Charlie Donnelly Winter School 2006

Ryan Dunne raises a glass to socialism in Coalisland's Craic Theatre

Martina Devlin, author and judge of 2006’s Creative Writing Competition at the Charlie Donnelly Winter School, has made me feel better about my ignorance. The truth is I’d never heard of Charlie Donnelly before.

Research yielded little except that he was a Tyrone-born idealist who founded several socialist groups and, before his untimely death in the Spanish Civil War, knocked out a few politically-minded poems. But even though Martina is guest speaker at tonight’s event she admits in a whisper and that she didn’t know much about him either.

‘I started reading up on him when I first learnt about the Winter School,’ she informs me. ‘Of course I’d heard his famous quote about the Spanish Civil War, “even the olives are bleeding”, which sums up the horrors of that conflict.’

The Charlie Donnelly Winter School, now in its fourth year, celebrates the life of a relatively obscure figure better remembered for his politics than his poetry. Killed at twenty-two on the battlefields of Spain and with just a smattering of poetic works to his name, Charlie Donnelly somehow made enough of an impression on his homeland to still be remembered here nearly seventy years after his death.

But what was it about the man that prompted the Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council in 2001 to honour his brief time on this planet?

‘If any other part of the world had this sort of character, a poet, a revolutionary, someone who went off to fight against fascism and died in the Spanish Civil war, that person would definitely be recognised and celebrated,’ declares Francis Molloy, Mayor of Dungannon and South Tyrone Borough Council.

‘Charlie Donnelly’s name was always coming up, particularly in Christy Moore songs, and we realised that here was a local figure that had never really gotten the recognition he deserved.’

The Winter School, now based at the Craic Theatre in Coalisland, is funded by the Council’s 'Return of the Earls' initiative which was implemented in 2001 for the ‘recognition, regeneration and posterity’ of arts and culture.

‘Charlie fought in the Spanish Civil War and we here in Northern Ireland are coming out of a conflict situation,’ Mayor Molloy continues. ‘Can we learn from our mistakes, can we use the experience for the future? This programme is to help mend bridges between the communities.’

In keeping with Donnelly’s socialist leanings and the Winter School’s message of community, the subject of this year’s Creative Writing Competition was ‘My Place in Society’. Refreshingly the winning entries eschewed the traditional trapping of Irish fiction, bog mists or balaclava dramas, favouring more modern themes such as society’s attitude towards homosexuality, as explored in Michelle Willis’s second-place entry The Truth.

Returning to her native county for the competition as a way of ‘giving something back’, Martina Devlin believes that regardless of standard or style the important thing for aspiring writers is simply to pick up the pen and put their passions down on paper.

‘There’s a great love of writing among Irish people that goes all the way back to our story-telling tradition, and we usually punch above our weight internationally as writers. We just love words,’ Martina enthuses. ‘It doesn’t matter where you go I think you carry your home town in your heart. Your experiences shape your writing. I mean Charlie Donnelly was able to use the Spanish Civil War as inspiration. Of course I haven’t been in a war-zone – unless you count growing up in Omagh in the ‘70s!'

Undoubtedly Donnelly contributed more to the cause of Irish socialism than he ever did to the world of literature, a legacy reflected in the Winter School’s agenda which rather emphasises politics more than poetry.

Friday night’s programme concludes with a panel discussion - the topic is Socialism: Expectation and Reality, an issue that even to my apolitical thinking seems oddly outdated. Surely the war is over and the towering victor capitalism, bless her fat bulging shanks. What epitaph is needed for socialism? Still, the BBC’s Noel Thompson is chairing the debate and the PUP’s David Irvine was sporting enough to have travelled so far behind enemy lines, so I join the considerable crowd repairing from the bar to the auditorium for an evening of light political theatre.

Joining Irvine on the panel are Edwin Poots MLA and Mick O’Reilly, Regional Secretary of Transport and General Workers Union who strides the stage with the labour-class zeal of a Sean O’Casey character. The on-stage rhetoric prompts rebukes from an audience that cuts across the divides of sex, class and age, with a lively mix of the politically active, the easily amused and the obligatory gaggle of students in Citizen Smith regalia who always confuse a boring list of facts with an intelligent argument. The bar, thankfully, is still serving at the end, a warm reminder of how wonderful it is to live in a capitalist country.

Rounding off the Winter School, Saturday night’s Poets and Pints shenanigans reflect the multicultural flavour of modern South Tyrone. Derry musician Joe Mulheron presides over a mix of music, dance and storytelling, from the bodhran and fiddles of Irish traditional balladeers such as Barry Lynch, PJ McDonnell and Mickey Diamond to the pipes and drums of Newry’s Piping Hot, and if there’s room in this country for road-signs written in Ulster-Scots there’s certainly room for a little flamenco dancing, provided by Caroline Creggan and her girls.

While the artists entertain in the auditorium the pints continue to flow in the bar. Display boards erected in the foyer host a gallery of old photographs, wartime flyers, newspaper headlines, a sketch of Ireland’s early twentieth century fight against the forces of fascism. A tribute to a lost phase in Irish history, a reminder of a time when the country wasn’t afraid to take a stance.

As a celebration of local talent the Winter School has been a success, but perhaps Charlie Donnelly should be best remembered as one of the last great Irish idealists.