Donal teaching

An unforgettable adventure

Joseph O’Connor, on left on the picture, with the teachers and students in the inaugural UL Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School in 2016.

By Joseph O’Connor

It’s a sultry July evening and I am seated on the podium in a large, beautiful room at New York University, reading from my novel “Ghost Light.” To one side of me is the great Irish poet Mary O’Malley; on the other, the peerless musician Martin Hayes is playing that most heart-breaking of slow airs, “The Coolin,” which lofts and glides like a Connemara tern. The music aches with silences and they fall as leaves. His eyes are closed. We’re gone.

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Fifth Avenue is outside. Manhattan is glittering. In here we’re wrapped in music and words.

Four rows away from me, in the packed-to-capacity audience, among members of the McCourt family and Ireland’s wonderful Consul General, Barbara Jones, is my all-time literary hero, the novelist Peter Carey, twice winner of the Booker Prize. And there are 60 Creative Writing students, most from America, some from Ireland.

I’m wondering where it all went right.

This is the first night of the inaugural UL Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School, New York, an idea that seemed to appear on my pillow one morning around the time I started working at UL three years ago. I talked with the marvellously supportive Ellen McCourt, Frank’s wife about it, and with that strong friend of UL Creative Writing, Loretta Glucksman. How better for us to celebrate Frank and his remarkable achievement than to combine his great loves of writing and teaching, and to do it in the lower Manhattan his writings evoke with such vivacity, grit and grace? This great Limerick New Yorker, for whom the Chair I currently hold at UL is named, made “Angela’s Ashes” his tale of two cities. In 2016, the 20th anniversary of its publication, we founded the Summer School in his honour.

Shannon Airport, our excellent sponsors, made the venture doable. Given their own unique and lasting role in the Limerick/Manhattan story, and in the wider nexus of interconnections between America and Ireland, we could not have dreamed of more apt and able partners. Professor Eoin Devereux, my friend and colleague, came on board from the start. His extraordinary organisational skills, his wisdom and quiet persistence were remarkable. He never got the memo that it isn’t possible to organise a complex series of workshops, lectures and seminars in downtown Manhattan from an office three thousand miles away in Limerick. With princely calm and a wry, rock and roll humour, he put whatever show we had to offer on the road.

But still, we had anxieties. Would anyone come? Two weeks beforehand, at the Sheen Centre on Bleecker Street, New York, with the help of our friends at the Irish Arts Centre we held “An Evening For Frank McCourt.” Performers included Jean Butler, Larry Kirwan, Pierce Turner, Lisa Dwan, Maeve Higgins, Charlotte Moore, Ciaran Fitzgerald and Gabriel Byrne. Everyone was supportive and encouraging about the Summer School, none less than Alphie McCourt, Frank’s gentle, charming brother. It proved to be the one and only occasion when I would meet that beautiful man, who passed away only days later, as the school commenced. To have had his wife Lynn and brother Malachy with us as we got going was a special honor indeed. Their courage and grace blessed the gathering.

Novelist Donal Ryan teaching a class.

And we were fortunate in our choice of opening speaker. Thinking of it now, I see it unfurl in the present tense: Professor Sarah Moore, the greatest lecturer I have seen, is working a room full of writers both experienced and new, combining knowledge, passion and remarkable insight with the delivery skills of a stand-up comic. At the close of her session – I am not making this up – the students burst into rapturous applause.

Then the recollections come in kaleidoscopic tumble: the heat of Manhattan in July. Iced coffees. Sore feet. The alleluia of police sirens. Hot dog vendors. The throb of jazz. The fountain in Washington Square Park, to which some of the students would drift at lunchtime, to stand in the living parasol of its misted spray. Donald Trump on the radio talking about what he’ll do as President. (Like, that’s ever going to happen.) Ellen McCourt laughing gently at the preposterous heat. Eoin Devereux spellbinding the room with his talk on Oscar Wilde and Morrissey of the Smiths. Gabriel Byrne, backstage with us at the Evening For Frank, dark-eyed with exhaustion from his four-and-a-half hour appearance that afternoon in a matinee of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” but not wanting to cancel us, because of his affection and respect for Frank. To walk past the open door of a classroom and see the students, wrapt with attention as Donal Ryan, Mary O’Malley and Giles Foden teach them small and big things: how to think about a sentence, how to make the words float, how to structure a novel or poem, find a voice, tell your story, come into the scene late, leave it early. And a hush, a beautiful quietness, suddenly filling Glucksman Ireland House as 60 people bend their heads and start to write.

So many times we heard laughter and, once or twice, we saw tears. At Open Mic sessions in the house on Saturday night and McSorley’s bar on a still Sunday morning, students stepped forward, some nervous, to read us their story, in many cases for the first time. We heard honest, funny, sad, sweet work, prose, verse, memoir, even songs! Our youngest scholar was 16, our most life-experienced was senior by a good many years. We had a New York City firefighter, published writers, fulltime students, office workers, some retired folk, moms, dads. I think Frank would have loved the breadth of it, the sense that creativity is for everyone, the idea that to write, read and teach can be so intimately related that they become the tributaries that sustain each other.

All in all, then, an unforgettable Manhattan adventure in learning, for those of us who taught and, I hope, for those who studied. Many of them continue to meet up regularly in New York to share ideas and to write, which is such an amazing pleasure to think about. Limerick went to New York and look what happened. I can’t wait to do it again. We’ll be there this coming June. I’ll be thinking of Alphie as we set out our stall, his noble, funny, wise presence. And I’ll be thinking of Frank, as I often do. Pulitzer prize-winner, international bestseller, doctorate holder, honouree. There was little he couldn’t do with words. He could skim them all the way across the Atlantic. But his favourite title of all was the noblest one: “Teacher Man.”

Joseph O’Connor is Frank McCourt Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Limerick. The 2017 UL Frank McCourt Creative Writing Summer School will be held at Glucksman Ireland House, NYU, from June 22 to 25. Informal inqueries to ULNY@ul.ie.