Fetched Up in Bantry
The West Cork Literary Festival, Bantry, 8th – 14th July 2012.
‘Now a belayed, bloody prisoner they’ve put on the spot and again and again zapped
is the circus rider on a dappled
croup from which he’s more than once toppled
into the icy water, spilling his guts
about how his grandfather had somehow fetched up in Cork
straight from the Vilna ghetto
having misheard, it seems, ‘Cork’ for ‘New York’,’ – Plan B, VI, Maggot by Paul Muldoon.
The poet Paul Muldoon is interested in ‘the point where sense and nonsense come together … Poetry is capable of fun,’ he told his audience at The Maritime Hotel; ‘solemnity is not the only mode.’ Born in County Armagh and now living in New Jersey, Muldoon writes a lot about his new home: ‘writers try to make sense of the place they’re in.’ Yet he adds that when he lived in Ireland he wrote a lot of poems about being in the U.S.
‘We’re all from somewhere else,’ said Ruth Padel to her audience of some one hundred people crammed into Bantry Library. The poet and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature had been reading from her latest book, The Mara Crossing, a mixture of poetry and prose on migration. While modern human society delights in the ‘miracle’ of creatures migrating thousands of miles to survive, the same motivation in humans too often engenders contempt; our collective indifference to the fate of asylum seekers in our governments’ detention centres permits the promise of sanctuary to become a nightmare:… Your nightmare was home-grown: you’re seeking sanctuary. They say you don’t belong. They give you a broken finger, a punctured lung.
(From the poem, ‘Prayer Labyrinth’, The Mara Crossing by Ruth Padel)
One of Ireland’s many ‘refugees from England’, Mike, offered to show me around Sheep’s Head Peninsula, close to the southernmost point of the country. He took me through the village of Kilcrohane – where we carried our tray of tea from Eileen’s Bar to a bridge overlooking a stream. Then onward to his own townland, Tooreen, past ghost estates, and fields of gorse, heather, thistle and wild grasses. A city girl, I asked the names of the wildflowers and was told the pink was Fuchsia and the fire orange was Montbretia. Although taken by many to be native to Ireland, both plants were introduced to its shores from other continents: the former is native to South America, the latter a hybrid between two South African species. The Montbretia was named after an eighteenth-century French botanist, Coquebert de Montbret, who accompanied Napoleon when he invaded Egypt in 1798.
As we sat among the purple Foxgloves, looking out over Dunmanus Bay, Mike told me about the tens of thousands of Irish women, men and children whom Oliver Cromwell’s forces transported to Barbados and Virginia as slaves in the seventeenth century. Alongside their African counterparts, working long hours under the hot sun on sugar plantations, the fair-skinned slaves became known as ‘red legs’. Their descendants in the West Indies are still known by that name.
We are all from somewhere else. Be glad that you are here, for now:
From a letter in Ireland’s Sunday Independent, 8 July 2012: ‘I wish to protest at the depiction of the Almighty that accompanied Declan Lynch’s television review … Of course, nobody really knows what the Almighty looks like, but He was described in that piece as having all “the attributes of an English country gentleman”. Even with the aid of a magnifying glass, I failed to identify the name of the cartoonist. It’s lucky for him that we are living in a tolerant society, otherwise there would be a fatwa out for him …’
Professor of Economics, Morgan Kelly of University College, Dublin, finds it interesting ‘how little outrage [the economic crisis in Ireland] has provoked among ordinary people. Bankers, the government, and the Central Bank, in plain sight, have looted this country, and left it at the mercy of foreign creditors, an international laughing stock with its prosperity destroyed for the next decade at least. And nobody seems to care less’. (Irish Pages, Vol.6, No.1)
The Manager of Cork County Council, Martin Reardon, officially opened the 14th West Cork Literary Festival with a reminder that there are ‘very tight budgets ahead of us. But it is important that we do support and invest in local festivals. From humble beginnings and small, quiet readings, it was built up into a fringe festival, then became the international event it is. Spread the word – we have a festival in Bantry second to none!’
There is a sign on a Bantry library bookshelf: Úrscéalta/ novels (or fiction) in Irish Gaelic.
‘The tradition is that writers expose their souls but I was reluctant to do so – I am too secret a person,’ admitted novelist Jim Crace, standing at a podium in the children’s books section. ‘I have never been prepared to display myself to the reader. Literature prefers death, war, illness for good reason – it enables us to encounter the dark sides of living. But I had a happy childhood, did well at school, have been married once and never cheated …’ Narrative gifts allow us to reinvent the past and imagine the future, however. For his ‘last novel’, Harvest, he says he has ignored every piece of Hilary Mantel’s advice on writing historical fiction, including: do not rearrange history to suit your plot. ‘I want to invent, not discover.’
Of this latest novel, Crace says, ‘I cannot tell you what it is about because I haven’t read the critics yet.’ But he has learned that not everyone is going to like your books and not to take it personally.
Before each lunchtime reading began, in association with Amnesty International, students from a local school stood in front of the audience to honour ‘Writers at Risk’: ‘those who risked their lives in order to write, report, blog and tweet for the benefit of us all’. Artistic Director, Denyse Woods, dedicated the festival to Marie Colvin, who was killed last year while covering the Baathist regime’s violent crackdown on protesters in Syria, and to murdered Somalian journalist, Hassan Osman Abdi.
The festival’s inaugural event had the English journalist, John McCarthy, in discussion with the Northern Irish writer, Glenn Patterson. McCarthy was kidnapped by Lebanese Shia militia in Beirut in 1986 and held for five years, alongside Brian Keenan. Through his kidnap experience, McCarthy ‘began to appreciate how much conflict is born out of fear, and a desire to preserve or gain a safe home. I developed an empathy with people who don’t have a voice, who are dispossessed, who are denied freedom’. In Lod, several years ago, while visiting a Bedouin family whose neighbourhood had been bulldozed by the local Israeli council, McCarthy happened upon a ‘story that had needed to be told for a very long time’: the ongoing dispossession of the Palestinians within Israel. His new book is entitled You Can’t Hide the Sun: A Journey through Israel and Palestine. It begins: ‘I CANNOT BELIEVE THAT ANYONE CAN CALL THIS PLACE HOME. What might once have been houses are now piles of shattered concrete, baked by the stifling mid-morning heat … On the ground I feel as though I am walking through the aftermath of battle.’
McCarthy’s father had served in the British forces in Mandate Palestine before being demobbed in the spring of 1946. In July of that year the Zionist militia, the Irgun, bombed the British headquarters in Jerusalem, the King David Hotel, killing ninety-two people. ‘The Conflict that had dominated my father’s visit to the region had led, though indirectly, to my being chained and blindfolded in Beirut.’ The journalist explains that, in Beirut, ‘in the pathetic hope of learning something, I started talking to the two guards about Palestine and Israel and Britain’s role in their recent history’. One guard gave him a succinct history in broken English: ‘Balfour gave Palestine to the Jews. Britain no good.’
‘Your nightmare was home-grown’ (‘Prayer Labyrinth’).
Between 1947 and 1948, three quarters of a million Palestinians were forced to seek refuge somewhere else. McCarthy narrates that of those who remained in their native country – what became the state of Israel – tens of thousands were never allowed to go back to their villages. They were made ‘internal refugees’, ‘present absentees’ in their own country. Over two hundred Palestinian villages were emptied of their inhabitants, by force or the threat of violence. In Haifa, Arab resistance was defeated by the five thousand-strong Haganah brigades: ‘By mid-May 1948, fewer than four thousand of out sixty-five thousand Palestinians remained in Haifa.’ McCarthy notes that the AA Explorer Guide to Israel makes no reference to the violence of 1948 which saw much of the city’s Arab population fleeing from Haifa’s port. Abu Adnan does not remember getting on the boat in Haifa as a child but he woke up in Acre where his family took refuge in a monastery. Less than a month after the fall of Haifa, Acre was conquered by the Zionist forces. Abu Adnan tells McCarthy that since that day he has never felt safe.
Since the creation of Israel ‘seven hundred new Jewish communities have been built but, for the Arab population of one and a half million, the sense of land discrimination is very strong; no new towns, no more land, they are rarely given permission to build. One Israeli politician suggested: “Why don’t we build skyscrapers for them?”’.
Glenn Patterson admits that he approached the book with ‘suspicion’. He asks the audience: ‘Does anyone feel uncomfortable with me using the phrase “oppression of Palestinians”?’ Only a few heads nod. In response he tells them: ‘All I can say is read it’.
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