My brain whirls with such a kaleidoscope of thoughts and ideas that I hardly know where to begin. The theme of the John Hewitt International Summer School this year is “Facing change: shifting borders and allegiances.”
As I sit in the sun outside the Market Place theatre and look across the street, I’m transported back in time to see two little girls, my sister and I, swinging and tumbling on the bars between on the concrete bollards that spanned the black expanse of tarmac that once covered Market Street. This was our playground. I was an expert at hanging upside down by my knees like a little bat.
I share my flashback with my summer school friends by telling them I used to live there, point out which was our house, which one was my grandfather's tailor shop and most importantly which one was the sweetie shop. Someone says that it must have been lovely to live there, but I point out that it was 1970’s Armagh and the place did not look like it does now. Facing change in this way is a welcome thing. So much is better but as the talks and panel discussions highlight, we still have a way to go and the path can be rocky – especially apparent after the panel discussion “What went wrong?” on the very first day with Gregory Campbell, Brid Rodgers, Colm Gildernew and Trevor Ringland.
I hadn’t expected the political discussions. I try to keep local politics out of my writing. In fact, I try to keep all politics out of my writing, but that panel discussion left me feeling like all the emotional sand I’d used to cover my political opinions had stirred up and was now swirling around, muddying the waters. I’d wanted to shout at the panel, “Listen to each other.” Have we ever just asked simple questions like, “What do you want?” “What do you need?” Have we ever given simple answers? Can we simply be fair? Kind?
There were some beautifully uplifting moments too. It was a delight to listen to Liz Nugent and Claire Allan in conversation. These women were so supportive and generous to each other. It enforces what I always say about writers – we are never in completion with each other. A book can be read far faster than it can be written. If a reader loves two writers who have similar style/genres/subject matter then they will read both. Because of this week, I need to buy another bookcase! Also great to see Dave Torrens from No Alibis selling books in Armagh – perhaps he’ll consider a pop-up bookstore here in the run-up to Christmas?
My favourite speaker was Eli Davies. Her exploration of how literature portrays the role of women during the conflict here was inspiring. I fear the creative light-bulb moments she ignited… do I really want to ever write about those times from my own perspective…maybe sometime. The following day Monica McWilliams blew on those creative sparks, with her talk about Women Waging Peace as she infused me with hope for a better future.
If you ever get a chance to see Mikel Murfi’s The Man in the Woman’s Shoes and the sequel I Hear You and Rejoice don’t hesitate to go. Sometimes a piece of writing is just so brilliant it grabs a hold of you and just won’t let go. Even days later, there are moments when I laugh out loud or tear up simply thinking about these performances. Murfi savages the audience's emotions, mercilessly swinging us between gales of laughter to floods of tears. What is it about the human condition that we actually enjoy having our emotions thus pummeled?
Between the panel discussions and classes, over coffee or wandering around the city, new friendships were forged, old friendships strengthened, ideas shared, concepts explored. Thank you to the organizers of the John Hewitt Summer School for creating a diverse and stimulating programme that enables people to get together, to share and unite. This was the overall best part of the summer school experience – the way the attendees came together in a solid body, a meeting of minds, hearts and muses. The camaraderie was palpable, the laughter infectious and the tears too – especially for those of us who attended the Mikel Murfi performances.
I would also like to thank the Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council for sponsoring my bursary to attend the John Hewitt Summer School.
Thanks also to the wonderful women in Women Aloud NI who were a joy to be with all week long. Despite the things that make us different, it is the things we have in common that matter. Accepting our diversity makes us stronger and more adaptable, more able to face change, more happy to accept change. I loved having you here – please come back soon. Click here to read what my friend Angeline King thought of Armagh - you might be surprised, or you may know better and might not be at all surprised...
For a local like me, it was wonderful to see people come and enjoy Armagh. It is a special place, has been for thousands of years, all the way back to times of Navan Fort. There’s magic here, and I feel that magic touched us all last week, helping us to listen to one another, share with each other, giving us the tools to face change together because together is the only way humans will surmount the changes facing us in the near and distant future.