At the John Hewitt Summer School


Writers should always hang out with non-writers; it encourages a different, equally important sort of creativity.

More importantly, it ensures that conversation is not too writery. There’s nothing wrong with writery conversations, but most writery conversations start off with spirited discussions about character and plot and language and soon dissolve into grumbling about book deals gone awry and useless agents.

The annual John Hewitt International Summer School in Armagh offers a unique opportunity for writers; the opportunity to mingle with painters, musicians, poets, actors, potters, sculptors, and academics.

It’s an arts festival. It’s a music festival. It’s a literary festival. It’s a festival of ideas.

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And it’s busy. It’s a hectic week of workshops, readings, lectures, discussions, music, and theatre.

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Glenn Patterson

And scones. There are an awful lot of scones, served at several intervals each day by the massively hardworking and relentlessly upbeat staff at The Marketplace Theatre. Sometimes there’s shortbread.

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John Hewitt

The John Hewitt Society is a non-profit set up to promote literature, arts, and culture inspired by the ideals and ideas of the poet John Hewitt. This was my first time to go, but it won’t be the last.

For a countryman the living landscape is
a map of kinship at one level,
at another, just below this, a chart of use,
never at any level a fine view:
sky is a handbook or labour or idleness;
wind in one airt is the lapping of hay,
in another a long day at turf on the moss;
landscape is families, and a lone man
boiling a small pot, and letters once a year;
it is also, underpinning this, good corn
and summer grazing for sheep free of scab
and fallow acres waiting for the lint.
So talk of weather is also talk of life,
and life is man and place and these have names.

Landscape by John Hewitt

I was in Armagh as a winner of a bursary to attend the school, and going there brought back pleasant memories of college, especially on the first day when we had to register and collect our packets of information. As in college, there was that simultaneous rush of excitement and shyness at meeting a throng of new people.

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Sarah Howe

I spend much of my time in the company of imaginary people, who as a rule I prefer to the other kind, but it turns out I might not be as anti-social as I thought.

I had a thousand interesting conversations and wished I’d had time for ten thousand more.

Where else would you find yourself  in a few short hours discussing nineteenth-century architecture, witchcraft in Ireland in the eighteenth century, Heidegger’s poetics, road bowling, the ritual and significance of tattoos, medieval walled gardens, the exact sort of knock on the door required for admittance to a lock-in, the GAA’s eligibility rules, Mötley Crüe, the superiority of Doc Martens over other boots, regional Irish dialects, the life and career of Victorian war correspondent William Howard Russell, whether you can risk a tipple when pregnant, the beauty and brutality of the sea, and the meaning of an empty room in a painting?

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Carlo Gébler

As part of my bursary, I was able to attend a short story workshop with Carlo Gébler, and it was utterly brilliant.

A story must be scrupulously true, Gébler said. He didn’t mean factual, of course; he meant that if the world of the story is not truly described, you will lose the reader.

It was an absolute privilege to listen as he outlined his ideas about what makes stories work, and to listen to him read from Chekhov, Orwell, Maupassant, Carver, Shalamov, and then best of all, from an as-yet unpublished short story of his own, one which gets the facts down correctly, is quite assuredly scrupulously true, is pitiless, does not waste a single word, and is utterly devastating.

I have the distinct impression that Carlo Gébler doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and in a different life he would have made a terrifying – but utterly brilliant – Victorian schoolmaster.

He insisted upon addressing me as Mr. McArdle while calling everyone else in the class by their first name, something I have been puzzling over for days, but he did use my first name when he signed his book.

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At the end of the week, students read out our work at a creative writing showcase. It was wonderful to hear poets and writers debut new pieces.

The Hewitt is also decidedly non-snobby. High-falutin’ literary authors hang out with sci-fi writers. Crime novelists share tea and scones with poets.

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Some of Jack Doherty’s work

It’s almost impossible for me to pick out my favourite event, but highlights of the week definitely include readings by poets Sarah Howe, Andrew McMillan, Ciaran Carson, Rita Ann Higgins, and Paul Durcan; interviews with authors Glenn Patterson, Belinda McKeon and Donal Ryan; music by Martin Hayes and David Power; an open mic night with songs, poetry, and stories; a fascinating talk about the artistic process by potter Jack Doherty; and a performance by Mikel Murfi in his one-man show The Man in the Woman’s Shoes.

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See this show as soon as you can. It’s brilliant: hilarious, moving and tender.

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Some of my haul of books, all bought from the stall run by No Alibis bookshop

I haven’t even talked about the city itself, which is lovely.

I spent a very pleasant hour in St. Patrick’s Cathedral (the Anglican one) gazing at its splendid ceiling, reading the inscriptions to fallen soldiers in the wars, and chatting with the Dean, a delightful character who would not be out of place in a country house mystery.

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Oh, and I visited some pubs. There may have been some drinking. I can’t really say much more than that because what happens in the John Hewitt Summer School stays in the John Hewitt Summer School.

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The week flew by and when it ended there was an awful sadness in the air because it was over too soon. People who had met as strangers on Monday morning milled about, bags in hand, reluctant to say goodbye, like children at the end of summer camp. We exchanged contact information and took selfies. I left Armagh with a bag full of books (thanks, No Alibis), a head full of ideas, a heart full of memories, and the soft and lingering feel of hugs and kisses from my new friends.

Go to the John Hewitt International Summer School if you get the chance. I guarantee you won’t regret it.

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