'Like moon dust dropped on Armagh': the rapid rise of the John O'Connor arts festival

In just two years, the event has gone from an unknown prospect to one which lights up the city with four days of literary magic

Now in its third year, the John O’Connor Writing School and Literary Arts Festival has fairly quickly acquired a glowing reputation in the world of literary events. Launched in Armagh back in 2016, the then three-day event will take place across four days in November (Nov 1-4) and boasts quite a line-up of speakers and tutors.

Having secured the Armagh born, and now New York-based Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Paul Muldoon as patron early on, the festival continues to draw high-calibre writers from far and wide. Indeed, as editor and production manager for the festival, Kathryn Baird, points out, with its growing reputation, writers are now knocking on their door to take part.

'At the beginning we were totally unknown as a festival,' she says. 'We would ring people and they were hesitant about accepting. Now, we have them writing to us and asking to be part of it.'

Thanks to Muldoon’s involvement, the inaugural festival saw the poet’s now infamous variety show – Muldoon’s Picnic - take place outside New York for the first time. Described by Muldoon as an ‘omnium-gatherum’, the Picnic has two ‘acts’ and features songs, poetry and stories, with different artists taking part.

'The first year when we had Muldoon’s Picnic no one knew what to expect, but the atmosphere was electric,' says Baird. 'Somebody actually said on Facebook afterwards that it was as if someone had ‘dropped moon dust on Armagh’. It was absolutely wonderful. Paul Muldoon was up on the stage rapping with the Horslips and people were jumping out of their seats.'

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Lisa McInerney

Always a 'huge draw' and 'very exciting,' Muldoon’s Picnic has now become a staple event at the festival and this year features another great line-up, with fiction writers Lisa McInerney and Paul McVeigh joining poets Mark Doty, Maureen Boyle and Peter Fallon. Music will also be performed by Horslips.

'If you have artists of calibre involved from the outset then people are interested,' says Baird. 'What wasn’t proven that first year was our ability to organise a festival, but I think we’ve now proven we can.'

Another early supporter of the festival was Observer editor, Robert McCrum. A former editor-in-chief at Faber & Faber, he went on to become literary editor at the Observer and continues to be an associate editor for the paper, and a regular contributor to the Guardian.

'In that first year, when he came, he didn’t know anything about us,' says Baird. 'Since then he has been a huge support.

'We have both the writing school and the literary arts festival elements and this year, we were invited to the Jaipur Literature Festival. They were very interested in our model, as people have a chance to learn something as they go along.'

Indeed, Jaipur Literature Festival director, Namita Gokhale, was scheduled to attend the upcoming literary arts festival but has since had to pull out. Her replacement, however, is Fintan O’Toole, who will discuss his latest book, Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain.

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Fintan O'Toole

Taking place across a variety of venues in Armagh, which has a 'magnificent built environment,' says Baird, the festival has enjoyed healthy audiences from the outset. A former producer at the BBC, Baird has a production background, which she says helps when it comes to organising events and knowing what to expect.

'We’ve always done very well at our events,' she says. 'A lot of the audience are walk-ins, though we do advise everybody to book in advance if they can. The Picnic always sells out immediately. Ultimately, although we may have worried about numbers initially, they’re always very good.

'Our venues are delightful, for example, the Long Room of the Armagh Observatory Library, and they’re also quite small. We spread ourselves out across Armagh.'

Baird adds that their tagline, No borders, No Boundaries – Celebrate and Inspire, is intended to welcome everyone to their events. This no doubt helps attract a healthy audience, as it’s accessible to all. Meanwhile, less experienced writers are given the opportunity to join more established writers on stage, with the John O’Connor Creative Writers Group and Flash Fiction Armagh writers sharing their work.

'Cathy [McCullough, festival Chairperson] has always felt strongly that this should be an open-access festival,' she says. 'You don’t have to have a degree in English to enjoy it. In fact, one of the things people say about the John O’Connor Festival is that it’s very warm and so friendly – a really vibrant festival. I think we’re doing something really special.'

For the upcoming festival, audiences can look forward to another exciting programme of speakers and tutors. These include everyone from BBC Radio 4’s Roger McGough, to singer/songwriter Gareth Dunlop, actor Susan Lynch and of course, poet Paul Muldoon.

'I think it’s a wonderful thing for us to have Roger McGough, who presents Poetry Please on Radio 4 and was formerly part of the legendary pop-poetry groups, The Scaffold and GRIMMS,' says Baird. 'He’s also president of the Poetry Society.

'We have Paul Muldoon’s new translation and performance of 'The Lament for Art O’Leary', which he says is the greatest love poem in the Irish language, featuring Lisa Dwan, an actress who performs Beckett. It has elements from the tradition of lamenting but there’s also lots of personal notes.'

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Lisa Dwan

Belfast singer/songwriter Gareth Dunlop is also running a songwriting workshop and will perform with Lisa Lambe at the Festival Club. Meanwhile, actor Susan Lynch, who appears in the new series of Doctor Who, will be in conversation with playwright and screenwriter, Daragh Carville. Robert McCrum will also be in conversation with the deputy director of the British Museum, Joanna Mackle, while Peter Fallon will be teaching poetry.

'It all just develops organically,' says Baird. 'We always know that we want very high-calibre writing school tutors and people with Armagh connections and we know that we want the people we invite along to be good, but not inaccessible.

'The one thing people all say is what good fun it has been. So come along and just try it, even if you haven’t been to a literary festival before!'

The John O’Connor Writing School and Literary Arts Festival take place in Armagh from November 1-4, 2018. Visit www.thejohnoconnorwritingschool.com/ for more details and to book tickets.