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Not your Ma: Armagh calling …

August 3, 2016

So – as I said on my webpage, I just went out for some milk.

Don’t need the phone, I said.

You have a missed call, the phone said.

Voicemail – from Armagh.

And so began the journey to the John Hewitt International Summer School – on a full bursary, no less. Many thanks to the mandarins at the Department of Foreign Affairs.


May I just say at this point – WOWZA!!

If you took in every event on the programme – and I took in a great many – you could have spent 12 to 14 hour days at the Market Theatre in Armagh. And that doesn’t count drinking time, or open mic time down Abbey Lane. May I also say, Market Theatre – great venue, chaps!

On the daily menu was a Talk (yes, with a capital T), Poetry reading, Fiction reading and Q&A, Creative Writing workshops, another Talk or Discussion, more poetry, or music, then in the later evening more music or theatre or both!

IMG_1476How to pick the highlights?

I could say that as a writer of (mostly) poetry, that the poetry resonated most with me.  I’ve been a fan of Sinéad Morrissey for a long time – since I took a workshop with her many moons ago in Dublin’s Writers’ Centre. It’s always a pleasure to hear new work from her … and she treated us to new work. Reading with Sinéad was Sarah Howe, who scooped the T.S Eliot Prize with her eloquent debut Loop of Jade.  You can find out more about Sarah here.

The poetry readings throughout the week fizzed – they were so diverse, so lively, so engaging.  And big congratulations to the JHISS committee not just for getting these poets, but for the way they paired them at readings. So we had Matthew Francis celebrating the 20th anniversary of his first collection – reading from it, but also from the atmospheric Muscovy – teamed with Jane Yeh, who had us all travelling in spirit with a panda who didn’t want to leave Washington Zoo for China. I love the look of Jane’s website.

There was another interesting team on Wednesday morning, with readings from Catriona O’Reilly and the wonderful Andrew McMillan – told when being introduced that he ‘must try harder’. Guffaws all around – this guy has won nearly everything going!  His vivid poems of male love and longing will stay with me, but especially the poem about the electrician’s (I think) grand-daughter: a simple text setting off the spark that we writers capture with gratitude and, when lucky, build to a flame. McMillan certainly did with that poem.

There were readings by the Gallery Press poets, Ciaran Carson, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin – our new Irish Professor of Poetry – and Tom French. Plenty of food for thought in these readings, which finished with a lovely acknowledgement of the ending of independence for the Dept. of English at QUB.  Anyone in the audience who had studied at the department was invited to join the poets on the floor, while Cillian Vallely played an exquisite slow air on the uileann pipes. It was a well judged and moving tribute.


There were talks about poets too. Patrick Toland gave us a great account of Willoughby Weaving (great name) – a teacher and WWI veteran, and this year’s John Hewitt lecture was given by Gerald Dawe – reflecting on the poet in this decade of commemoration.

That was the theme of the Summer School this year – and some great discussions ensued, both inside and outside the theatre space.  Lucky us to be able to engage with people such as Ruth Dudley Edwards, Jeffrey Donaldson, Tom Hartley, John Concannon, Dawn Purvis and Bernadette McAliskey.

I haven’t even mentioned the fiction, nor the performances in the evening. Though I have to mention Martin. I spent the first couple of days channelling John the Baptist … preparing the way for Martin.  That would be Martin Hayes for you uninformed lot. Martin – or, our National Treasure, as I like to call him – played the fiddle, with uileann piper David Power – another mighty musician.  Ah – it was just class. Simples.


And then there were other readings – more poetry from Rita Ann Higgins and Grace Wells, and the Friday night showstopper that was Paul Durcan. They had to move him to the ‘big hall’, such was the demand for tickets. Sheer bloody brilliant, was Paul.  What else, now?  Well, Catríona Crowe of course. She of our National Archives and much more besides. Always an engaging lecturer and commentator … her talk was a great way to start a day.

I took Nessa O’Mahony’s workshop. I enjoyed putting poetry aside for a few days to concentrate on structuring fiction. Nessa will be back with another course at the Writers’ Centre in Dublin this autumn, folks.  Get details here.

What did I take away with me?

An image … a subject for a novel, or at least a poem.

Two new, roughly-drafted, poems – one of which is called’ Paul Durcan made me cry’.  He did, the terror. Once with pleasurable melancholy, then tears accompanied by fits of laughter.

New buddies. Niall McArdle says, What happens at JHISS stays at JHISS. I say, Hotel breakfasts will never be the same, guys.

Gratitude to the bursary system that allowed me to attend the JHISS for the whole week, to visit Armagh, and to link up with cousins and a friend who travelled from Belfast to be with me.

A new mission – to find out where John Hewitt actually is.  Martin Tyrell, are you up for it? (We’ll need Tony to organise an appropriate T-shirt.)

Memories. Of course.

Of people I met, of panel discussions, a line of poetry, notes still ghosting the air after musicians had left the stage, of Paul Durcan giving time to everyone he signed books for. Of David from No Alibis with his fab book stall, and the 10% price reduction! As you can see, I made a few purchases.


Finally, the people who made it all happen: Tony, the Pauls, Anne-Marie, Carmel, Bill, Stephen, Martin, and the gang at the front desk.  And, to quote Tony, ‘The coolest mayor in the world’ who presented us all with our certificates.

Thanks, JHISS. Thanks, everyone – I had a blast.

In a good way.


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  1. I love all the JHISS posts. Cheers for the shoutout; breakfasts back in Dublin have been rather dull

    • Har!!
      I thought it was about time I put something on the blog … or Stephen would have been after me! You’re right – it’s great to read the different takes on it all. Hope the teaching is going well. x

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