This weekend the Hay Festival franchise invited Kells to ‘Imagine the World’.
Ireland is still grappling to re-assert its view of itself after the economic downturn. It’s reassuring to see that after all that has been taken from the country and the country’s youth recently that art and literature is the one thing that the Irish can do and do well.
Kells was not going to be outdone when it came to hosting such a prestigious event. Don’t let the title of small town fool you. Every retailer and hotelier pooled their resources to put up one of the most varied literary festivals I’ve attended in the last few years.
Arriving at my hometown, I was interested to see how Kells would transform itself into a haven for the arts over the weekend. Beneath sunny skies, the colourful streets had embraced all that was bookish. The butchers, newsagents, coffee and tea shops all displayed books in their windows. Unused shop units had been revamped into pop-up bookshops for visitors. A wonderfully welcoming atmosphere greeted excited guests and speakers.
The festival covered subjects such as, Shakespeare’s attitude to the lovers in his writing, a showing of the acclaimed animated movie, ‘The Secret of Kells’, music and comedy genius that was so fresh it could bite, from David O’Doherty and Fred Cooke and all sat with ease among literary heavy weights like, John Banville and John Boyne, of ‘Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ fame.
One, of the talks I attended, was led by Google advisor, John Kampfner. The panel was to discuss the diminishing trust we have in the main institutions that structure our lives such as our financial institutions, the media, politicians etc. The debate veered off topic quite regularly to the subject of Irish cultural identity and the supposed decline of Irish creativity. It was an unexpected turnabout and one that invited quite a bit of discussion from the audience.
Here we were in the midst of cultural and creative endeavour and The Hay slogan of ‘Imagine the world’ beaming down at us and the panel’s concern was that we had lost our Irishness in the modes of our creative expression. The discussion surprised me greatly. As someone who has lived in the UK for over fourteen years, I believe I have a good perspective on Irish culture, a perspective that, for myself, I don’t feel I ever achieved when I was living in Ireland. I believe this short distance from my homeland has given me the ability to really ‘see’ our culture and believe me it’s there and as ‘Irish’ as ever. The spontaneous creativity and imagination that this festival has spawned in Kells should surely be evidence of that. There were art sculptures erected in the town, savvy school children sold strawberries on the street, art galleries where you could purchase anything from paintings to woodcarvings to hand-made books.
On Sunday, I listened to John Boyne speak about his new novel, This House is Haunted. The novel has the feel of a classic ghost story. I hear echoes of Dickens, Bronte and Daphne Du Maurier as I turn through each chapter and you will turn through them quickly. However, as I listened to him describe his desire to write within the constraints of the Victorian ghost story genre, I couldn’t help think of my own writing and my own desire to write a novel with that sense of spookiness. A desire that I knew stemmed from the ghost stories that I heard as a child; stories that revolved around the Irish Legends and the Sidhe.
I like to think, that an Irish writer, like John Boyne, who is writing a chilling Victorian ghost story is still channeling that sense of story that the Irish are renowned for, that our culture has not been diluted or lost when it comes to art but forever lives on in our subject matter, our creative voice and our storytelling.
Overall, a fantastic literary festival, where for the first time Kells looked through the lens of the Hay Festival and imagined the world. Well done to all the organisers, volunteers and contributors involved. I’m looking forward to next year’s already.