HUNDREDS of people have once again gathered in Limerick for the 29th Kate O’Brien weekend.
The life of one of the most famous Limerick writers was marked through a series of lectures and events, at three notable city venues, the Limerick Courthouse, the Daghda Dance Hall, and the Lime Tree Theatre at Mary Immaculate College.
Now approaching its landmark 30th year, the Kate O’Brien weekend was set up in 1984 after Arlen House held a seminar to mark the tenth anniversary of the famous author’s death.
The theme of the 29th event in honour of Limerick’s most famous deceased author was ‘The Best of Times - The Worst of Times’.
As always, the weekend drew a host of big names from the literary world, including award-winning novelist Christine Dwyer Hickey, former Irish Times editor Conor Brady, and Belfast writer David Park.
There were also contributions from new author Donal Ryan (Nenagh), while the Irish ambassador to Uganda officially opened the event on Friday night.
Arguably the two stand-out contributions came from internationally acclaimed novelist Colum McCann, and prolific author Jennifer Johnston.
Mr McCann - who has won many international awards, including the International Dublin Impac Prize - turned courtroom one into a literary lecture theatre.
“Up until about five years ago before I had heard about the Kate O’Brien weekend, I did not know all that much about her literature. But meeting the organisers who have allowed a weekend like this to happen has suddenly allowed me rediscover an artist of such immense proportion, who had made her mark. Whether we know it or not, we are influenced by the people gone before us. People who have fully engaged with the work of Kate O’Brien are actually influenced by her work in a quite extraordinary way,” he told the audience.
He added: “Literature succeeds in remapping the city we live inside. We get a whole new topography of the human spirit. But unless we are willing to put it out there, it becomes old and stale. We need to get out there, get lost, and embrace difficulty.”
It was Frank McCourt, an old friend, who really enabled Mr McCann to discover Limerick, as he told the audience.
During his trip here, he visited the Frank McCourt museum in Hartstonge Street.
“The laneways, the back of the walls, the back of the church: it was exactly how Frank McCourt had painted it. Having gone there, I would go back and go back and read all the works of Frank McCourt and would see things differently again,” Mr McCann said.
The novelist also pointed out that Ms O’Brien was, like himself, an emigrant, having spent much of her later life in England.
She is buried in the Kent town of Faversham.
Mr McCann - who left Ireland for New York in his 20s - feels this gives authors a different approach when it comes to writing.
“People are formed by the landscape of the city, but they are also informed by the landscape of how they leave. It strikes me the emigrant writer in particular has to wound himself or herself in a certain way. This is why they go away: in order to write about where they come from,” he said, “I am not saying one has to go away. But there is a different form of existence when you are looking back with a form of longing, a homesickness for what used to be.”
Making reference to his surrounds, Mr McCann recalled the last time he was in court.
Then, he had been arrested for walking through New York Central Park during its night-time curfew.
After a bored judge learnt he was a professional writer, rather than doling out a punishment, he asked him to read his memoir instead.
“I told him in actual fact, I would have preferred a fine,” he laughed.
On Sunday, as the focus switched to the Lime Tree Theatre, a discussion took place on Kate O’Brien’s book ‘Pray for the Wanderer’.
Published in 1938, the tome came out two years after Mary Lavelle was banned by the Irish censor.
It tells the story of Matt Costello, a celebrated novelist and dramatist, who has quarrelled with his mistress, also a leading lady in one of his West End plays.
But the Kate O’Brien weekend is also about celebrating the work of other literary greats.
The flagship Kate O’Brien lecture took a somewhat different turn this year, with literary academic Des Lally interviewing Derry-based author Ms Johnston, who has just picked up a lifetime achievement award at the Irish Book Awards.
Typically self-deprecating, the author of 18 books, told Mr Lally that she believes she is a lazy writer - and she does little research for her books.
Although dismissed by Mr Lally as a “facade”, she insisted it is the case.
“I never do any research: so much so that, for one of my books, which was about a woman dying from cancer, I rang my doctor: I asked him what would be the case if I had this, this, this, and this,” referring to symptoms of the deadly disease, “and he told me to come and see him immediately - that was my research as far as I was concerned.”
Asked if she was conscious of the lasting legacy she has left, Ms Johnston said: “It doesn’t matter a damn [to me]. Well, the only reason it matters is that I have enough money to get a taxi. I have to make enough money to get myself up and down to Dublin each month.”
From one author to another: Ms Johnston added her voice to criticism of Hilary Mantel, who said Kate Middleton is “forced to present herself publicly as a personality-free “shop window mannequin”, whose sole purpose is to deliver an heir to the throne.
Ms Johnston said she was “not interested in her writing”, labelling her as “nowhere near as pretty as Kate Middleton”.