John Irving in Dun Laoghaire

avenue-of-mysteries-9781451664164_lgJohn Irving, famously, writes backwards.  His novels begin at the end and work their way back to a beginning. It’s a process that suggests a level of authority and control that I’ve envied since I first heard about it. He was in the Pavilion (Dun Laoghaire) to talk to John Boyne about his latest novel, Avenue of Mysteries, as an opener for this year’s Mountains to Sea festival. The two writers have been friends for years and they have had public conversations before, so this was a relaxed and informed journey around Irving’s earlier novels, themes and characters, along with an inviting introduction to this one. Set partly in Mexico and partly in the Philippines, it deals with two adolescent siblings (aged 14 & 13), one of whom believes that she can predict the future and tries to change it.  If you know John Irving’s work, you probably have a bad feeling right around now: this is not likely to go well for anyone.  The novel proceeds from there.

I haven’t read Avenue of Mysteries yet  (Reader, I bought it; I just haven’t read it yet) but I have been a fan since The Hotel New Hampshire, and that great line: ‘Keep passing those open windows.’ If you’ve read the novel, you’ll know why. My fandom continued through The World According to Garp and The Cider House Rules.  I liked the way Irving engaged with gender and sexuality, and I liked the complexity of his stories.

The conversation ranged around issues to do with the Catholic church – as an institution, Irving stressed, as distinct from mysteries of faith – and children at risk more generally. He spoke well about the current refugee/migrant crisis and his admiration for Angela Merkel (‘Mrs Merkel’) who, he said, displayed courage and leadership.  He regrets subsequent developments, the assaults in Cologne that have given a voice and language to xenophobia and hatred. He talked engagingly about the myopia of bears, and calmly about voting processes for the Academy Awards.  He was graceful in refusing to be drawn about Irish or any other hopes for this year’s awards, pointing out that the Academy ask their members not to muddy the speculative waters, a reasonable request.  He said that the media always get in a flap about selection, but the nomination process is a good and fair system. It’s unusual in that the people who ‘do the thing’ – whatever ‘the thing’ is: costumes, make up, writing, acting – get to make the nominations.  It’s at the next stage that the voting broadens out and becomes more general and unpredictable. The outcome is anyone’s guess because ‘even I can vote for best costumes’, and people tend to vote for films they like, not necessarily based on the actual category.

They talked quite a lot about Caitlyn Jenner.  Germaine Greer’s recent comments  really aggravated Irving, not that he’d had much time for her to start with – he complained about The Female Eunuch.  The audience laughed.  He said that he had hoped to get out of writing The World According to Garp because he didn’t look forward to it, but he had to do it in the end. He was angry because he saw the outcome of sexual liberation, which should have brought us together, turn to hatred instead. In that novel, as he summed it up, a man is killed by a woman who hates men and a woman is killed by a man who hates women.  He spoke again about transgender issues and Caitlyn Jenner, and asked who was Germaine Greer to decide what a ‘real woman’ was?*  ‘Up yours, Germaine!’ he said, and the audience applauded.

I was seriously taken aback.  I wondered if he’d have said it if Greer had been on stage with him, or if the audience would have laughed if that were the case.  I wondered, I have to admit, if he’d have said it ‘to’ a man.  I’m not on Greer’s side of this particular argument, but I disliked the comment, and the applause.  It soured what was otherwise an enjoyable evening.

*[In a recent article in The Guardian Damien Gayle quotes Greer as saying: “I’m not saying that people should not be allowed to go through that [sex change] procedure. What I’m saying is that it doesn’t make them a woman. It happens to be an opinion. It’s not a prohibition.”]

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THE STINGING FLY @ FARMLEIGH HOUSE (In the Wake of the Rising)

SF Spring 2016 Front hi-resThe Stinging Fly literary magazine is legendary for finding, nurturing and publishing some of the most talented Irish writers of the last two decades (Kevin Barry, Mary Costello, Sean O’Reilly, Danielle McLaughlin, among others). The theme of the February 2016 issue is “In the Wake of the Rising.” Guest editor Sean O’Reilly and founder, overall editor and publisher Declan Meade will be joined by contributors who will read and talk about issues raised by the centenary of the 1916 Rising and the current state of Ireland and Irish writing.

We’ll also talk about what it takes to start a literary magazine, how to keep it going and why?

Date: Wednesday 17th February 2016    Time: 8:00 pm (details re booking here)

The Writers:  Elaine Feeney, Paul Lynch and Lisa McInerney

The Musicians: Liam O’Connor (fiddle)  & Seán McKeon (pipes)

Elaine Feeney has published three collections of poetry: Indiscipline (2007), Where’s Katie? (2010) and The Radio was Gospel (2014). Her next collection, Rise, is due out with Salmon Poetry later this year. A regular performer at events and festivals in Ireland and beyond, Elaine is a previous winner of both the North Beach Nights Grand Slam and the Cúirt Festival Grand Slam.

Paul Lynch is the author of the novels Red Sky in Morning (2013) and The Black Snow (2014). He has been nominated for France’s Prix Femina, the Prix du Premier Roman (First Novel Prize), the Prix du Roman Fnac (Fnac Novel Prize), as well as being shortlisted for Best Newcomer at Ireland’s Bord Gais Energy Irish Book Awards. In the US, he was selected by Barnes and Nobles for the Discover Great New Writers series.

Lisa McInerney is the author of The Glorious Heresies (John Murray, 2015). Her stories have featured on BBC Radio 4 and in The Long Gaze Back, edited by Sinéad Gleeson, and Town and Country, edited by Kevin Barry. She is currently long-listed for the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize for Young Writers.

Fiddle player Liam O’Connor and uilleann piper Seán McKeon were born into families immersed in traditional music. By the age of 15, both of them had amassed five solo All-Ireland titles each, and before turning eighteen they had won the senior Oireactas solo competitions in their respective instruments.  Liam was awarded TG4 Young Musician of the Year in 2002 and Seán was the 2005 recipient.

Seán and Liam released their duet album *Dublin Made Me* in 2009 to
widespread critical acclaim. The Irish Times awarded it “CD of the Week”
across all genres, describing it as “a vibrant collection that never once
loses sight of its birthright yet still manages to herald a new departure
in casting a spotlight on two exceptional musicians who marry technical
prowess with a marvellous sense of adventure and history”. They have
performed in venues throughout Ireland, Europe and North America.

Seán is also a member of the Damien Dempsey band. One of the pieces they
will be performing at Farmleigh is a march called ‘Easter 1916’ which was
composed by Seán. Liam was commissioned to compose music for a television
documentary on the 1913 Lockout.


Please click here for entry to the draw for tickets to this very special event.

Closing date for receipt of applications is 12noon, Wednesday 10th February.

Only successful applicants will be notified.

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Two Cities One Book (ii)

Source: Two Cities One Book (ii)

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Two Cities One Book (ii)

A lot of people ask about the Two Cities One Book experience and I thought I might write about it a little, in the blog. Nothing like this has ever happened to me before, it’s as new to me as it is to many of you, so why not?

Before you start to jeer about self-promotion, let me say that self-promotion is not what I’m after. This isn’t a plea to ‘come to my gig’ – although of course I want everyone to come to everything.  The whole point about the One City One Book festival in general and this year’s astonishing Two Cities One Book festival (Belfast and Dublin reading the same book, i.e. Fallen) in particular, is that it’s one big celebration of books, of reading and of writing.

For me and for the novel, obviously, this is an extraordinary opportunity to connect with new readers, but for everyone else – well, it’s whatever you want it to be. It’s a celebration of the arts, using one title as a pretext for many fabulous events, exhibitions, talks and theatrical productions, many of which have no direct connection to Fallen. This year there are additional areas of intersection with history and with the 1916 commemorations. In other words, it’s an excuse for a month-long, bookish, artsy and historical party to be held in both cities, with some crossover between the two.

As well as readings and panels, there’ll be walking tours, talks on the fashion and business of the time, musical events, bus trips … I’ll post links to both programmes when they’re finalised.

Among other things, Libraries NI will run an online workshop helping people discover how to use online resources such as the Dictionary of National Biography and Oxford Reference Online.  This is part of the Great War centenary. Details will be posted on the Libraries NI website soon.

There’s a more direct link with Fallen in the fantastic national writing competition for students run by Hot PressWrite Here Write Now Students are asked to consider – and write about their sense of ‘what is is to be from the island of Ireland, or to live here’; and to write “A Story of Ireland”.  Full details are on the Hot Press website.

One of the many incredibly lucky things I get to do for the festival is to write a monologue for Katie, which will be performed in the Studio of the Lexicon in Dun Laoghaire on 21st April (details to follow). This week, we held auditions for the part of Katie – ‘we’ including Emer Casey, who’ll direct Katie, and Celia de Fréine, whose one woman play Beth will be staged in the same production. I can’t describe the thrill I got, hearing and seeing such talented young actors embody words I’ve written. It was electrifying, and made me want to go away into a quiet corner and write nothing but plays for the next few years.


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Hi Julia,  thanks for taking the time to do this interview in the run up to publication. Harper, your protagonist in What a Way to Go! is a great character: likeable, believable and completely unsentimental.  Where did she come from?

Thank you, Lia. A few friends and acquaintances were influential while I was writing her, including a fifty year-old vegan friend called Peter who is completely bald, mad about cycling and unbelievably fit. While I was writing the novel I also went to a wedding of a university friend of mine called Gwen and one of the speeches at her wedding inspired me.

One of her bridesmaids said that, when Gwen was a teenager, it wasn’t just friends who would call on her, the Socialist Party would too. They’d come round to ask Gwen to do some door-to-door canvassing. I remember thinking to myself that this was something that never would have happened to me as a teenager. I completely admired her for it; Gwen’s independence of mind and spirit went straight into Harper’s DNA. Harper is the kind of twelve year-old I wish I had been.

Polaroid Image Blog Tour No. 1

Why did you choose 1988 as a period?

I read Andy McSmith’s No Such Thing As Society in 2011; it’s a brilliant non-fiction title about the social, economic and political landscape of the 1980s. In the course of reading it, I spotted that in the March budget of 1988 Nigel Lawson introduced some tax policies which led to a scramble to buy and own houses – his policies generated the summer of the ‘Lawson Boom’.

I wanted to show how crippling these kinds of policies would be for those people who were renting in that era and who were eager to secure a roof under their own heads. Harper’s mother, Mary, suffers from a triple blow because she is looking to buy a house as a divorcee, with a child in tow and on a part-time salary. I saw with my own eyes my Mum’s struggles to get a mortgage in the early eighties under similar circumstances and have since thought how unfair and how judgemental society-at-large can be.

I have only realised, now that I have some perspective on the book, that writing it was in part an act of reclamation: I wanted to go back to that period and to challenge a lot of society’s stigmas and assumptions about single parenting, mental health and what it meant to be a child in a world which was becoming increasingly driven by capitalism. Sadly, this act of reclamation didn’t extend as far as being more discerning about music; Harper is as much a fan of confected chart toppers from Stock, Aitken and Waterman’s Hit Factory as I was!

The novel addresses the precarious and fragmentary experience of many children whose parents have separated.  A large cast of characters orbit Harper’s world; they all have their oddities but also their appeal – and impact on her development.  Her experience of adults is largely positive – can you comment on that?

When your parents separate, especially if you’re an only child, you end up spending a lot of time with adults; that was certainly my experience and one that I replicated for Harper. Looking back on my own childhood, I realise now that I had to mature before my years emotionally, and I imagine that this is the case for children who go through any similar kind of trauma. However, I often didn’t possess the vocabulary to express my more insights.

When I was nineteen, I worked as a nanny in Italy for three months with the sole job of teaching English to two young children. I was told by my employer that I was absolutely not allowed to speak Italian, only English. However, I heard Italian all summer long, as it was always being spoken around me. As such, by the end of the summer, I was completely fluent as far as my listening comprehension went, but I could barely string together a sentence to express myself in the language. That was how it felt as a kid: I could empathise with grown-up emotions, but I didn’t have the abstract vocabulary to underpin and communicate what I was feeling – and knowing.

In What a Way to Go I made a conscious effort to be very concrete in my descriptions, my use of language and also in the use of objects and symbolism. I hoped that this would help to communicate some of the more ephemeral feelings that Harper and other characters are experiencing. This book is not just a love letter to the eighties, but also to what it means to be, as Mary Karr puts it in her Paris Review interview on the Art of Memoir, ‘three foot tall, flat broke, unemployed and illiterate’ – in other words, a child in an adult’s world.

The theme of mental illness hovers on the borders of the novel. Can you talk about that?

Since I was 21 I have suffered on and off with mild depression and anxiety and it has often come as a complete surprise to me when I’ve reached a difficult patch. When my two kids were born, I was placed on alert for post-natal depression, and I had check-ups with psychologists after both births to gauge the state of my mental health. I was interested by this, because what is normal under the circumstances of such a life-changing event as the birth of a child? Giving birth is an animal experience which transcends modern ideas about what it is to be a human.

In What a Way to Go I touch on the theme of post-natal depression because it’s not something I have often read about in novels. I think I was interested in exposing stigma surrounding depression and showing that it is something which can be and should be discussed openly, rather than hidden away. In the course of the book, we see how this kind of burying of mental health issues can have ripple effects on other people in the future. Harper is a good judge of character, and she has an intuition that things are not as they seem. She turns out to be right…

 You’ve chosen big, brave themes to write about in a YA context: illness (mental and physical) and death.  Did you feel at all constrained by the fact that you’re writing for young people?

I lost someone very dear to me when I was fourteen: I was there the day he learnt of his cancer diagnosis and I was holding his hand eighteen months later when he died. The person in question wanted to write a book of funny and unusual deaths called What a Way to Go (the book has since been written by somebody else) which entirely encapsulates his gallows humour. I think he would have loved that I eventually did write a book with this title, albeit a very different kind of book.

Death, divorce, depression do not discriminate when it comes to how old you are. John Green has of course made this case very well in his books. With my own work, I didn’t think about the age of the readership when I wrote. In fact, I think my ‘ideal reader’ was a man in his fifties sat on the London tube with a briefcase on his lap! However, when I had finished my first full draft, I gave it to a brilliant book blogger and reader, Yemaya Wood, who was sixteen at the time. She did a Beta read and wrote a report for me. I hope that the book will reach a YA and an adult readership alike.

Growing up, Judy Blume’s books were my atlases for young adulthood. In them, I learnt about sex, relationships, puberty, divorce… I think there might not be that many novels for a crossover readership which explore death, divorce and depression from a young person’s perspective with a similar lightness of touch. I think this was probably a motivating force for me to touch on these subjects – although to be honest, I didn’t overthink it at the outset.

During the course of writing this book, we were affected here in mid Wales by an awful event which involved the abduction and murder of a young girl who was a classmate of my daughter’s. During the nine-month period while the case was open, I stopped writing completely – a fog of despair and anguish hung over the town and the entire community. The day that the perpetrator was imprisoned, I returned to writing this story with a different perspective on life, a feeling of extreme injustice that such a young soul should be extinguished so prematurely, so indiscriminately and so unfairly. The case gave me a renewed purpose to speak on behalf of children, through the voice of Harper.

Tape blog tour no 4

While you were working on the novel you worked for New Welsh Review.  Can you talk about that, and about the literary scene in Wales?

I worked for over two years as the marketing and publicity officer at New Welsh Review, edited by Gwen Davies which this gave me an excellent overview of the Welsh publishing scene. One of my last jobs was to organise the prize-giving ceremony in which Eluned Gramich won the New Welsh Writing Awards for writing on nature and the environment, a prize which I’d coordinated. That was a high note to end on (and it might be of interest to your readers to note that it is open again from the 19 January 2016, this time seeking long-form work on the theme of travel).

Previous to that, I was on the Honno Welsh Women’s Press committee for a couple of years and that also gave me a good grounding here in Wales – Honno is one of the last women’s presses in the UK and they recently published a brilliant anthology about women campaigners called Here We Stand.

There are some excellent resources here in Wales for writers. For a start, I’d urge people to look up Ty Newydd, the Writers’ Centre which is in north Wales. I conceived the idea for What a Way to Go while at a writing from life course at the Centre, which is Wales’s answer to Arvon. In north Wales, we also have the residential Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, Flintshire, which has an ambitious programme of literary events throughout the year.

I am in my third year of sitting on the bursary panel for Literature Wales, helping to award bursaries to emerging and established authors, which is a complete honour and a joy to do. This is an annual programme which I benefitted from in 2011 when I was awarded just over £1,000 in nursery fees to enable me to get the novel under way. I’d urge authors to look up the T&Cs to see if you might be eligible.

I would say that the literary scene in Wales is becoming more ambitious with every year that passes. The newest kid on the block is Firefly Press, which publishes a growing list of children’s fiction, but on the English language side we also have many other publishers including the likes of Parthian, Seren, Cinnamon, Gomer and Rack Press. This site by the Welsh Books Council is a good source for more information.

Alongside New Welsh Review, there are other magazines published out of Wales including Wales Arts Review, Planet, and Poetry Wales. And there are is an excellent procrastination of acclaimed authors (I’m told that’s the collective noun) who call Wales their home, including Cynan Jones, Rachel Trezise, Tom Bullough, Kate Hamer, Gwyneth Lewis and many, many others.

I’m not fluent in Welsh, but my kids are learning through the medium of Welsh so I am beginning to get an insight into the Welsh language scene. There is of course a long and illustrious tradition of the annual Eisteddfods here, in which a Bard is crowned each summer. Wales has been incredibly kind to me, and I wouldn’t have written a single word of What a Way to Go without the support from the writers’ community here.

That’s an incredibly generous and informative  answer, thanks.  Ireland and Wales are so close, there should be more of an exchange between us, don’t you think? What’s next for you?

I am in the process of submitting a 45-minute radio drama to the BBC. Meanwhile, my eight year-old daughter Matilda is insistent that I go back to a book I wrote when I was 21 called The Thought Box which is for children, so I hope to return to that, too.

Another novel is on the horizon, but I’m not in a huge rush to get going. I felt I needed a bit of down time after finishing this book. These smaller projects are my means of cleansing my palate before I try to approach a larger piece of work again.

Well, the very best of luck with it all.  Thanks again for talking to us, and for all that great info about the scene in Wales.

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ROOM (the film)

I was lucky enough to get to a special preview of Room (the film) yesterday at the Lighthouse, courtesy of Element Pictures. The film is, quite simply, brilliant: beautiful, unsettling and moving.  During the Q & A afterwards it came up that there are people who have been afraid to read the book, knowing the subject matter.  I think it’s fair to say that, until you’ve actually read the book, you don’t.  This is even more true of the film.


Lenny Abrahamson couldn’t be there. This was disappointing, but probably just as well – there’d have been nowhere for him to sit (the cinema was jammed).  Interviewed by Roisin Ingle afterwards, Emma Donoghue said the idea for the novel came from the  Fritzl case in Austria (2008). Listening to the story as it broke, she thought: but motherhood is often like being in a locked room. There are days when you pour everything you have into it,  it’s all used up, everything you have –and it’s still only 6.30 in the morning.

Before she was approached by Lenny Abrahamson – who set out his vision for the film in a 10 page document that, she said, is pretty much exactly how the actual completed film is – her fears for it included that it would be voyeuristic or there’d be violent rape in it. So she started writing the screenplay before the book was published – she had a feeling there’d be interest. She wanted Old Nick – the kidnapper – to be boring and ordinary, even dull. She referred to the phrase coined by Hannah Arendt during the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the banality of evil. This is brilliantly realised by Sean Bridgers. The story is not about Old Nick, it’s not his story in any way; she didn’t want to give him the planning or the motivation, a back story or a big dramatic incident.

The film is in no way voyeuristic. If anything it underplays the usual kind of drama that goes into classic crime films – it’s not a crime film, although it stems from a crime. It’s a film about parenting, and about love.   It’s not schmaltzy either. I’d like to go back and watch it again, if only to look at all the parts where you think you’re about to veer off into familiar territory and the film resists that and holds you instead to the intense, vibrant, difficult core that is restorative love. It doesn’t make it easy. All of the characters are extraordinary. The tense dynamics of return are acknowledged and they were brave enough to leave some of those wounds open.  The expansion of the role of Ma’s mother (a subtle, strong performance by Joan Allen) adds layers of meaning and complexity to the story.  The grandfather and step-grandfather (William H Macy, Tom McCamus) wonderfully extend that complexity and depth to fathers.  Brie Larson is extraordinary, Jacob Tremblay is a revelation. There is a cameo role by a police officer (Amanda Brugel) that is nearly a film in itself.

So here I’m at risk of turning you off with superlatives. I’ll stop, after I say two things:

*Go and see this film, it’s not at all what you expect.

*There is a Canadian hospital room that deserves its own billing (no pun intended). I wanted to send everyone who is in any way responsible for the HSE there (and yes, I’m looking at you, too, Mary Harney). Not to stay, oh no. Just to see how things might be done. I couldn’t help thinking, during the hospital scenes, about our own mess, and what would happen to a mother and child in similar distress if their story happened here.


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ALL ADVENTUROUS WOMEN: Nollaig na mBan @ the Irish Writers Centre*, 6th January 2016

Amy Herron introduced proceedings, telling us that the eight soap-boxers were given a brief to take: ‘All adventurous women do …” as a starting pont, and that each person would speak for four minutes, from a rather precarious and wobbly box in front of the microphone which almost became a performer in its own right as the night wore on.

Lisa O’Neill sang us in with ‘The Lass of Aughrim’, in her powerful, distinctive voice. How do singers do that, in a crowded room? It’s a mystery to me, but no trouble to Lisa, apparently.

First up to speak was Erin Fornoff, spoken word poet – Dublin based but originally from the Appalachian Mountains. She told a chilling, shocking and sickeningly familiar story – actually, it wasn’t the story that was shocking, it was the fact that she told it, so openly, to a room full of not-all-women. (Yes, there were intrepid men in the crowd, as there were last year, as there will be again next year – this event is shaping up to be a must-go-to in the Dublin calendar.) Erin Fornoff’s story is about a literary mentor, a trusted advisor, who one day over lunch suggested that he could get her a book deal, if she would sleep with him.

At the time, she was speechless. But, as she said, she’s lucky she’s a writer. Your voice may be robbed at the time, but you get it back. You get to write a poem (‘The Opposite of a Thank You Letter‘) and publish it. Then you get to put it on YouTube. She said that, next thing she knew, she found herself a receptacle for innumerable sleazy literary stories: women of all ages and stages in their literary lives coming up to her and saying – that happened to me too, I know who that was, it was this guy, wasn’t it? And Erin Fornoff would have to say – no, it wasn’t that guy, it was another guy.

And this keeps happening.

And all names are still witheld. Interesting, isn’t it, that last bit?

Mary O’Donnell brought us back to the dismal Irish seventies, when young women were automatically suspect and under scrutiny, where every ambition and ideal seemed to be specifically thwarted by the government, where she could be asked at a job interview, referring to her poems and stories, ‘and does your husband help you spell all them long words?’. That was a country no one else would want to come and live in, she pointed out, but now we do have people coming here to live from other places, and let’s welcome them.

Sally Rooney told us that we live in a culture that assumes that women’s lives are not interesting, although they’re perfectly interesting to us. She said she’s tired of the assumption that what men are interested in is interesting and that in order to get equality, all women need to do is change. She railed against the pretence that things will be different for you (as an individual). If only you’re smart enough to play by the right rules, do the right combination of things – you will be the exception (if you’re good enough). She resents the assumption that the work women do is worthless and uninteresting. It’s certainly thankless.

Women don’t need to change, she said. Men need to change. Powerful people need to change.

Evelyn Conlon said that all adventurous women mind their language. She cited a recent article entitled ‘How to Talk to Older Feminists’ which turned out, she said, to be a cover for taking a swipe at Germaine Greer – who is, it seems, in trouble. Again. Well, go Germaine, said Evelyn. As we would have said in the past. She reminded us what that older Ireland was like. In a world where you had to wait 7 years to get a phone, she said, a lot of people stayed in bad marriages just so they wouldn’t have to go out onto the street to make phone calls (in a coin box).

In those days feminists used language as a powerful tool. She never guessed that political correctness – calling things for what they are – would be distorted, would become the antithesis of itself, a restriction on expression.

Social media is the opposite of writing, she said. We used to be able to tolerate all that shouting but across a clothes line or on a night out, in the pub  – not incessantly. And while we’re at it, could we give the exclamation mark a rest? – it is a mark for when you’ve done something unusual. Not when you’ve just had a cup of tea! With milk! She wants to be able to read an email without being startled to death by the end of it.

(Getting up to introduce the next speaker, Amy Herron remarked that when Evelyn Conlon said that social media is the opposite of writing, many writers in the audience looked furtive and guilty.)

Joanna Walsh interrogated the terms of the brief itself, taking us on an intriguing tour of how her mind works: did it mean, everything that adventurous women do? Or one thing that every adventurous woman does? And then we took a detour through the word ‘adventurous’ itself, its root and meanings – leading to a riff on an advent calendar she had as a child, an image of a red-brick house with many windows. She told us she used to get a priggish (her word) satisfaction from opening the right window on each right day and seeing another picture inside it. Behind that, the house looked inward to nothingness.

She pointed out that women still have less to lose than we stand to gain by stepping outside the norm. She said the most innocuous words are often the hardest to see inside. She listed familiar terms of abuse. She said that language is not a zero sum game and invited us to consider what new words and new meanings we might use to build apertures of meaning. She urged us to be daring and undertake trials, to seize our luck. We may, she said, we will, witness miracles.

Lisa McInerney asked what use an adventurous spirit would have been to a working-class Irish woman born in the 1930s? Adventure, she reminded us, requires resources, opportunity, good timing. It’s not compatible with a house full of children who need to be fed and minded. For many women their one adventure ended in a laundry. She spoke movingly about her grandmother and her mother. the times they lived in constrained opportunity. When women then were seen as ‘adventurous’, that often means they were disobedient. What’s more, those women were often well-to-do. So who do we thank for our opportunities to be adventurous, she asked. Do we thank privilege?

Sinéad Gleeson (NB the Book Show returns to RTE Radio One on 16th January) talked about masculine ideas and images of adventure, written and reinforced by men. A vast ocean, an empty desert … But adventure is not something you have to cross continents for. You can have it walking the streets of a strange city, or night-swimming, or kissing someone you shouldn’t kiss. She was very funny about a minor gambling habit she’d had as a child, a penchant for winning raffles, a lucky streak that lasted about two years. She spoke with affection about small coloured squares of paper with numbers on them, strange and unpredictable winnings. Then it wasn’t funny any more when she talked about the luck of the reproductive rights draw, the things that could go wrong, the situations women find themselves in. She said we need a new part of the story, a part where we have the remedy we need, and it needs to be free, safe and legal. (My informal assessment is that this got the biggest cheer of the night.)

Michelle Read brought the house down when she said she’d read the brief wrong, that she’d thought that this was meant to be a do for adventurous women. Who doesn’t want to be adventurous, she asked? Along the lines of: would you like a lemon-and-dill pickle scone? Oh why not, I’ll be adventurous. Other, more extreme kinds of adventure, leave her cold, she said. Why on earth would she want to move outside her comfort zone? It’s called a comfort zone because it’s comfortable there. She wants to be in the beanbag at the very heart of the comfort zone, thanks very much. She told a hilarious story about doing a stand-up comic routine in the tunnel club (near the Blackwall Tunnell) full of Millwall supporters.

Michelle Read talked about not being adventurous – as many of the other speakers had – even as she described walking to a microphone through the gauntlet of a room full of jeering, catcalling and insulting men. But this was a room full of appreciative and admiring people who knew the opposite was true of every single speaker. Every one who stood up to balance on that wonky, unstable soapbox had to use courage to do it, every bit as much as they needed courage to speak out. There was huge applause – cheers and whoops – for each contribution. It was a brilliant, unsettling and enjoyable night. Lisa O’Neill finished with a song inspired by Evelyn Conlon’s latest novel (Not the Same Sky) and then ‘The Divil’. Then we went back outside,  into the violent rainstorm we’d completely forgotten about for those few warm hours in the Writers’ Centre.

It seems mean to say that it’s a pity there was no contribution in Irish, especially given that the event was billed with an Irish title, but I can’t not say it. In every other respect, this was a massively successful evening. Book early for next year’s – they sell out fast.

(Note:  The name  Irish Writers Centre has no apostrophe)

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