Writers on Writers Festival

Belfast's Linen Hall Library presents inaugural four-day festival featuring playwrights, novelists, poets and more until May 15

Springtime in Belfast has increasingly become a season of festivals. Following hot on the heels of the Belfast Film Festival, the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival and the Festival of Fools are currently in full swing, not to mention One City One Book Belfast, the month-long, city-wide reading initiative this year based around David Park's latest novel, The Poets' Wives.

Now the Linen Hall Library has launched its inaugural Writers on Writers Festival, which kicks off on May 12 and runs for four days. It features eight free events, all of which take place in the Linen Hall Library in central Belfast, and is a mixture of talks, workshops and debates on poetry, literature and theatre writing, with a focus on the rich history of writing originating from Belfast.

Linen Hall Library director Julie Andrews is keen to celebrate the city's artistic heritage, as well as to involve the present generation of writers in Northern Ireland. Andrew recalls how the idea for the festival sprang from a conversation she shared with the playwright, Jo Egan, who is also taking part in the festival.

'We were talking about how the library would be 226-years-old during the festival, and how it was formed during the Enlightenment. We’d like to encourage debate in the library again, as there would have been at that time, and bring it back to its literary roots and make it accessible through the different writers we’re bringing in, talking about the different writers they admire.'

Writers involved in the festival include Belfast Poet Laureate and winner of the TS Eliott poetry prize Sinead Morrissey, who will be leading a poetry workshop, and the critically-acclaimed poet Deirdre Cartmill, who will be talking about the genius of one of Northern Ireland’s most internationally renowned writers, CS Lewis.

Meanwhile, actor and writer Dan Gordon will discuss the works of Belfast writer Brian Moore, and author Anne Devlin who explore the work of the late Belfast playwright, Stewart Parker. 'We were donated the Stewart Parker Archive in 2013, so we’re delighted to have Anne talk about him and his work,' Andrews adds.

Several of the other writers taking part in the festival were chosen for what Andrews describes as their 'personal relationship with the library'. 'Glenn Patterson and Dan Gordon have previously done a lot of work with the library, and been great supporters of it. Of the others, many of them would use the library. Sinead Morrissey would use the library frequently.'

It is also important to Andrews that the Linen Hall – Ireland's only remaining subscription library – is seen as a vital resource in the city, not only for writers but for the general public. 'Seamus Heaney said that the library provided a great inspiration to him in his early years,' she says. 'I would like to hear other writers saying that in the future, and that’s why we need to develop this kind of activity.

'I think most people associate the Linen Hall Library not only with writers but also with politics and history. We also have a great theatre archive here. People should understand they can access this. Obviously we’d love people to become members of the library and enjoy all the library has to offer.

'But even as an individual who wants to come into the library to research a writer, I urge you to do that. Some of our collections, because of the nature of them, are closed access, but if you phone ahead we’ll make sure we have material available for you to see. I think it’s important that people realise the wealth of talent that is available locally that they can access.'

Covering the range of writing produced in the city is also a key remit of the Writers on Writers Festival, with 'variety' being a buzz word that Andrews returns to several times during our conversation in the library's bustling coffee shop area.

'So we have poets, prose writers and playwrights. Martin Lynch will be talking about Sam Thompson, which is topical at the minute because of the opening of the Sam Thompson Bridge in east Belfast recently. Martin is planning on bringing his own brand to it.

'Two actors will be coming along and we hope to have an extract from Thompson’s play Over the Bridge as part of his evening. Jo Egan has a production of her play Sweetie running at the Grand Opera House at the moment as well. It’s great that she’s coming in to guide new writers in play writing.'

The climax to the festival is a debate on how the writers of Belfast are ultimately honoured, both in their lifetime and posthumously. Patterson, Lynch and Devlin will discuss how the writers of the past continue to influence the shape of current and future artistic works.

'There’s so much talent in Belfast,' Andrews asserts. 'We should be exploring how we honour that talent. The original idea for this came out of a great debate in the NI Assembly about how Seamus Heaney and CS Lewis were honoured. I thought it would be interesting to talk about how we honoured Belfast writers.

'Sometimes in the wider world, Belfast writers are not appreciated in the way they should be. CS Lewis is obviously a worldwide brand, but some of the other writers aren’t as well known, and I think and it’s important to bring that recognition up.'

As for the future of the Linen Hall Library, and the Writers on Writers Festival, Andrews is optimistic. 'I want to refocus the library’s attention onto writing and writers again,' she concludes, 'and that’s what we’re aiming to do with this festival.'

Writers on Writing Festival runs from May 12 – 15. All events are free but reservation is advised. Full details of the programme are available on the Linen Hall Library website.