Listowel Writers’ Week, the country’s oldest literary and arts festival, was due to run from 27-31 May but was cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. This very popular festival draws a huge crowd every year and is one of the most friendly and sociable events on the Irish calendar. J. Anthony Gaughan reflects on Writers’ Week on the occasion of what should have been its Golden Jubilee.
Like other aspiring writers I found attendance at Writers’ Week helpful in a variety of ways. It provides opportunities to seek the advice of well-known authors and share experiences with others who are attempting to have work published.
And, apart from the opportunity to converse with the rest of those involved in the book trade – printers, book-designers, authors’ agents, librarians, book-reviewers and book-sellers – one meets in congenial circumstances influential columnists and journalists.
Writers’ Week was first held in 1971. Séamus Wilmot and Tim Danaher are generally given the chief credit for its establishment. Both were natives of Listowel and they were well placed to muster support for a literary festival. While Séamus was registrar of the National University of Ireland and a director of the Abbey Theatre, Tim was attached to the radio drama department of RTÉ.
Séamus had attended the Yeats Summer School in Sligo on a few occasions and after hearing Tim’s long-playing record A gift of ink, which celebrated the work of writers from Listowel and its vicinity, suggested that a similar festival be held in his native town.
They drafted a list of proposals for a festival of the arts and circulated it to members of the Kerrymen’s Association in Dublin and to prominent people in Kerry. Among the latter was the secretary of Listowel Race Week Harvest Festival Committee, Nora Relihan, who at that time was thinking along the same lines.
Séamus and Tim addressed an enthusiastic meeting in Listowel on the subject in November 1970. Among those present were: John B Keane, Bryan MacMahon, Luaí Ó Murchú, Michael O’Connor and Nora Relihan. A local committee was formed, with Luaí Ó Murchú as chairman, to further the project.
In the meantime Séamus Wilmot had asked me to call on him. He told me that he had read Doneraile, a local history of North Cork, which I had just published. He told me that he enjoyed it but that I should focus my attention on my own area, as there were very few places in the country as fascinating as North Kerry.
Then he told me that he and Tim Danaher planned to establish a literary festival in Listowel and that he and Tim were keen that it would have a local history constituent. At his request I agreed to provide this and in the early years with Frs Kieran O’Shea and John Jackie McKenna we lectured on various aspects of the history and culture of North Kerry. The local history lecture eventually morphed into the ‘Historical Tour’ which I and Michael Barry subsequently conducted each year.