On Home Ground

Claire Savage takes in poetry, music and the debut public reading by children's author DD Everest  

The second On Home Ground festival takes place in the award-winning Laurel Villa Guesthouse in Magherafelt, a hive of artistic activity which has a poetic genius burning at its core – Seamus Heaney.

Celebrating the life, work and legacy of Bellaghy’s most famous son one year after his untimely death, On Home Ground is organised by Eugene and Gerardine Kielt, in partnership with the Verbal Arts Centre. With everyone from Laureate na nÓg Eoin Colfer to Gary Lighbody of Snow Patrol taking part, it features an eclectic programme of events.

Walking down the sloped entryway into Laurel Villa, where poetry tents beckon, there is a steady buzz of literary-infused conversation, complemented by dainty homemade scones and a steady supply of tea and coffee.

Poets and authors, artists and musicians, mingle with members of the public and there is an air of anticipation as visitors flit between readings and exhibitions, soaking up the rich variety of talent on offer.

BBC arts broadcaster, Marie-Louise Muir, is the festival’s curator and offers an immediate warm welcome to new arrivals. Events run simultaneously, so it’s a case of pick one or two, or taste the flavour of a few. I go for the latter.

As the tea cups clink and the scones get scoffed, poets Damian Smyth and Myra Vennard join singer-songwriter, Ciara O’Neill, in the smaller poetry tent. Smyth, head of literature and drama at the Arts Council Northern Ireland, has five poetry collections to his name, while O’Neill has just released her debut EP, Primroses. Vennard published first poetry collection, Easter Saturday, in 2009.

It’s O’Neill’s haunting vocals that open this intimate event, her song ‘Ghosts’ rather fittingly followed by a poem from Heaney’s Electric Light collection, read by Vennard.

The Bellaghy man’s words are woven throughout the session, with O’Neill singing her musical version of ‘Twice Shy’ – written by Heaney for his wife, Marie – and Smyth reading ‘The Lagan’s Road’. 'It just shows how great a poet Heaney was,' remarks O’Neill. 'His words are almost like songwriting.'

Leaving the trio in search of further festival gems, business journalist turned children’s novelist DD Everest adds another dimension to the day. His novel Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret has already been dubbed the next Harry Potter and although only hot off the press, the kids are already riveted.

In a cosy room stuffed with books and with Colin Davidson’s huge portrait of Heaney smiling down on the enraptured audience, here is proof that young love for the written word is alive and well. 

Despite this being his first ever public reading, Everest easily casts a spell over those in attendance. The fact that he lives just a stone’s throw away from Winnie the Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood in Sussex delights his young fans. Fresh from Faber & Faber’s stable, Everest is clearly surprised and delighted by the enthusiasm with which his words are received.

Speaking afterwards, the author admits that he has written other unpublished books, but it was Archie who hooked his publisher. Archie Green is a magical tale ‘where bookshelves are enchanted, librarians are sorcerers and spells come to life’, and it’s seemingly already inspiring young minds.

'I’ve always written fiction, ever since I was tiny,' Everest reveals in the Q&A. 'The only thing is, somebody wants to publish it now. I just always wanted to have my own fantastical world, ever since I read Tolkien and Narnia.' It would appear that this On Home Ground author has already achieved his dream.

Readings continue as the festival draws to a close for its second successful year. Having soaked up poetry, art, music and more, there is plenty of food for thought as the day draws on. Heaney – a steady presence throughout the festival – would no doubt be proud of the talent on show.

Read Nuala McAllistar Hart's review of broadcaster Seamus McKee reading at On Home Ground 2014.