Hay Festival Kells 2013

The Hay Festival has a heavyweight reputation in the world of literary events, so it’s pleasing to see a chapter open up (appropriately) in Kells, home to one of the most famous books in Ireland.

Kells sign

This did not come about by chance, as I discovered over the weekend. The town has been working hard for some years to bring the event to Kells, and it’s a perfect match. Kells is just big enough and has enough facilities to host a variety of events, and small enough so the entire town becomes the Hay Festival in a very intrinsic fashion.

Irish people are notorious for their hospitality and charm, but even I was wooed by the strength of the welcome the Kells people rolled out for the festival and those who attended. Everyone was helpful, friendly, and in good humour. It is utterly clear that Kells wants this event to be a big success and did everything possible to facilitate that outcome. For instance, parking throughout the town was free for the whole weekend – it’s a simple thing, but really helps when trying to attract a combination of local and foreign visitors to a location.

Kells book display

There were pop-up book shops throughout the town. Even the butchers and hair salons had book displays and were selling books. I loved this image from a local shop, where the town’s name was carved into the pages of books.

The festival came onto my radar when Karrie Fransman contacted me and asked if I’d like to go, since she was giving a talk at it. I’d been somewhat busy for the last couple of weeks and wasn’t sure I could make it, but decided last week to make the effort. It’s a pretty straightforward drive from Galway, even if it’s a 2+ hour journey.

Karrie's House That Groaned

Karrie had the unenviable task of giving the first talk of the festival, at 1pm on a grey, misty Friday. I just managed to get up in time for it. A dedicated group of people turned up, and Karrie got us involved during her funny and interesting discussion of her comics and the medium in general. A lot of the people who attended were new to comics, but she had converted them by the end of it.

Many of them came out and bought her book afterwards, so it certainly piqued their interest in the subject. Later on we bumped into Oisín McGann – author and artist – who had a sold-out talk on the Sunday about generating story ideas. We also chatted to Thom Moore, artist, and the director of the animated movie, The Secret of Kells (which was shown during the festival).

Karrie signs

Karrie and I spent a lot of time chatting about life, the universe, and comics, and were subsequently disappointed to miss actress Lisa Dwan’s rendition of Samuel Becket’s Not I. I heard rave reviews about it, and Arminta Wallace wrote about the performance on the Irish Times web site.

We did get to see Germain Greer and Jeanette Winterson, who were both dynamic and engaging in entirely different ways. Greer frankly bowled me over with her knowledge of Shakespeare. She reminded me why so many scholars remain endlessly fascinated with his work – because it is so worthy of deep discussion.

Winterson was downright inspiring, especially as she opened her section with a passionate call-to-arms regarding the importance of art, and its benefit to the inner life of people – a difficult thing to communicate to bean counters and economists. Both events were crammed, and the atmosphere was lively and upbeat. I was particularly struck at the huge numbers of women at the events throughout the weekend. I would estimate they were in the majority, but perhaps those who were actively involved in the running of the event know better.

Field of bog cotton

The following day Karrie and I took the guided tour of Girley Bog, just outside Kells. We got a lift thanks to artist Fergal McCarthy. The weather wasn’t terribly cooperative, which is the way in Ireland, and it was a muggy start to the say. The difficultly with bogs is they are somewhat featureless, although we were entertained by the stream of facts about its eco-system and environment.

I was delighted to snap this image of a frog, hopping about among the moss, bog cotton, and turf. It was very well camouflaged.

Bog frog

After our return to the town the weather perked up, and I visited the Kells Church of Ireland and graveyard, which contains some amazing High Crosses, and a particularly good round tower. The church was also used as a venue for some of the talks.

Tower and cross

Later on we attended the Joe Duffy interview of John Banville, which was stuffed to capacity. We got a peek at some clips of the forthcoming movie adaptation of his novel The Sea, along with a discussion of Bannville’s writing methods and some of his work. It was a short hour, but the audience seemed pleased with the time they got in his presence.

The evening was rounded out by a poetry reading on the other side of town in the garden of the Railway Bar. Even though it was chilly, it didn’t rain. I was a little dubious about the event as poetry readings can veer from too serious to a touch pretensions at times. The evening turned out to be enormously entertaining. The speakers read out a variety of work, from all time periods, with great humour and emotion, and were always entertaining.

Sean Rocks poetry reading

Much to my delight I met my old pal from Trinity College, technology journalist Karlin Lillington. We spent time that night, and over breakfast the following morning, catching up and talking about the festival. Karlin was part of a panel discussion on Sunday called ‘Blog and Be Damned: Social Media and Libel in Ireland’. I didn’t get to it, alas, but I’m sure she was as well informed as usual.

Karrie and I took off on Sunday for a short trip around the Boyne Valley area – which is another plus to the event being held in one of the most archaeologically-dense areas of the country. We headed to Trim Castle, a fine example of an Anglo-Norman castle. We were told there was a ghost in the keep, but it stayed away from us.

Karrie looks for ghosts

After that it was a return to the buzzing little town, to go our separate ways – for me the long, but speedy, drive home.

I had a terrific time at the Hay Festival – Kells, and I can only hope it will be held again next year. It’s obviously a huge boost to the town, and all the inhabitants rallied to help make it a success.

Best of luck to them next year. I hope it will be an even bigger hit in 2014.