West Cork Literary Festival

Cork greets us with corkscrew roads, or at least, they feel corkscrew because we’re driving on the wrong side, past the emerald fields blanketing soft hills dotted with cows and sheep.  West Cork Literary Festival is held in beautiful Bantry on the Bay, home to dolmen, blowholes, and Jeremy Irons.  The dolmen we’re shown is a cave-like space made from flat stones and dating back to the Stone Age.  We climb black rocks that jut into the sea, one of them resembling the hull of the Titanic, which picked up its final load of steerage passengers not far from here.  Blowholes – deep wells with sea waves moaning on their bottom – have been carved by time through the thick body of black rock.  You look down, carefully, holding onto a fence pole, and see the water sighing and wheezing and, as we’re told, weeping during a storm, as if the Earth were giving birth.

The Festival has attracted stellar talent, which seems so plentiful in Ireland.  Every reader and workshop leader has so many gifts that anyone born elsewhere feels instantly inferior.  Pauline McLynn, who has appeared in numerous film, television and stage roles, has also written several novels.  Peter Sheridan, a writer and playwright, is also an actor and director, whose short film, The Breakfast, won several European awards.  Conor O’Clery, a reporter for the Irish Times for over 30 years, is the author of several books and was Journalist of the Year in Ireland twice.  They read from Joyce and Beckett and their own many books, their versatile talents making me feel tiny among them.

The Festival’s extraordinary program was put together by Denyse Woods, herself the author of five novels.  For the seven days of the Festival, she rushed and directed and forgot to eat meals, crunching on chips at midnight when entertaining yet another evening speaker at a pub.  Denyse brought together a constellation of names whom we should know better on this side of the pond: Hisham Matar, whose first novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; Gillian Slovo, President of English PEN and the author of twelve novels and a best-selling memoir; David Mitchell, the recipient of every possible prize, it seems, although he looks way too young for so many awards; Michael Morpurgo, the author of War Horse; Lynn Truss, who wrote Eats, Shoots and Leaves; Michael Holroyd, an outstanding memoirist and biographer who is also president of the Royal Society of Literature, Tim Mackintosh-Smith, “one of the truly mythical heroes of travel writing,” according to the Irish Times – the names that don’t even begin to paint the whole picture of the artistic heft of this festival.  And, of course, there is Jeremy Irons, or rather, his castle, which dominates the southwestern bay coast: a tall tower painted peach (restored to its original color) erected in the Middle Ages, surrounded by a stone wall with a massive gate.

On the day of our departure, the clouds parted and the sun shone through the waters of the bay, making them turquoise, illuminating the seaweed on the bottom several meters deep.  We drove to Cork airport past herds of milk cows and the wooly balls of unfleeced sheep, past tiny towns with row houses painted in red, purple and yellow, dominated by churches and pubs.  It started to drizzle, the typical soft Irish rain that fell several times every day – a good sign for a departure, as if someone above were sad that we were leaving.