John Hewitt Summer School Launch

This year's summer school features 35 events from more than 100 writers, artists commentators and lecturers

When politics fails, should we call on culture? It's a thought prompted by the estimable philosophy of the annual John Hewitt International Summer School. Their mission statement, in modern parlance, states that the aim of this artistic event is to ‘explore political and cultural issues through literature and the arts - and to encourage residents of Northern Ireland to think critically about the world around them’. Never was an artistic solution to political and societal woes more needed than now, with Stormont in stasis, the EU in crisis post-Brexit and talks about hard borders between Ulster and Eire.

Helena Kennedy QC is giving the introductory address on Monday, July 24, which is rather a coup for the committee. She says she is a believer in the power of the arts to address issues outside the cultural remit. Poetry is a passion of Mrs Kennedy. ‘I absolutely believe in the power of culture to help in difficult times. I'm a woman who always has a book of poetry by her bedside. At the moment, I am reading the American poet Mary Oliver. We go on holiday to Cape Cod every summer and I met her a few years ago. I often find myself using her work in speeches to students, finding little phrases. One line I've used is 'What are you going to do with your one wild, precious life?' Baroness Kennedy then goes on to provide the answer to this crucial question: ‘What we all want to do is to make a difference. Students now may feel apprehensive (in the current economic climate) about their future, about jobs, even graduate students.’

Another poet whose output features on Helena Kennedy's bedside table is Ben Okri. ‘He's a great poet and even poetic in his prose. One anthology I often refer to is Staying Alive which I frequently gift to people.’ A fan of Northern Irish poets such as Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, Helena Kennedy underlines the particular value of poetic utterance, ‘Michael Longley puts things so well and has a poet's purity of thought. It's about searching for a pure language.’

An ex-chair of the British Council, Helena Kennedy talks freely about the civilising potential of great art. She reveals that reading and books were her route from a modest background in Glasgow to her high-flying law career and a seat as a Labour peer in the House of Lords. ‘My parents were working class and I was brought up on a modest estate in Glasgow but every week, my father took me to the library to borrow books and that was the start of my journey.’

Everyone attending this year's John Hewitt Summer School will also have a chance to take a similar artistic trip. On Monday evening, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities will look at the way poets have provided insights into Northern Ireland's own journey towards peace. Joint organiser of a key Summer School event presented in conjunction with Poetry Ireland and titled In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, Eleanor Methven, an actress and arts expert originally from Mid-Ulster, says she was thrilled to be involved. ‘This is just amazing to be part of the Dreams event. It was lovely to be asked and is a programme that began when the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs was putting together a literary event about writings since 1912 including readings about the history of the build-up to the ceasefire in Northern Ireland. The show will also star actor Aidan Gillen & singer Brian Kennedy.

Aiden & Brian

Actor Aiden Gillen and singer Brian Kennedy

‘It began in 2016 with support from Maureen Kennelly at Poetry Ireland and Lynne Parker and is about poetry and also visual art.’

The readings include, as you would expect, WB Yeats' magisterial poem Easter 1916 as well as work by the brilliant late playwright Stewart Parker and equally stellar Brian Friel. Methven says, ‘We've included excerpts from Friel's Freedom of the City.’ This is a seminal work about which The Wall Street Journal commented that ‘Politics make most men stupid - but not Brian Friel’ and should prove illuminating.

John Hewitt Summer School Programme - July 24 - July 29

Actor John Paul Connolly is involved with at least three events this year, including In Dreams Begin Responsibilities. He declares himself a believer in cultural catharsis in tough times. Down the line from North London where he lives, Connolly says: ‘I really do think culture can help, psychologically. I've just had an email from a Croatian director I know who has just seen Jez Butterworth's The Ferryman. It's made her understand the Troubles. I was a child in the '70s, a teen in the '80s and what we went through was incredibly difficult but writing and reading about it helps.’

He adds that as a ‘wishy washy, arty farty’ he feels good theatre is cathartic. He goes on to say that he remains optimistic about the future of his homeland, which he regularly visits. ‘I think the Good Friday Agreement simply has to hold. We've come so far in Northern Ireland that we can never go back to how it was in the '70s and '80s or ever go back to the hard border, which wasn't even considered before the ill advised EU referendum.’

Connolly, who trained at RADA alongside his friend Richard Dormer, will actually be ready for the task. His other jobs include reading from The Rule of the Land on Friday, July 28. This will be a poetic performance of the work written by Garrett Carr who walked the Irish border and investigated questions of identity. Connolly refers to the border in a scathing aside about the fallout from Brexit, noting that the people wanting to leave Europe seem to have no idea that Ireland belongs to the EU. ‘They talk about the Channel but the real border is of course 300 miles to the west. That's the border with Europe, with 300 millions of people on the other side.' On a more positive note, John Paul Connolly states that he thinks optimism is infectious. 'I really do think hope is catching.’

He notes that the Summer School is providing a valuable therapeutic tool to society here: ‘There has never been more need for Hewitt's message. I was aware of him but being involved has given me more awareness of Hewitt's significance.

A career highlight of a different kind, maybe even a low light, was appearing in the last ever episode of Birds of a Feather.

‘It was a Christmas special and included a scene with Linda Robson giving birth in a manger. I was one of the girls' Irish relatives...to be honest, I am not sure they should have revived it!’ John Paul Connolly adds that he has been looking forward to this rather more serious project. ‘It's an important event and I am excited to be participating.’

The John Hewitt Summer School runs from July 24 - July 29. For more information on the John Hewitt Summer School events, click here.