Bantry Bay as seen from Bantry House
The only genre is quality.
-Sarah Davis Goff
Bantry Bookshop, 18.7.19
In April 2016 I finished my classroom coursework for a Masters in Creative Writing from University College Cork and began on my first summer in Ireland.
Not my first abroad, but that is a story for another time.
In those months I had two assignments to complete before fulfilling my graduation requirements: a thesis due at the end of September and a placement, or internship, within the writing industry.
The thesis was completed. From a lofty three years later I can say that some of the poetry holds up, much of the memoir does not. It exists digitally, filed away on an external harddrive that I rarely open, a cadaver text that I might dissect for parts but will never resurrect in full.
But my placement…
Can I tell you about my week?
Can I tell you about how I still haven’t completed my placement?
They’re writing a “book”
-The Aislings, on their mums opinions of their work.
The Maritime Hotel, 13.7.19
My book haul from this year’s festival, a mixture of featured authors and others that I’m just really excited about! See full list at end of post.
I have now spent a full month at my placement. Four weeks at Bantry, a scrap of townness on the rocky hills where the east Atlantic kisses the west coast of Cork. Four weeks across four years volunteering with the annual literary festival hosted in this town that gets colonized by festival goers three times every summer.
Two of those festivals are for the musical and the appreciators of the musical. Chamber music early in July, traditional Irish music in late August, and sandwiched between them is the West Cork Literary Festival where I spend my third week in July as a ‘guest liaison’, welcoming authors, moving chairs, monitoring autograph lines, and fetching as many gallons of gin and tonic as the festivities demand.
The literary festival is an outgrowth of one of the music festivals, I forget which one, and most people forget precisely which year they split from each other. All I know is that in the ‘90s, the music fest included a poetry reading or somesuch, and then the next year there were two readings, and then the events stacked up to the point that an entire week of readings, interviews, writing workshops, and masterclasses for all ages could be organized. And so they were. And so they have been reoccurring annually for over two decades now.
It is fitting, that a literary festival grew out of a celebration of music. The literary arts and the musical have always paired well in my mind. Even as I write this, Ludovico Einaudi’s Day Five is tonight’s background music, the latest album from one of the 21st century’s greatest composers.
Some authors can write into the silence, some go out of their way to do so.
I have never been able to fill that void without help.
The whole earth is populated by an enormous “we” and we need to get over it.
-Sebastian Barry, paraphrased
The Maritime Hotel, 15.7.19
After completing my placement in 2016, I returned home. Three months in Texas, while I submitted a proposal for a PhD, caught up with my American friends, and volunteered to transcribe and archive 19th century letters for the local museum system.
In January 2017, I was back in Ireland.
Sometime shortly thereafter, I ran into my boss from the festival, asked if I could come back again that July as a volunteer, and have returned to the coast and the festival and the electric atmosphere it brings every summer since.
No year has been bad, but each successive year has been better.
Photo of a photo from the Irish Examiner, 19 July 2019
The authors and poets and editors and interviewers who come to Bantry, the kind of people who gravitate towards west Cork, are special. There’s a history of the area attracting artist and writerly types, the locals have a habit of being proud of their beautiful home, and the festival itself has a history of attracting the best of the Irish literati and beyond.
I’m not an optimist, I’m a prisoner of hope
Quoted by President Mary Robinson, the Maritime Hotel, 12.7.19
This year we opened with President Mary Robinson, speaking beautifully about climate change and hope and a fight that we’re all engaged in whether we want it or not. The week progressed with a sundrenched visit to Whiddy Island across the bay, two Catherines on crime, a book of essays that continues to crack my heart open, readings and a talk about thoroughly Irish sport that even a Texas blow-in could get behind, multiple events with Canadian imports that we got on loan from the Ottawa International Writers Festival, a dazzling evening of poetry on motherhood, a night with the local celebrity, a crystalline swim in the mussel-filtered waters of Bantry Bay, and so, so much more.
The mussel farms and Bantry Bay from as seen from Whiddy Island
Last year a friend told me that there was some controversy in the writing community about representation at festivals like this. That there are women writers boycotting festivals that don’t maintain a full 50/50 split between the genders, an answer that to me does not seem to solve the problem.
So here I’d like to mention the women.
I have not done the exact tally, but a quick flip through this year’s brochure shows a fairly even ratio, men to women guest writers. Moreover, this is a festival primarily organized and staffed by women.
When a woman on Thursday asked who my boss was so that she could tell him how rude I was being, I had the satisfaction of telling the patron that she, my boss, was as busy with crowd control as I and probably not in the mood to listen to how the help was doing exactly as instructed.
When I looked through the program at the start of the week and saw that two of our headline evening events centered on womanhood and motherhood, it was not shocking. It was not a radical departure from my memories of past festivals. It was a pair of natural groupings, evenings celebrating absolutely rapturous writing and well attended by men and women alike.
May I continue to be, as Mary Robinson quoted to us the very first night of this year’s festival, a prisoner of optimism. May my writing, if not my spoken words, stay sweet when it can.
And may the generations coming live to see such optimism rewarded.
One of our writers early this week claimed that he had decided to savor the earth’s sunset, rather than continuing to try to save it. Beautiful wording, but a sentiment I cannot condone.
I’m not ready to concede that battle.
Places like Bantry and weeks like the West Cork Literary Festival are what make our earth worth saving. There are good people and beautiful minds out there putting their pens to pages and shoulders to the wheel, enriching the earth in the process.
The world is getting better.
Gender equality, in representation and rights, will arrive. People younger than me are already more active in saving our planet, than I ever will be.
Women are not finding their voices, we’ve always known where our vocal cords sit, but they are stretching them thoroughly. Speaking up for medical autonomy, and against the perfection we’ve been told to strive for, and for the protection of an earth worth saving.
The mussel farms in Bantry Bay will continue to ensure that the water there is some of the cleanest on the Irish coast, and I will continue to enjoy at least one dip in that aching water in the third week of July so long as I live here.
And possibly even after I cease to live here, because let’s be honest, as long as I’ve got the money for a flight to Ireland, I will take a flight to Ireland.
So that was my week.
One of the best weeks of my year.
Utterly, brutally optimistic.
My 2019 Book List:
The First Sunday in September (novel): Tadhg Coakly
Lanny (novel): Max Porter
Frankisstein (novel): Jeanette Winterson
A Keeper (novel): Graham Norton
Constellations (essay collection): Sinead Gleeson
The Well Review Issue 3 (literary magazine): ed. Sarah Byrne
The Republic of Motherhood (poetry): Liz Berry
The Quick (poetry): Jessica Traynor
Let Loose the Night (poetry): Beau Williams