Martin Mooney interviews the controversial Fred Johnston: poet, musician, founder of Cúirt Literature Festival and the Western Writers Centre. Pt. 1
You were born in Belfast, but you’ve been Galway based for many years now. How did you come to settle there? Do you consider yourself an exile?
I lived first in Dublin, working in journalism and PR there. It may seem odd now, but many of us, by the mid-70s, considered Dublin to be over, everything that could be achieved had been achieved; the Project Arts Centre was up and running, myself and Neil Jordan with Peter Sheridan had set up the Irish Writers’ Co-operative – artists and writers of all types wanted something fresh.
There was much youthful pub-talk of ‘going West’ to set up arts centres and the like, commune-based; not the Arts Council-directed empty spaces you have now, run by an arts’ civil service. I got an Arts Council bursary to attend a series of literary workshops under Anthony Cronin at Galway university. They’ve discontinued these, God knows why. My father and I had come to Galway, like all good northerners, for our annual holidays for years, of course. I met someone, I settled here. I have a daughter, Saoirse, she’s almost 27, lives abroad.
Galway was a village then – still is, in many ways. Galway Arts Festival was a university event. Kenny’s Bookshop was there. Nothing else. Galway was never a culture-based town, traditionally it was commercially-based, centred round the docks, which are useless now. Frank Harris, Padraic O Conaire, Walter Macken all came from there, but it was never a literary place.
And yes I am an exile and feel it even more now. There’s a set, a parochial social order in Galway and this template naturally applies, with all its middle-class affectation at the root, to the arts. A small group of essentially the same people, only the faces change, runs the arts here. I’ve a reputation for being ‘difficult’. I question things. That’s considered to be impudently disruptive.
You’ve been investigating your Northern Irish roots in poems for some time now. Can you say a bit about your family background?
My Belfast side of the family were Methodists, trade unionists and unionists, and none of that’s a contradiction. My father was a quiet man, interested in everything. My uncle ran on the Labour ticket for the old Stormont. My mother’s side came from Dublin, were strong Collins-ites, adored the Queen, were ebullient and rowdy.
My father’s father was secretary of the East Belfast Constitutional Workingman’s Club. It’s still there. I carry a bit of both into my own dealings with people, a straightforward pragmatism, I suppose, with a short fuse for the schoolboy arrogance of privileged adult children who’ve never known a wet day in their lives. I have a detestation of moral cowardice, and I’ve met plenty of it in the arts world.
My father would have a bottle of stout and sing a song and go to bed. My mother, however, wanted the party to last forever. She’d been in the chorus-line on Belfast’s Empire Theatre during the War and people still stopped her in Belfast in the street when I was a kid: ‘Aren’t you Blondie?’, using her stage-name. That set her up for the day. She tried to get me to continue the dream by putting me on stage when I learned first to play the guitar; I did halls all over the province, and in Belfast. That’s a book in itself.
In middle-age I realised I’d abandoned my northern family. I began a painful reassessment of a whole set of values. I realised I was, in the end, a northerner, and would always be one. Yes, that immediately set me apart in the Republic. So I set out to find where it all originated, this ‘northernness’. I was glad I’d found it. It made sense. It made a whole. The poems became detective stories.
You’ve often said that Irish poets can be complacent or insular, and have argued for more engagement in the social life of our communities and countries. Is there a difference between how writers from North and South align themselves to the social or political world?
Irish poets in the Republic have not in the main shown a readiness to confront social issues, either in their work or by letters or articles for publication. Throughout the revelations, tribunals, political scandals, there has been a bothersome silence here.
It takes a different social and ethical background to create a notion of public responsibility, of a greater good, of doing the honourable thing, the British had it, for all their faults, and so too did Ulster people, imbued with a Presbyterian or Dissenter righteousness.
It seems to me that in the north of Ireland, the Troubles ensured that writers were not fooled by the misuse of political language, of language in general, and they produced a body of work, not all of which is brilliant or timeless, but which nonetheless confronted head-on, and often bravely, the frequently debauched language of politics.
This was important to them because they dealt in language and the results of misuse of language – of un-language – was visible all around them in violence, prejudice and murder. They produced a corrective, if you like. A tension between the writer as individual and the writer as someone-who-might-be-killed-today-like-anyone-else-or-knows-someone-who-has-been, to exaggerate a little, produced a literary reaction, a voice. And this was supported by, again, a very Presbyterian refusal to be shut-up. Northern Catholics, being as different in outlook from their southern counterparts as can be imagined, reacted by unconsciously echoing ‘Ulster says No!’ when it came to being quiet and timid in the face of political outrage.
One way of bringing poetry closer to public life is through events and institutions – you might call it infrastructure. You founded Galway city's annual literature festival Cúirt, and more recently, the Western Writers Centre. Yet you often come across as sceptical of established institutions in the arts. Do you feel a conflict between your work as a poet and your work in or with institutions?
My contribution in the way you mean to the arts in Galway has always been fraught with opposition; no sooner was the first Cúirt a success than efforts were made to dump me, and this eventually was done. That affected me deeply, it was, and not only in my view, a shameful act. The Writers’ Centre too has met with silent or anonymous opposition.
Generally, I am very sceptical about arts institutions, particularly those that do not have artists working for them. There are careers to be made which have nothing to do with the practise of or welfare of art. I’ve seen that.
Yet once I take an Arts Council grant, am I damned anyway? Once I apply on behalf of an organisation for a grant, am I similarly compromised? The short answer is yes, I am.
No artist can work with a state arts’ body for long and not come away sceptical, even a little damaged, in the end. One witnesses the constant bastardising of one’s art. There’s nothing transcendent, nothing spiritual. Little enough is judged on merit anyway; there’s more lobbying than any artist has the energy for. Every artist should strive to be as independent from applying for grants and that sort of thing as he or she can be. The actual act of writing or creating is so far removed from the head-space it takes to be an administrator that it’s unreal. Artists don’t need administrators. Arts councils can’t appreciate that.