Tuesday, May 28, 2013

May 23rd - 25th; 2013 International Seminar on John McGahern

The drive, on Thursday 23rd May, from Baltimore to Carrick-on-Shannon to attend ‘The 2013 International Seminar on John McGahern’ was long but worthwhile; notwithstanding my confidence that I would enjoy the event, the experience far exceeded my expectations.  Packed into an evening and two full days were an eclectic bricolage of disquisitions, tours and impromptu social gatherings over evening meals at ‘The Oarsman’.

The seminar kicked-off on Thursday evening with a lecture by Professor of Irish History Roy Foster concerning the Irish ‘revolution’ and subsequent civil war, events that shaped McGahern’s life, consequently inspiring much of his writing.  Friday was a full day of lectures and readings.  First onto the podium were dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker and dubliner Claire Kilroy who each read from their books and answered questions from the audience, the most interesting of which to me was a question concerning the value of literary prizes; Bakker said he enjoyed the money; Claire Kilroy enjoyed the recognition that her Rooney Prize had brought her to the attention of British publishers and through them a much wider audience for her work.  Professor Nicholas Allen then delivered an incisive paper about McGahern and the Republic.  This rather full-on morning finished with a hilariously measured reading by Booker shortlisted author, Patrick McCabe, from his book, ‘The Stray Sod Country’.

After lunch Dr Heather Laird delivered an interesting lecture, ‘The Writer as a Reader: McGahern on Irish Literature’, which she illustrated with readings from McGahern’s writing ending, chillingly I thought, with this unpublished extract from ‘A Literature without Qualities’:
“I think what is happening - for economic, political and social reasons - is that the reader is predetermined in advance and that the contents of literature are imposed on the reader by means of things outside of literature.  On bookjackets, in newspaper articles, through publicity and blackmail of bestsellers, one passes over actual text; whatever value it might have is secondary.  Consequently, the reader thinks he knows in advance what he must find in a book, and whether or not he finds it has finally no importance whatsoever.  In my opinion it has to do with a plan of a repressive nature, contrived to do away with the aesthetic experience, which is after all an extreme form of liberty.”
Chilling perhaps, but very perceptive.

Heather’s act was an unenviable act to have to follow but professor Angela Bourke was well up to the task.  Her lecture was a commentary on David Thompson’s, ‘Woodbrook’, a memoir ‘much admired by John McGahern’, from which she read illustrative excerpts.  The lecture concluded with a screening of a short video clip cut from a fascinating late interview with David Thompson filmed at Woodbrook, in which he recalls his days there with his beloved Phoebe.

From the end of the day’s lectures to the six o’clock muster on the quayside for an evening river excursion there was little time for more than a private visit to the bookshop, ‘The Reading Room’ where I stocked up on books mentioned during the day.  The weather for the trip up river on the Shannon to Cootehall was perfect.  As the boat glided gently over the water past Woodbrook House author, and expert reader, Brian Leyden read passages from David Thompson’s book.  Particularly poignant for me was Brian’s reading, as the boat nosed into the creek in front of the house, of the passage from the book in which David Thompson recalls his first arrival at the house.  At Cootehall, where McGahern spent much of his later childhood, there was a convivially light break at Henry’s Bar while we waited for the coach to return us to Carrick where, with a group of participants and other visitors to the Symposium, I enjoyed an excellent dinner at ‘The Oarsman’.

Saturday was a far less mentally intense day.  It began with a coach trip to Aughawillan, McGahern’s birthplace, early childhood home and the resting place of his remains.  At the old school house, now a private house, where McGahern’s mother taught, Brian Leyden and
others performed appropriate dramatised readings from ‘Memoir’ and ‘Amongst Women’; the company then moved along the road to the entrance of a field for more excellently delivered dramatised readings.  In the Aughawillan village community centre we were entertained with tea and cakes and a short talk by Michael Harding, ‘Experience, Memory and Fiction’ followed by him reading from his most recently published book ‘Staring at Lakes’.
Back at in town, after a very hurried lunch, I joined an interesting guided stroll around ‘Historic Carrick’.  The last two sessions of the Symposium were an insight of the work involved cataloguing an archive, in this case John McGahern’s, by archivist Furgus Fahey followed by the final paper of the event, ‘McGahern and the Weather of the Times’, an erudite interpretation of McGahern’s literary legacy, by Mark Patrick Hederman, Abbot of Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick.

Being part of the Symposium was for me an inspiring and very enjoyable experience.  I met many warm and interesting people and had my mind stimulated.  Notwithstanding my several visits to ‘The Bookroom’, I also came home with a long list of books none of which I had hitherto heard!  If at all possible I shall certainly be back in Carrick for the 2014 Symposium. 

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