John O'Connor writing school showcased at Armagh taster festival

Participants at the launch of the upcoming John O'Connor Writing School in Armagh's Charlemont Arms Hotel
Jane Hardy

ANYBODY who has been to one of the top literary festivals knows what the appeal is. It’s about linking up with other writers and wannabes, sharing ideas and the informal gatherings, often at or near the bar. In short, it’s about being in a community of people who unembarrassedly like writing, words, ideas.

The recent launch of the third John O’Connor Writing School & Literary Arts Festival at the Charlemont Hotel in Armagh provided exactly that buzz. Cleverly showcasing the event via a taster festival, the line-up of speakers revealed the treats to come in November.

There were some big beasts at the lectern. Novelist David Park noted the “robust physicality” of O’Connor’s writing about landscape, and rain. In fact, a famous quote from his great 1948 novel Come Day Go Day about the drumming of water was so good, as Park joked, we got it twice.

Playwright Nuala McKeever talked about how Zen Buddhism had eased her grief after the loss of a partner, her topic in the performance piece Laugh after Death. Performance poet David Braziel delivered a superb First World War poem about his granny and her soldier husband.

Nisha Tandon, of Arts Ekta, spoke movingly about the power of literature to heal division and will be introducing one of India’s greatest writers, Namita Gokhale. Gokhale, who has written of the British colonial legacy, is talking about Things to Leave Behind.

Alongside festival events like the reading by Roger McGough from his new collection As Far As I Know, there is the Writing School for those who want to pick up that Biro and join in. We had a spunky account of theatre and what it can do from Brenda Winter Palmer, playwriting tutor. Screenwriting tutor Christine Morrow spoke about the need for technical skills. Everyone recommended the session on How to get Published – Write Now with Alexandra Pringle from Bloomsbury on the panel.

There will be sessions with The Observer’s literary editor and writer Robert McCrum and ex-Faber editor Joanna Mackle. Patron Paul Muldoon, an Armagh man, hosts a evening literary and musical picnic with Horslips providing the music. It doesn’t get much better.

Damian Smyth, of chief sponsor the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, addressed the tough issue of funding but was passionate about the importance of literary festivals.

Cathy McCullough, John O’Connor’s niece, who started the festival to honour her uncle’s work and its Armagh roots, talked of the hard work. Yet the rewards are clear and the festival has a knock-on effect, with creative writing groups running through the year.

:: The John O'Connor Festival and Writing School, November 1-4. Book tickets or places on the writing courses at or tel 028 3752 1800.

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