Irish President Michael D Higgins sets the bar very high when he opens this year’s John Hewitt International Summer School in the Market Place Theatre in Armagh on Monday, organised by the John Hewitt Society.
In a dazzling address, Higgins ranges from the ongoing tragedy in Gaza – which he imagines would both ‘break Hewitt’s heart... and force his pen’ – through Hewitt’s writings and that of philosophers Denis de Rougement and Paul Ricoeur on European identity.
He explores the interrelations of Hewitt and the writers of his generation, particularly John Montague, who will speak later in the week. It is a brilliant exploration of the theme of this year’s summer school – Hewitt’s concept of ‘regionalism’, and its potential to hold multiple identities in a rich balance and that would reject ‘any accommodating amnesia as to the complex past'.
The warm ovation at the end is accompanied by general marvelling that a Head of State could be both so eloquent and so scholarly. It is one of the joys of the summer school – named after the acclaimed poet and arts facilitator – that it can move through a range of levels and tones, and the President’s address is followed by a bravura performance by Joseph O’Connor of extracts from his new novel, The Thrill of it All, which has people weeping with laughter.
And then tears of a different kind as editor and poet Peter Fallon gives the inaugural Heaney and O’Driscoll Memorial Lecture, remembering his friends and the poets he had published. Fallon, I think, reminds us all of the gift we have been party to in their poetry and their lives.
This year’s week-long programme is so strong that it is impossible to get through all of it in person, but personal highlights for me also include the first daytime poetry reading, which features Fallon and one of his newest and most talented writers, Ciaran Berry.
Berry is originally from Falcarragh in Donegal but lives and teaches now in Connecticut, and although he has read in Dublin, this is the first time for many of us present in Armagh, who have loved his first two Gallery collections, to hear his voice.
Fallon jokes about being upstaged by the younger poet but it is a strong double reading and he must have been delighted by the buzz around it. With such a sense of loss after Seamus Heaney's death in August 2013, this has the feeling of a baton being passed into very capable hands.
Creative writing is now a strong part of the John Hewitt International Summer School, and workshops in poetry, drama and a range of fictions mean that most participants are themselves writing throughout a week that gives them access to advice and exempla from a whole range of practitioners.
Novelist David Park wryly dismisses any notions of a mystical formula for writing and instead advises people to just sit down and write, in whatever circumstances they find themselves.
And on Wednesday evening we have a masterclass in drama with the tour de force that is Pat Kinevane’s play, Silent, which explores homelessness and its links to issues of sexual identity and mental illness, powerfully through a performance that uses dance and interaction with the audience to devastating effect.
The John Hewitt Society worried for a few years about the health of its summer school, as their annual audience aged and seemed in danger of decline.
Yet conscious efforts to forge links via its bursary and volunteer schemes with Northern Ireland's many Creative Writing groups, with the Open University’s Creative Writing Programme and especially with the Seamus Heaney Centre at Queen's – and its yearly cohort of young graduate writers – means that there is a sense of an audience invigorated and inclusive.
New voices are being heard too. For example, in the inclusion of The Lifeboat reading, a series that pairs a new writer with an established one. This week might be described as ‘a sovereignty of serious intimacy’ that President Higgins reminds us was John Hewitt’s aspiration for this small region, but it is also great fun.
The John Hewitt International Summer School continues in the Market Place Theatre, Armagh until August 1. The photo collage image above is printed with the kind permission of photographer John Baucher.