FIRST came a poem. Then, with a little gentle push from the Limerick Writers’ Centre, came trickles of words that built into a powerful stream of words, eventually becoming the River People, an anthology of stories, poems and memoir by older people from Limerick and Clare.
Launched before a packed audience in Limerick last week, the anthology was described by Dominic Taylor of the Limerick Writers’ Centre as a celebration of lived experience and of extraordinary ordinariness.
“The stories, memoir and poems you will find in River People are stories of celebration, grief, hope, regret and confession,” Dominic said.
“They are written by ordinary people learning to live well with themselves and with one another.”
The story of how the Limerick Writers’ Centre came to publish River People has a lot to do with locality, literature, community and culture, and with the mission of the Writers’ Centre, according to Dominic.
“When Limerick poet Ron Carey was commissioned to write a poem for the Bealtaine Festival, we thought it would be a nice idea to run a creative writing course for older people as part of the festival,” he explained.
“That course (conducted by Ron) ran initially for six weeks and was so enthusiastically received by the participants that we ran a second course after the summer, with largely the same participants plus a few new recruits. The result of that is that we are celebrating what I believe is an important anthology of work by older people in our community.”
River People is the 67th publication from the Limerick Writers Centre, Dominic pointed out and he made a passionate case for the importance of community writing and community publishing which, he argued, is not just a form of self-expression for people but also a way of connecting people.
“We at the Limerick Writers’ Centre believe that writing and publishing is for everyone,” he said.
“We try as much as possible to represent diverse voices and advocate for increased writing and publishing access to individuals and groups that have not typically had this access.”
The centre, through its work, promotes writing done by ordinary people, he added, people who maybe are not trained writers and may struggle to get their ideas down on paper.
“We bring together groups of people who value literature not just for its literary value but who see its transformative power both for the individual and society and we believe that stories, poems, diaries, memoirs do, as Seamus Heaney suggests, ‘function as bearers of value’," Dominic continued.
The centre’s mission, he explained, was to actively encourage writers, whether they were career-minded or writing for pleasure, healing, personal growth, insight or just to inform.
“For a long time now, there has been a casual dismissal of ordinary, working-people’s writing as being irrelevant and of little literary merit,” Dominic said. But he argued: “Valuing people’s writing is another way of valuing them, not just as consumers of products, but as a fundamental part of society.”
The magic of creative writing is that it creates something out of nothing, said Ron Carey, who was mid-wife to much of the writing in the anthology. And the writers and poets in the anthology were, he said, “continuing the old and honourable tradition of this city”.
He welcomed the anthology because it gave the writers an opportunity to showcase their creativity.
“You give your friends, your wife, your husband, your partner, a chance to see you in a new light,” he said. “How wonderful it is for them to see the creative side of you, something absolutely unique to you.”
“Ron encouraged us, he prodded us along,” said Pat McLoughlin from Newcastle West who started the creative writing course in autumn 2016 and is one of those featured in River People.
There was, he admitted, a sense of “going back to school” when he turned up for the first day. He had been doing a bit of writing on his own and responded to the call to older people to take part in a workshop.
“When I parked the car, I said to myself, what am I doing here,” he said.
But once inside the door, all that changed. “It was a very warm atmosphere. It was very relaxed. It is a wonderful place.”
And he found the workshops exhilarating.
“It was like a whole new world opening up,” he explained.
Each week brought different genres to try out: short stories, poetry, drama, memoir. And each week too brought practicing writers to them in the flesh.
“Their input and knowledge was of enormous benefit to us.”
For him, the real eye-opener was drama.
“It was something I would never have dreamed of.” But they each had to devise a scene and had to rehearse and act out their characters with their class.
What the workshop did more than anything, he said, was to give him confidence.
“I have been doing a bit of scribbling, particularly since I retired but I never had the confidence to go public until I went to the Writers Centre. They have encouraged me so much.”
Maggie Enright, from Ardagh was another who felt the warm embrace of encouragement.
“It was absolutely amazing. We were very privileged in having somebody like Ron, the way he helped us along,” she said.
She had tried her hand at prose before, she explained.
“But I hadn’t written anything for years and years.”
To her surprise, Ron encouraged her to have a go at poetry, and she did. She also surprised herself by being able to write a drama scene. Although she has been involved in acting for many years, writing drama was never something she thought she could do. But, she observed, Ron’s skill was in bringing out things inside people which they weren’t even aware of.
Now finding herself included in an anthology, she said, is a bit surreal.
But like so many others who did the workshops, Maggie is now determined to keep the spark alive and to stay writing.
River People, by Revival Press, is available through the Limerick Writers' Centre at 12 Barrington St and at selected bookshops.