A Creative First for Fermanagh

Jenny Cathcart highlights Enniskillen's forward-thinking Art of Regeneration project

Take 500 eager dancers, writers, singers, musicians, model builders and mask makers, an administrator who organises them, a technician who is Mister Fix It, and you have the Art of Regeneration project.

The project has been conceived in Fermanagh by Diane Henshaw, Arts Officer at Enniskillen District Council who procured over £500,000 of Lottery funding through the Arts Council for Northern Ireland and from her own Council to boost the art of seeing, believing, making and doing among Fermanagh adults over the age of 16 from now until 2010.

That prospect is further enhanced by the calibre of the teachers: Genevieve Murphy for Carnival Art; Jon Kelly, Environmental Art; Seamus MacAnnaidh, Creative Writing and Literature; Dylan Quinn, Contemporary Dance and the Fermanagh Traditional Music Society for Irish Music and dance.

For those of us whose mothers and grandmothers taught us to sew, gather wild flowers and bake buns, this is an entirely new ball game.

The eleven women and five men who attended the first creative writing workshop were treated to an entertaining introduction by MacAnnaidh, who has numerous short stories and fifteen published books to his name.

MacAnnaidh described how his own passion for creative writing was nurtured through his childhood forays into the worlds of Enid Blyton and others.

A shy pupil at St Michael’s grammar school, he began furtively scribbling ideas that would be difficult for someone else to read.

They were written in Irish, in handwriting which he says was barely decipherable, but that is how he began to create his very own world of make believe.

Having graduated with a degree in Irish and English from the University of Ulster, MacAnnaidh returned to Enniskillen, the town he loves so well, and while on the dole, began writing his first novel.

Penning five pages a night, five nights a week for ten weeks he achieved 100,000 words in a flurry of pent up energy and enthusiasm, creating an exuberant universe akin to the molecule-mingling world of Flann O'Brien.

During the Troubles, writing became a form of escapism for MacAnnaidh, a world of avoidance and fantasy.

Because life was uncomfortable it felt good to make fun of it, so on the page we have a local aristocrat who fought so valiantly during the Peninsular wars that his statue which towers above the town becomes ‘Cole up the Pole’.

The English were the ‘twitteratti’ and the soldiers who had a habit of not pronouncing their R's properly were wont to confuse 'tourists' with 'terrorists'.

The marketplace was full of fascinating products - balls of blue for bleaching, turmeric that might dye Orange sashes if they began to look washed out.

Schoolgirls and boys sat on opposite sides of the school bus segregated not only by sex but by sect, athough that doesn't stop them exchanging ties and scarves as love tokens.

Describing his style as ‘deliberately self-conscious, purposefully racy, even barmy’, MacAnnaidh admits that in those days he felt like ‘an intellectual vampire on an ego trip’.

He was living in cloud cuckoo land but found a publisher who accepted his manuscript.

The day in 1981 that The Whirlpool of the Yellow Blackbird appeared in the window of Hall’s bookshop was a proud one.

MacAnnaidh's advice to aspiring writers is to be conscious of telling a story, to write the way we talk, to enjoy writing and to aim for the kind of book we ourselves would wish to read.