War Stories, Musical Sorbets, Andy Kershaw… Another Fabulous Day at Listowel Writers’ Week

Tom Clonan, Fergal Keane and Andy Kershaw
Tom Clonan, Fergal Keane and Andy Kershaw

The sun always shines on Listowel – of course! But really, we have been exceptionally blessed with the weather this year. Not only have we not had a drop of rain, but from Wednesday morning, the sun has been shining continuously.

The War Stories Panel with Fergal Keane, Tom Clonan and Andy Kershaw was a hugely popular event and drew a large crowd on Saturday morning in The Arms Hotel. After a great introduction by Kerry County Archivist Mike Lynch, he asked the panel to start off by discussing the nature of war reportage.

Tom Cloonan drew applause when he commented that the truth of the role of women in wars has been unreported, both historically and now. He went on to say that war is a squalid, miserable, dirty affair, and the principal actors are not men, but women, children and civilians. He went on to speak of the culture shock that is the vibration of a blast at close hand. For all its sophistication, digital media can’t catch that feeling.

Fergal Keane spoke of how he prays that war will never come into our lives or be experienced by us here in Ireland again. He feels that people have become so exposed to images and narratives of violence that we have become desensitised. Especially young people, who, when they watch images of war on You Tube, imagine they are watching a horror story or a movie. Because of this, he thinks there isn’t the same sense of public outrage or shock that there once was.

Andy Kershaw took a different standpoint. He thought that the media doesn’t show the reality of war and that it has been sanitised. He said if we want to know the reality of war, then we should be able to see it, it should be shown. He then told a story of the power of our sophisticated communications. In 2010, when he was involved in the Red Shirt Revolution in Bangkok, he realised he was the very real target of a sniper. He was sheltering in a doorway and was able to get on his mobile and call the Independent news desk. He survived to tell the tale, needless to say.


Noel O’Grady

Noel O’Grady’s Ode to James Joyce at St John’s Theatre was a real tonic after the War Stories Panel. A small wooden table displaying copies of Joyce’s books stood on the beautifully lit stage. Noel started off by singing The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, and as I relaxed back into my seat, he artfully interspersed a Joycean anecdote or quote along with another gentle song such as Down By The Sally Gardens. When I saw Noel later, amid the throng of The Arms Hotel, I thanked him for the wonderful interlude. I was looking for a phrase to describe its effect on me when he came up with, ‘a musical sorbet.’ We laughed and agreed. Most definitely a musical sorbet for body, soul and spirit.


Seán Lyons & Billy Keane
Seán Lyons & Billy Keane

Another very popular event was Donal Ryan and Billy Keane, facilitated by Listowel Writers’ Week Chairman Seán Lyons.

Donal started off by reading the chapter ‘July’ from his recent novel, The Thing About December. He drew laughter when he commented that a critic had pointed out that the book was written in calendrical form (a chapter for each month of the year), and said it was the only true thing the critic had said about it.

Billy spoke about his novel, The Ballad of Mo & G, and wondered, during the course of writing it, whether he should leave the sex bits in. Being an old-fashioned type of Dad, he didn’t really want his children reading the sex scenes in his novel. He then drew much laughter from the audience when he went on to read an extract from the novel where G is driving in his car with an erection.

Donal Ryan
Donal Ryan signing a copy of his book

Sean asked both authors what they think the issues are for today’s Irish writers. Billy spoke of being in Dublin recently and remarked that within two bus stops you can experience two different Irelands – the posh place and the not so posh. Those who live in the posh place don’t go to the not so posh, and the only people who go to the not so posh are the gardaí and the emergency services. We need to go into the other Ireland more, he said. He spoke of how we left Limerick to its own devices with not great results.

Donal went on to say that both his and Billy’s books are very Irish, with a good display of nuance in the dialogue. He feels the dialogue does cross the boundaries and that the biggest issue for writers is that of actually sitting down and writing.

Billy said he’s not a planner, he just ‘went for it.’ When he sat down to write The Ballad of Mo & G he only knew the first chapter. He then went on to say that 100 people could love your work but it’s only the negative comments that stick in your head.

Donal agreed and said how easy it was to fall into the trap of self-flagellation when you see a bad review. He spoke of how, in the past, when he met bullies he always faced them down, until he came across bad reviews on the internet. You can let yourself be tormented by these negative comments, he said.

American author John Steinbeck had a huge influence on both Donal and Billy as young men. Billy said that Bryan MacMahon, who taught him in school, was also a massive influence. Donal pointed out that everything you write is derived from something in your life. His Dad brought home what looked like a proof copy of JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye when he was about 11. The young Donal thought he was the only person who had access to this marvellous book, until one day, when he was about 14, someone else mentioned the book. Astounded, Donal asked him, ‘Where did you get that book?’ He thinks the monologue/ stream of consciousness narrative in The Spinning Heart was influenced by Catcher in the Rye.

Donal went on to say that when he’s writing he is trying to illuminate things. He has felt things that Johnsey Cunliff (the main protagonist in The Thing About December.) has felt. ‘You start with what you know,’ he added, ‘and end up with what you didn’t know.’

Billy felt that as a writer, the most important thing is to be true to yourself. As a newspaper columnist he has to be careful about what he says, but the novel is the one place in his life where he can be honest.


The passionate and furiously funny Andy Kershaw blew us all away at The Arms Hotel with his one-man-show version of his best-selling autobiography, No Off Switch.

Andy Kershaw
Andy Kershaw

He started off by saying, in that strong Rochdale accent of his, that he had searched for a title for the book for over 20 years until a girlfriend said to him, “You know what your trouble is Kershaw? You have no off switch.”  Presto!

He had the chance to review his life back in 2007 when he was invited to present Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4. He said that once you make that ridiculous reduction to eight discs, you have to live with it for the rest of your life, as you only get one chance on the show. One person, however, had been on Desert Island Discs an incredible four times. Who was that, he asked the audience? Arthur Askey! Would you believe it?

He considers himself to have lived a very charmed and lucky life. He happened to be born in a relatively stable country (England), had a good education (he failed his politics degree at Leeds University – more of that later) in the informal sense, both parents being school teachers. He says he got his love of history from his father, and his energy from his mother.

He was born, he said, with three distinct attributes which helped him make his way in life: Energy, Enthusiasm and Curiosity, all of which led to him leading a very colourful life. And, he added, it’s not over yet!

He spoke of his fascination with the Gemini Space Project of the 1960s and how it was the most dramatic news story that ever was. He then went on to speak about his love of music; from when he bought his first record in 1972 during the Glam Rock era and the turning point a year later, when he first heard Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited at the age of 14. Completely blown away, he became something of a Dylan obsessive.

His defining moment happened on his first day at Leeds University when he met Steve Henderson, the entertainments officer in the Student’s Union. Andy, green as can be, squeaked a request that when Steve gave up his job, could he have it please? And he did. The rest, as they say, is history. He became the first person ever to fail a politics degree at Leeds, and was astounded when, in 2005, he got a letter from the university asking him if he would do them the honour of accepting an honorary doctorate. They had forgiven him!

The Bruce Springsteen of the arts world went on for a full hour and a half – 30 minutes over the allotted time, but the audience loved him and sat, still chuckling, as Andy reluctantly packed his equipment away.


Mary Lawson
Mary Lawson

Mary Lawson was interviewed by author Louise Doughty at The Arms Hotel later that evening. Mary published her critically acclaimed debut novel, Crow Lake at the age of 55, when, after much rejection, seven British publishers bid for the book. Mary smiled wryly as she recounted that a week after Crow Lake was published, the BBC called her and asked her to speak on the subject of being ‘old.’ She was writing all the time, she said, having started out writing stories for women’s magazines, as it was the only avenue that paid real money. She felt very pressurised writing to such a formula however, and it was for purely practical reasons that she decided to write a novel.

Very few publishers have a slush pile these days she added. It’s the literary agents who now have the slush piles. Success does depend to a very high degree on luck and depends very much on the right person finding it. If you really love writing, however, then write, and hope you get lucky.

It takes Mary about five years to write a book. She hates research and that is why she sets them in Canada. She started writing her second novel, The Other Side of the Bridge, during the time which Crow Lake was being rejected, to stop herself slitting her wrists, she says. Her main problem though is coming up with ideas. There is a museum in Oslo dedicated to the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, who painted The Scream. Looking at the painting she thought, what if he had jumped? That, she says, is the genesis of Tom in Road Ends.

Mary, who is also a trained psychologist, spoke of how hard it is to break the cycle of bad parenting if you yourself have had a really bad role model. To understand is to forgive, she said, and it’s very important for a writer to bear that in mind. Mary then read a passage from Road Ends.

Louise concluded the interview by saying that she had seen Mary quoted as saying that Listowel Writers’ Week is her favourite literary festival by far. Mary immediately agreed. Yes, she said, she does love our festival, because it’s not about celebrity, it’s about books, and that’s how it should be.


Leave a comment