I’ve just returned from a few days in sunny/rainy/forty seasons in one day, Armagh. I go there every July. There’s a bar with a talking parrot in the window and a reasonably decent chip shop but it’s hardly the Costa del Sol. They don’t even have a two p machine. I’ve made the pilgrimage to Armagh every year for the last five years because of the John Hewitt Summer School. As far as non-negotiable dates in my calendar go, it’s up there with Christmas, Bob Dylan’s birthday and the St Patrick’s Day Tea Dance. I would’t miss it for the world.
The John Hewitt Summer School shouldn’t be as good as it is. On paper it’s a bunch of very different people, all locked up together in a provincial arts centre, filling every waking moment with readings, lectures and the consumption of fruit scones for almost a full week: the literary equivalent of Big Brother, (with slightly more highfalutin’ chat). In reality, it’s a little bit like heaven. I always relax. I always have wonderful conversations. I always return to Belfast, a little tired, but enthused and full of ideas. (Though usually broke because I’ve been tempted into buying even more books by the good folks at No Alibis). I’m always thankful for the time the Summer School affords me to be stuck in one place with people I love and rarely get more than a brief passing chat with.
Over the years the Armagh week has introduced me to new writers I’d not encountered before: Gavin Corbett, Christine Dwyer-Hickey and, this year, Jane Yeh’s wonderful, quirky poetry. It’s also allowed me to spend time listening to old favourites and it was a particular treat to have a chance to interview Donal Ryan and to hear Sinead Morrissey read from her forthcoming new collection. None of this happens by chance. The John Hewitt team are tremendous people: every one of them busts an absolute gut to make magic happen in the Marketplace Theatre. From Stephen’s social media wizardry, to Paul and Bill’s fabulous hospitality and welcome, Hilary’s superb organisational skills, Paul M’s killer introductions and Tony’s general steering of the good ship John Hewitt, (not to mention his fabulous t-shirts), the whole crew ensure that this isn’t just an ordinary Literary Festival, it’s a space focused on nurturing all the people who attend. Writers, readers and those still working out where they fit into the world of words are all made to feel equally welcome and therein lies the reason why I keep coming back to Armagh every July. The only thing you need to feel included at the John Hewitt is a furious love of words, (a love of scones also helps).
The John Hewitt Summer School attracts a bunch of folks who were just people I kind of knew five years ago, then they became friends and later community. Now, I honestly couldn’t muddle through the process of writing or being a writer without the encouragement, honesty and long conversations I get from them on an almost daily basis. Communities don’t just happen- they’re cultivated. This weekend I’m thankful for the John Hewitt team who’ve poured their energy into creating a space where good words have had room to breathe, where people have had space to grow into themselves and community has happened, quite naturally, over the fruit scones. I really hope there were people at the Summer School this week who’ve found the folks who’ll be holding them together five years from now.