The John O’Connor Winter School

A new writing festival backed by Paul Muldoon honours Armagh's lost literary great with a unique series of masterclasses and special events

In the first weekend of November the city of Armagh will host a new literary festival – The John O’Connor Winter School – comprising a Writing School and a Literary Festival. The driving force behind the weekend is Cathy McCullough, Chairperson of the school and niece of its namesake.

Born in Mill Row, Armagh in 1920, you might be forgiven for not recognising John O'Connor's name but the name of his novel, Come Day, Go Day may ring a bell. It tells the story of an Armagh family, the Coyles, based closely on his own, and those who know the book love it. Benedict Kiely called it a little masterpiece and Damien Smith describes it as touchstone for many Irish writers.  

It was first published in 1948 and there was a Blackstaff edition in the 1980s but it will be reissued during the Winter School by Liberties Press of Dublin and a blue plaque will be erected by the Ulster History Circle on the house where O’Connor grew up in St Columba’s Terrace, Banbrook Hill.

McCullough tells me how her uncle left school at fourteen but wanted to write and took a correspondence course before his work began to gain the attention of Sam Hanna Bell and John Boyd – who brought him to write for the BBC and encouraged his writing.

John O'Connor 2

Despite producing only a modest (but celebrated) body of work during his life – a novel and some 25 short stories, plus pieces for the BBC - this man has clearly remained a very living presence in both the city and in the family home where she grew up.

‘I grew up in the house where John lived’, she says, ‘with my grandmother and mother and although I never met him, his was an unspoken presence in that house – a very real and strong presence.’

O'Connor left Ireland in 1952 and died alone in a boarding house in Queensland, Australia of peritonitis only seven years later. McCullough remembers the telegram coming to their house with news of his death and the hushed silence that surrounded it.

For years it wasn’t spoken of but she grew up seeing the photograph of her uncle that hung in the family home and believes that his ambition to better himself through writing – he founded The Reader’s Magazine in Armagh to sponsor new writing - set her on her own path and is an inspiration she wants others to have too.

The idea for the School then, grew out of an initial series of events at the John Hewitt Summer School in Armagh in the summer of 2015 which included a very memorable concert in his honour, featuring Paul Brady, Paul Muldoon and some members of Horslips.

Paul Muldoon by Adrian Cook

Festival patron Paul Muldoon

From this, and encouraged by the interest of people in Armagh – who retain memories of O’Connor as a colourful character who wore pink socks, orange ties, was a great sportsman and was ‘just a bit scandalous’ in his mother’s eyes - grew the conviction that there should at least be some kind of pop-up festival to mark the re-publication of O’Connor’s novel, but having put such work into the inaugural programme there is hope already that events will follow regularly in future.

McCullough was delighted when Paul Muldoon agreed to be patron of the new school and Muldoon, who teaches at Princeton and is the Poetry Editor of the New Yorker, invokes the old monastic tradition when at its height there may have been up to 7000 scholars studying in the city of Armagh.

In his introduction Muldoon makes the link between reading and writing that is to be tenet of this new school – that it is in reading that a writer learns how to write – something that sounds heartfelt in a creative writing tutor.

The new school may not boast quite so many students in this its inaugural year but it will host an ambitious and impressive range of workshops and masterclasses across the genres, taught by practitioners like Bernie McGill, Malachi O’Doherty, Maria McManus, Barry Devlin, Jim Lockhart, Geoff Hill, Daragh Carville and Muldoon himself. These are described as ‘masterclasses’ but application is open and there is some flexibility available to suit attendees.

Many literary festivals now include writing classes but in this case the literary festival is there in support of the classes which take primacy and also, as Joris Minne, one of the school’s organising committee explains, the School will uniquely include a strand of classes in what is described as ‘Commercial Non-Fiction Writing’. It's something he believes is very much in the spirit of John O’Connor - encouraging good writing in any setting and looking at how businesses can help themselves through learning to write advertising copy or press releases. He is particularly excited to include blogger Sara O’Neill, who is originally from Portstewart and who writes blogs for the likes of Brown Thomas and will look at fashion and style blogging.

Classes are being held throughout the city, making use of its many and beautiful libraries as well as historic buildings like the Charlemont Arms Hotel and are timed to allow students to attend the festival events, which include the first ever 'Muldoon's Picnic' staged outside New York, a concert by Derry’s Bronagh Gallagher – herself fast becoming something of a poet in song - and interviews with Robert McCrum and Sean O’Hagan.  

It is a busy and exciting programme and underlying all of it are the ideals of a writer who died fifty years ago kept alive by his hometown, his family and his niece, who adds ‘You can move from where you were born and be what you want to be and write what you want to write,’ - ideas of writing as aspiration which must inspire at a time when such social mobility is often curbed elsewhere.

The John O’Connor Writing School and Literary Festival takes place from November 3 - 6. Full programme and booking information can be found at www.thejohnoconnorwritingschool.com.