Fred Johnston

Martin Mooney interviews the controversial Fred Johnston: poet, musician, founder of Cúirt Literature Festival and the Western Writers Centre. Pt. 2

To change tack: you have a second career as a musician, with a solo album, Get You, and two traditional music albums with the group, Parsons Hat. Is this something that goes back to your early life in the north? Was yours a musical family?

Yes and no. I’ve mentioned my mother’s angle and her ambitions for her only son. Thankfully, they were thwarted! The whole 60s thing was for me a mixture of buying Woody Guthrie albums in Smithfield, usually somewhere like McBurney’s, listening to Dylan, feeling the world could be changed from the fretboard up.

My uncle Bob gave me my first five-string banjo. I had a guitar since age 13 and I went to a grandiosely-titled attic Sunday folk-club called the Ulster Folk Music Society, with John Morton and people like that, and John Moulden, leading it. I heard Wee Willy Winkie playing wonderful traditional airs in there one night, he used to play the saw opposite City Hall in Belfast for years. I heard all sorts of songs, playing, styles.

I did some appearances on Ulster TV and Billy McBurney’s Outlet and Inset record labels brought out a couple of records of mine, The  Shores of Amerikay and the like, I was fifteen or sixteen; then I recorded an LP, The Flags Are Out for Celtic, a collection of ‘rebel’ and football songs under the name Hughie Gallagher, who used to play for Celtic.

I then played every cabaret lounge in Belfast and went to The Pound Club in the Markets on Saturdays. Great times to be that age, to play a guitar, to be rebellious; and then the Peoples’ Democracy came about, and the Ulster world changed and the songs were there at the marches, the whole thing had a particular atmosphere.

In the south I came into contact with more traditional Irish material, though I still play blues and have blues songs on an album I’m finishing off, a second solo work, at present. I couldn’t not play. And for me the links between poetry in the community and folk songs are obvious. Though some of the new songs being penned still in the country pubs, ribald, Gaelic-rhythmed, impious, will never be high-fallutin’ enough for the Oxford Book of Irish Verse.

You recently spent time as writer-in-residence with the Princess Grace Irish Library in the Principality of Monaco. How was that?

That was exciting and refreshing because everyone needs a change, you can’t sup at the same soup-pot forever. I was installed in my very own office, en suite, treated exceptionally well, worked on a novel set in Paris, then went out and contacted Monégasque writers, tried to touch the community a little. It took time, but eventually I have translated some local Monégasque poetry from French cribs.

I read a good deal and discovered beyond doubt that Yeats’ body is not buried in Sligo. I had hopes to install something more direct, a cultural literary link there which might also become an exchange, but it isn’t going to happen, it appears. That’s a pity. Meanwhile, myself and Sylvia, my partner, are back in Monaco to play officially on St Patrick’s Day.

I was there long enough to observe new things and write new poems, flavoured with morning coffee and bitty with croissant. I gave a paper. By and large I could work to my own demands. In Nice I saw drunks on the sidewalks, on benches; in Vauban a man drowned himself. Just because it’s the Cote d’Azur doesn’t mean there’s a ready-made paradise there. There’s a community of Irish ex-pats, though. I wish often, frankly, that I was one of them. Ireland is getting me down.

You’re editor of the Cork Literary Review in the year that the city’s European City of Culture. Many of us in Belfast were very sceptical of our city fathers’ bid, thought it had very little to do with any real engagement between the arts and public life. How’s Cork coping?

I think Cork’s initial excitement seems to have worn off and the press are becoming more critical. Galway bid too, but had relied too much on her own hype as to cultural worth, and the appropriate committee deemed the city hadn’t sufficient ‘infrastructure’ which meant in English that there wasn’t enough going on. She’s learned nothing from this, of course.

I work the editing of the Review from Galway. I’ve made a few no doubt exasperating errors but hopefully I can correct them, and improve. There has not been the level of communication I would’ve wished between myself and the Cork end of the Review. I’ve tried, on the other hand, to make the new issue as varied and far-ranging as possible.

I think Belfast has more energy than Cork or Galway and has the required creative daftness to take risks. Belfast should have taken the title. But it is interesting to see, as I’ve said, how some of the Republic’s press are becoming ever so gradually critical of Cork’s events. On the literary side of things, there is great work in translating going on there, a whole translating project, if I recall rightly.

Recently a well-known poet, sick to retirement of the politics of the arts world, remarked to me that he didn’t read much in Ireland, ‘But I read a lot abroad’.

So we’re still emigrating. Now we emigrate with our hearts and souls as much as we once did with our feet. Now we go away in secret. Now we write in the hope of being translated into a language that welcomes our imagination. Isn’t it strange? Neither Irish, nor English, not Hiberno-English, will suffice any more. Their vocabularies aren’t wide enough.