I sat stock-still in the darkness of the Abbey Lane Theatre, my skin prickling with goosebumps, my heart bursting with sympathy for Bellina Prior (21) the woman otherwise known in Armagh as the Green Lady who had killed little Anne Slavin (4). It was a surprising reaction, but such was the impact of Armagh writer and actor Karl O Neill‘s play, Bellina and the Softening of The Stones, magically brought to life by wonderful actors Maggie Cronin and Brenda Winter-Palmer.
This was the first of many moments where my emotions were pummeled during the course of the John O’Connor Writing School and Literary Arts Festival 2017.
The programme was ingenious – 5 concurring schools would run in the mornings (Friday through to Sunday) covering poetry, playwriting, songwriting, fiction and screenwriting. In the afternoon and evening, students, artists, tutors and members of the public could mingle as they attend the panel talks and live performances. The intimate settings such as the gracious Charlemont Arms Hotel, the Amma Centre, the Robinson Library, the Planetarium, Abbey Lane theatre (to mention but a few) brought me shoulder-to-shoulder with other writers and artists. Some were musicians I had only ever dreamed of seeing play live, never mind actually conversing with!
After Bellina and the Softening of the Stones that first evening, everyone gathered at the Charlemont. I had to pinch myself to check I wasn’t dreaming as I sat around a table with Maggie Cronin, Karl O Neil, Barry Devlin and Jim Lockhart from Horslips (The actual Horslips – OMG!)
Karl and I discovered a connection through family and friendship – my father and his sister had taught together. Karl patiently answered my questions about the play and how he’d come to research and write it – questions I’m sure he has answered a thousand times. Maggie had enjoyed the craic, I think, as we’d walked from the theatre to the Charlemont (I was volunteering at the event and had been ‘on the door.’) I had dared her to walk down Vicars Hill in her costume that night. Barry and Jim, I’m sure, were just being polite – probably wondering who the hell I was!
We chatted about writing, story, good things to watch on the telly… all an addition for my memory folder of golden moments.
The next morning, (Friday) I attended the registration in the Robinson Library. I sat feet from the original copy of Gulliver’s Travels with Jonathan Swift’s notes handwritten in the margins. Karl O Neill arrived in and chose to sit beside me. Behind me sat the talented author Jo Baker, next to her husband Daragh Carville, a very successful screenwriter from Armagh. They greeted me warmly, epitomizing the ethos of this festival, inclusion, no borders, no boundaries – we were fellow Armachians, in this together.
After the Lord Mayor’s opening address, Lemn Sissey read a beautiful poem that brought tears to my eyes. I especially loved the following lines, that spoke to me of My Husband’s support of and faith in my writing.
If there was ever one
Who when you achieve
Was there before the dream
And even then believed;
Horslips reformed in 2009 but by then I was living in America, though I did have their CD with me. So I, for one, was thrilled to hear that Horslips would be playing in The Charlemont Hotel that evening.
I’m truly amazed at the vision, passion and sheer dedication that festival director Cathy McCullough poured into this event. It showcased the great talent that Armagh has to offer and that Armagh wants to welcome. It was a weekend that celebrated words, that celebrated the people who are guardians of those words and celebrated the connections between people across borders and across boundaries – connections interweaving like gossamer silk cocoons glistening soft and supple in the warmth of friendship and camaraderie, and which even in the cold frost of the solitariness of writing, allures us with their brittle sparkle.
Thank you, Cathy, for this amazing experience.