Of Heart and Land: Limavady Celebrates Steinbeck

The fifth annual series of events inspired by the Roe Valley-rooted Nobel Prize winner uses the human side of his work to highlight the area's natural beauty

With Irish ancestry – and very proud of it - the Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck once made a pilgrimage from his native California to the Limavady area in the 1950s. He wanted to explore the landscape he came from and walk on the soil of his ancestors.

Rather fittingly then perhaps, this year’s Steinbeck Celebration – which has been running in Limavady for the past five years - takes the theme of ‘The Human Heart and the Land’. Developed by Desima Connolly, manager and arts/cultural services officer at the Roe Valley Arts and Cultural Centre, the reasons for this are two-fold.

'This year I wanted to focus on the land because I came across a wonderful quote from the American author, Barry Lopez – a poet and an environmentalist – who said that Steinbeck fused the human heart and the land in his work,' she says. 'I loved that. What’s amazing in Steinbeck’s work is how he entwines humans with their landscape. The characters are very attached to the land.'

While admitting that the 'more urgent link with Steinbeck’s writing' at the present time could have been seen as immigration, Connolly wanted to celebrate the local environment instead. Indeed, following the recent amalgamation of Limavady, Ballymoney, Coleraine and Moyle councils, she’s keen to highlight the beautiful landscape contained within the new council boundaries.

'The theme is also representative of us now being part of this new and stunning landscape within the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council,” she says. 'We’re now part of this amazing geography that spans from Limavady and Benone to Moyle and beyond. For me, and in my cultural programming, I’m looking towards rooting the programmes in the natural environment and the landscape around us.'

Anyone who has enjoyed the previous Steinbeck festivals will notice the schedule has somewhat lengthened for 2016, which is intentional and something Connolly is keen to continue.

'We usually just have a couple of events, but I’m hoping to extend the festival in future years, as it adds such a cultural richness to this area,' she says. 'I introduced it back in 2011 because the National Steinbeck Centre in California was having an international fringe festival, so we were one of the fringe festival partners. Unfortunately, the international fringe element died away, but I’ve maintained communications with them and am hoping to re-establish a creative partnership there.'

Headlining this year’s festival is Simon King, well known to wildlife enthusiasts from shows including Springwatch, Big Cat Diary, Planet Earth, Blue Planet and the Life TV series. An award-winning cameraman, Simon is also a prolific writer and photographer, and has just published his first book, NatureWatch.

'I just find him so inspirational,' says Connolly. 'He has such a diverse career as a presenter, writer, photographer and wildlife advocate. He acquaints people really well with the natural world and environment and his new book taps in very well with our theme.

'He’ll be talking about both his personal and professional experiences on Saturday evening, so it will be really lovely to hear that. He’ll also be showcasing some of his photos.'

The Steinbeck Celebration 2016 will officially launch on Friday evening (October 7) with a special concert from the Donal Lunny Triad. Comprised of world-renowned musician and producer, Donal Lunny –  who has produced records for artists including Kate Bush and Elvis Costello - along with virtuoso musicians, Padraig Rynne and Sylvain Barou, from Brittany, audiences can expect a fusion of Irish traditional and world folk music, along with tunes from Brittany and Eastern Europe.

'Steinbeck was obsessed with his Irish ancestry, so it’s all about taking that idea of belonging and roots,' says Connolly. 'They’ll be playing some classics but there’ll also be music from Brittany and around the world.'

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With a packed programme to enjoy throughout the Steinbeck Celebration, events include everything from poetry readings to writing and art workshops. North Coast author, Bernie McGill, will lead a two-part creative writing workshop, while poets Jean Bleakney and Jane Clarke will recite some of their compositions. Meanwhile, the Limavady Writers’ Group will also host a Causeway Writers’ Evening, where local wordsmiths will share some of their work.

'Bernie’s workshops will provide a lovely hook for amateur writers, in considering their local landscape,' says Connolly. 'A highlight for me will of course be Simon King, but also, the poetry event with Emma Must. She’ll be going on a nature walk through Roe Valley Country Park, before leading a poetry writing workshop.

'I’m also especially looking forward to Jane Clarke’s poetry reading. Her first collection, The River, won the 2016 Hennessy Literary Award and has become quite well known. Her poems are simple and truthful and honest, and are about her rural background, with observations on nature.'

Film screenings of Steinbeck’s novels, Of Mice and Men and East of Eden, will also be shown at the festival, while historian Alister McReynolds will give a talk on the author's local roots. For those who want to get arty, Gail Mahon will also be exploring the urban environment in her two-part ceramic and drawing workshop, and professional photographer Rachel Cassidy will show parents and children aged 8-14 how they can capture the unique surrounding scenery with just a standard digital camera.

With something for everyone to enjoy, the Steinbeck Celebration 2016 promises to deliver a rich programme for all ages and, says Connolly, there’s much more to come in the future…

Find the full programme for Steinbeck Celebration 2016: The Human Heart & the Land at www.roevalleyarts/com To book, call: 028 7776 0650. The festival runs from October 7 - 19.