I spent a wonderful weekend of songs, stories and laughter in Kells at the Hay Festival Kells.
The heritage town was filled with writers, musicians and artists, including Hanif Kureishi. We strolled around town together, discussing the Book of Kells, medieval round towers, Brehon laws, and Cromwell. I don’t have many claims to fame, but I can now say that I explained the origin of the term Beyond the Pale to Hanif Kureishi.
We also talked about Brexit (it was the day after the result). He’s distraught. “When are you heading back to London?” I asked him. “We might just stay here,” he responded, only half-jokingly, I think.
Did you know that pole-vaulting was invented in Kells?
Or that under the Brehon code divorces were public affairs, with the couple standing on two mounds, facing each other and airing their grievances in front of a crowd before husband and wife turned their back on each other and walked away?
Those two facts are unrelated, by the way.
In the run-up to the Festival I interviewed poet Patrick Deeley about his wonderful memoir, The Hurley Maker’s Son. He gave a fantastic reading from the book, peppering it with anecdotes and asides, all delivered with a giddy, infectious enthusiasm and tremendous warmth, and was as delightful in person as he was on the telephone.
He was also very grateful for the interview: he’d promised to buy me a pint.
I am happy to report that Patrick Deeley is a man who keeps his promises.
I had hoped to catch The Lost Brothers in concert but unfortunately missed them (see above), and it was one of those gigs that everyone was talking about on Sunday morning as one of the best I’ve ever seen. The duo are on tour with Glen Hansard in Europe now.
Another highlight was getting to meet the brilliant, hilarious, scarily-talented Jax Miller. Because there were so many events at Hay, several readings happened simultaneously. Jax was reading from her thriller, Freedom’s Child at the same time as Eleanor Fitzsimons was discussing her book, Wilde’s Women. Jax was talking about bikers, meth, and hookers, and hurling f-bombs from the podium. A woman of a certain age arrived late and listened for a few minutes before she realised she was in the wrong room and loudly pronounced ‘This isn’t Oscar Wilde!’
Zlata Filipović would probably prefer if you would stop referring to her as ‘the Anne Frank of Sarajevo’ (not least because she actually survived the Balkan siege). More than twenty years after her diary put a human face on the siege of Sarajevo, Zlata spoke with remarkable frankness and a great deal of humour about the hardships her family endured.
Speaking with Zlata about putting a human face on tragedy reminded me of the Kells Type Trail, art installations that are a celebration of typography. One of the installations is a tribute to Alan Kurdi, the toddler who drowned while fleeing Syria.
The last event that I attended before hopping on the bus back to Dublin was Mike McCormack reading from Solar Bones, a novel set in Mayo, a place that can seem “a penitential enclave” with its proliferation of shrines, hermitudes and penitential houses.
My scribbled notes from the talk include mention of a woman granted license by the Vatican to live as a hermit, and who later emerged from her hermitude confirming that “Hell is real, and it’s not empty.”
Afterwards, I asked him if there really is a resurgence in Irish literature. “I don’t know if there’s a causal link between the resurgence of Irish editors and the resurgence in experimental writing,” he said. “I’m not sure if there’s a link there, or if it’s just a coincidence. You’re the journalist, you figure it out!”
For a so-called writer and journalist, you’d think I’d have a pen to hand always, so I have to thank Lisa Coen from Tramp Press for lending me one so Mike could sign my copy of his book.
Historically, hospitality was highly important under the Brehon Law, and its spirit is alive and well in Kells. Thank you to everyone at the Hay Festival Kells, The Kells Experience and Teach Cuailgne for their warm welcome.