Read all about it: Eimear all set for a new chapter of Cork literary fest

Ahead of the West Cork Literary Festival next month, MARY ROSE MCCARTHY talks to Director of the Bantry-based event, Eimear O’Herlihy, about what is in store.
Read all about it: Eimear all set for a new chapter of Cork literary fest
Festival Director for the West Cork Literary Festival, Eimear O’Herlihy, relaxing before the start of one of the country’s most prestigious Literary Festivals which kicks off in the town of Bantry on July 13 and continues in venues throughout the town until July 20.

CORK native Eimear O’Herlihy has been the director of Bantry-based West Cork Literary Festival since 2015.

One of three children, she studied Spanish and Psychology at UCC and later business. She was always interested in arts management and on leaving college went to work in the National Sculpture Factory. She then took a year off travelling in Australia.

On returning to Cork, Eimear worked for Mercier Press as assistant to the managing director and later to the editing director. From there she worked with Cork Film Festival for five years before spending seven years with the Everyman Theatre.

She says: “I’ve always been more interested in producing art rather than making it. I feel my skills are better used in taking the artists’ vision and bringing that to an audience. I enjoy organising and bringing art forms to an audience.

“Seeing the audience reaction to whatever art form and knowing that you were a part of that is incredibly rewarding.”

When O’Herlihy started out there were no bespoke courses in arts management, or curation.

“It was literally learning on the job,” she says. “Now there are more courses about business and creative skills and of course a mushrooming in creative writing courses.”

One of the highlights of her time managing the Everyman was the large scale production of Pagliacci, which involved the Cork Operatic Society, the soloists, a large cast of singers and community. It was supported by arts council funding and went on to win an Irish Times Theatre Award.

After seven years at the Everyman, Eimear felt like a change and took six months out, which she spent on the Greek islands. While there she got a call from the West Cork Literary Festival, asking if she would like to be considered for the post of director.

She’d always attended, and been a big fan of the festival, usually drawn by big names, and while there, discovering wonderful writers that were relatively unknown and new to her.

“There is something magical about a festival in a small town: writers, artists and audiences are all in the same spaces, the same cafés, the same bars,” she says.

In her first year, 2015, Graham Norton was the big headline name who sold out within minutes.

How do you curate a festival and select from the vast array of excellent choices?

She says: “I’m voracious reader and always on top of what’s trending or what’s new in publishing. Also, people make suggestions. Or a writer or their publicist will recommend something on social media. I will investigate those recommendations”.

“There is a challenge”, she says, “to balance a mix of well-known writers with those who may not be as familiar to an Irish audience.”

She also takes full advantage of the costal location, including readings on islands from authors who have books about the sea. This year will be the third year of a festival swim, and she once again hopes to have a festival walk and some yoga.

Eimear tries to have something for everyone. Narrowing the list of choices is all to do with whether a writer is available that year or not. She also likes to strike a balance between those who’ve never appeared at the festival and welcoming others back.

Funding from the Arts Council and Cork County Council is based on the writers who have appeared at past festivals and the programme parameters for the upcoming one.

Scheduling depends on which day of the week a writer might be available.

Eimear likes to use the whole town. UK visitors, in particular, comment on the fact that a small town has both an independent book shop and a library.

Writers are keen to meet an engaged audience, and comment on how enthusiastic and engaged audiences at Bantry are.

She keeps the programme as multidisciplinary as possible, including, song writing, children’s literature, rehearsed readings, and poetry.

She doesn’t stage full plays believing there are already organisations doing this very well in West Cork, such as the Fit Ups, and Rossmore Drama Festival.

This year, returning to the festival are poet Ruth Padel, crime writer Liz Nugent, author and essayist Zadie Smith, author Nicolas Laird, and author Louise O’Neill and poet Leanne O’ Sullivan. Margaret Drabble also returns this year.

Cork author, Danny Denton will read from his debut novel, poet Sinead Morrissey will also read, as will Bernard MacLaverty, short story writer, June Caldwell, and Sunday Times journalist Justine McCarthy. Trish Deseine will facilitate ‘Write your own cookbook workshop’, Finnish author Arja Kajermo will read, as will debut memoir writer, Tara Westover.

Workshops include novel writing with Katherine Weber, creative writing with Eimear Ryan, poetry with Martina Evans.

In partnership with the Seamus Heaney Centre, the first woman to translate The Odyssey to English, Emily Wilson, from the University of Pennsylvania, will read at Bantry, and later in the month in Armagh.

“With so many good writers out there”, Eimear says,” Gender balance happens naturally.”

The festival is very open to feedback. After each event, volunteers randomly select audience members to fill out evaluation sheets.

Feedback is taken on board where possible.

Eimear makes a conscious effort to try to understand why an audience member feels as they do.

She also is “conscious of trying to match expectation with delivery” — meaning she tries not to make promises which are impossible to achieve.

Her highlight of the last three festivals is bringing Gloria Steinman to Ireland for her first, and, so far, only visit. It seemed to be a special moment with many sharing stories. There were tears and laughter.

“Steinman”, she says, “is an incredible woman, inspirational and generous with her time.”

Asked about downtime, O’Herlihy says: “Most of it is spent reading and ultimately most of that is festival related. If a book’s author is not appearing at an upcoming West Cork Literary Festival, then that book ends up on the TBR ‘To Be Read’ pile”.

Her reading interests have widened considerably. Where once it was mostly poetry and fiction, she now also reads non-fiction and auto fiction. She is passionate about arts, and, when she can, she attends, cinema and music events.

“It is important”, she says, “to keep on top of what is happening in the arts world generally, not just to have a narrow focus on books.

“There is always space at a festival for a talented artist, no matter what the art form.”

Eimear likes as much as possible to give people a flavour of west Cork while they are there. Some make it their annual holiday, and return year after year. With such a full programme, and a mix of free and paid admission, there is something for everybody. Once the festival is over there is follow up to be done.

And, already, she is reading, and making contact with publishers, in preparation for the 2019 programme. Somewhere in between, she’s also curating this year’s Cork Midsummer Festival.

Now in its 17th year, West Cork Literary Festival, is presented by West Cork Music, in partnership with Cork County Library and Arts service. It takes place in venues around Bantry town from July 13 to 20. Tickets and bookings from www.westcorkmusic.ie/literaryfestival. Phone: +353 (0)27 52788/9 or LoCall: 1850 788 789.

BOOK A WORKSHOP

From Journalism to Poetry, Creative Writing for Beginners to Advanced Poetry there is a workshop for people at all levels looking to spend time in this beautiful seaside town, honing their craft. Workshop facilitators include Justine McCarthy, Sinéad Gleeson, Martina Evans, Eimear Ryan, Billy Ramsell, Katharine Weber, Marie-Helene Bertino, Philip Hoare, Dave Lordan and Trish Deseine. Workshops will be filled with lively discussions which writers can use as jumping off points to spark fresh, passionate work. Early booking is advised to avoid disappointment and online booking is open on the festival website (www.westcorkliteraryfestival.ie).

Award-winning journalist, Justine McCarthy, will cover a broad range of subjects during her five-day workshop including Investigative Journalism, and writer, Sinéad Gleeson, whose debut essay collection will be published by Picador next year, will share her expertise on life writing and memoir.

In ‘Creative Writing for Beginners’, Eimear Ryan, who has won several awards for her short stories, will explore the various elements of writing from ideas to first lines, and in Poetry for Beginners, Billy Ramsell, who has published two collections of poetry, will help aspiring poets to take the next step.

Katharine Weber’s Workshop on Novel Writing is appropriate for writers of all levels. She is the author of six novels and taught creative writing at Yale University.

Award-winning poet and novelist, and author of 11 books of prose and poetry, Martina Evans, will conduct the Advanced Poetry workshop which will encourage poets to see how they can truly be the director of their own work.

In the Short Story Workshop, Marie-Helene Bertino will look at what builds a strong and effective short story, and Dave Lordan’s Workshop for Teenage Writers, which is back by popular demand for the eight year in a row, is designed to build the creative confidence and expressive ability of teenagers with an interest in writing. This year, he will be accompanied by acclaimed children’s writer E.R. Murray.

Travel and nature writer Philip Hoare will explore the way we intuit a sense of place and the world through words, in a three-day workshop on Whiddy Island. Over five mornings, cookbook author and food writer, Trish Deseine, will look at favourite cookbooks with a view to creating your own and will also be looking at illustration and food photography. She will be joined by French Photographer, Virginie Garnier, for a morning dedicated to food styling.

Booking for workshops on www.westcorkliteraryfestival.ie, Telephone: 027 52788, LoCall: 1850 788 789.

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