Maire Reilly and Maura Mulligan.
By Maura Mulligan
The recent Bergen County Irish festival featured pipe bands, step dancers, food, and a pub area as well as an evening céilí with top musicians Margie Mulvihill, John Reynolds, John Nolan and Dan Gibney. The main stage featured bands “Celtic Cross”, “Nine Mile House,” and “The Narrowbacks.”
With entertainment like that in the same general area as the literature tent, we who presented readings were mightily pleased to have an audience all afternoon. It was a rich reminder that Irish people have a special grá for words.
The literature program had a dramatic start with the Irish Reperatory Theater’s co-founder Ciarán O’ Reilly reciting five poems by Yeats. The talented actor took it all in stride in spite of technical distractions in in the middle of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” By the time Angus started his wandering, the microphone was fully operating and we all breathed a sigh of joyous relief.
Next up was the legendary Carmel Quinn who not only sang beautifully, but also made us laugh when she drew our attention to a passing ambulance announcing that she was alright, that it wasn’t time for her to be taken away yet. Then she belted out “The Gipsy Rover” and the audience joined in the chorus.
Ciarán and Carmel were hard acts to follow. Still, you could tell we managed to keep the momentum going because as soon as someone got up to get a cup of tea, a standee grabbed the vacant seat. Soon extra chairs were added and everyone settled in for an afternoon of stories and poetry in the rain.
Several literature tent presenters paid tribute to the 150th birthday of Yeats and the forthcoming anniversary of the 1916 Rising. Michael O’Malley spoke elegantly about the dreams of Yeats and Pearse and the Éirí Amach na Cásca, or Easter Rising. The scholarly Pat Schuber spoke of the Fenian Movement and how John O’Mahony went to America in 1853 and tried to gain support for another uprising from those who had left Ireland during the Great Hunger.
“Women of the Easter Rebellion” was Hank McNally’s topic, discussing Countess Markievez, and others not so well known or remembered. Mr. McNally reminded his listeners that the last to leave the GPO were members of Cumann na mBan. These included Winnie Carney, Julia Grenan and Elizabeth O’Farrell.
The theme of the Easter Rising and tribute to Yeats continued with the melodic voice of Ryan Cahill singing “The Foggy Dew” and “Down by the Sally Gardens.”
Yeats wasn’t the only poet presented. Séamus Heaney’s beautiful poem, “Sunlight,” was read by Maura Quinn and poetry of Bobby Sands came alive in the voice of Dick Moloney. A living poet, Tim Dwyer shared poems from his own collection: “Smithy Of Our Longings: Poems From The Irish Diaspora.” These included a moving poem inspired by the 2013 drama film “Philomena.”
There was no lack of prose either. Gary Cahill brought Colum McCann’s writing to life when he shared a passage from “Let The Great World Spin,” which won the 2009 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction and the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary award. Cahill also read an interesting passage from his own work. “For Richer, for Poorer.”
McCann’s wasn’t the only world spinning at this festival. John Kearns, the emcee at the Irish American Writers & Artists salon shared a scene from his own novel-in-progress “The World.”
In it, Janey Logan sends her young son, Paul, to get a jar of mayonnaise at the local A&P. When Paul returns saying that the single paper bag the cashier had given him had broken in the rain, Janey goes to the store to cause a scene. She walks out with a free jar. "Paul felt his mother could have gotten a whole order of groceries for free if she had wanted to. But she had fought like a lioness for only a jar of mayonnaise.
“And she didn’t even like mayonnaise."
Speaking of rain, you could say we used it to our advantage in the literature tent. At one point the side of the tent blew down giving us a mighty splash of rainwater. That turned out to be an appropriate, albeit accidental introduction to the seanachai Marianne McShane’s presentation of “Dermot In The Land-Under-Wave.” A great storyteller Marianne brought the audience along with her under the magical wave.
Poetry, prose, history and magic made way for personal accounts when memoir took its place at this feast of words. Joan Comiskey read from her lovely book, “Ballylinn,” about growing up near her grandmother’s pub/grocery in a small rural village in Ireland of the 1930s. Joan’s light-hearted, voice and entertaining manner kept us glued to her words. She shared a passage about a woman who always wore her hat in the house so that whenever someone she didn’t want to entertain came to the door she could simply say, “Oh, I was just on my way out.”
Music enhanced words when the talented fiddler Longford native Marie Reilly played the haunting tune “The Lark in the Clear Air” as an introduction to my own contribution from my memoir, “Call of the Lark.” I was glad the audience liked my scéal about the local Schoolmaster and his wielding cane. It will be an honor to present this and other stories from “Call of the Lark” at the biggest festival of them all – the Flead Cheoil in Sligo on Aug. 13 when Marie Reilly will again join me in an hour-long presentation.
Congratulations to fellow IAW&A member and festival committee organizer Sean Hickey for including the literature tent. Likewise, much credit is due to Marie Morris and her team for their warm introductions and for doing their best to keep the literature tent out of earshot of the music performances.
Maura Mulligan is the author of a memoir, “Call of the Lark.”