well-known faces and an endless stream of literary-hungry visitors. Interaction here was wholly encouraged, none of your “sorry do you mind? I’d like to be by myself thanks”. No such thing as silent contemplation. It was more like “move over there love, cheers”. And whether writing a crime novel, a thriller or a love story, this place had it all.
Take the Opera Singer for example. William was a mature Kerry Casanova – on the verge of being cheeky but just managing to stay on the right side of appropriate. I don’t think he actually set out to sing operatically but by God did he have a set of lungs on him. He turned Danny Boy into a symphony; an Italian-style roof-raiser worthy of any Pavarotti. Closing your eyes, you could imagine him mesmerising a crowd in some olive-drenched Italian courtyard, silk cravat loosely knotted at the neck and gesturing hands drawing spectators closer. Granted it worked well for a tune or two but unfortunately he didn’t know the one that’s one too many and would warble into the wee hours, his enthusiasm long outliving his lung capacity.
Then there was Frankie and Terry – two brothers from Cork. Frankie was a comedian, his notebook lodged precariously beneath an impressive Guinness-nurtured girth. He would whip it out to jot down any witticisms he heard throughout the course of the evening. Terry however was a different case– more odd than funny – he sloped around in the wake of his brother. You’d usually hear him before you saw him as his way of initiating conversation was to sidle up to you and whisper “was that you I saw eating pizza on Church Street at 3pm today just before you headed over to the Square?” Thankfully the constant stream of people allowed for a speedy escape from his creepy clutches.
Another evening took us from a rowdy singsong out the back of John B’s to a local family’s house. We nicknamed them the Von Trapps. Paddy, the Dad, was affectionately known as ‘iPad’ on account of his encyclopaedic knowledge of Irish tunes. He led the chant from the Fields of Athenry via Towns we loved so well to a fair city or two. The other Von Trapps were equally as harmonious, following his lead through an impressive song list. His son Jim was like a walking orchestra -musical strings and keys sprouting from his every limb: half man, half instrument. He played banjo, mouth accordion and the spoons simultaneously.
Looking back, all the nights in Listowel merge magnificently into one glorious cacophony of banter, song, chat and storytelling. To me it represented all that is good about Ireland; the simple and friendly acceptance of the “blow-ins”. It didn’t matter what you did professionally –your contribution stemmed from your ability to hold a tune, stand your round or have an opinion. And with such colourful characters, lively chat and raucous singing you’d think you were in at an outdoor music festival or a national holiday.
But back in reality, and chuckling to myself, it all makes sense. Hitherto blank pages have met an invigorated pen. So here’s to next year…
……and hopefully a more fruitful conversation with Mr Tóibín