One of the great gifts of the inaugural John Broderick Writer in Residence Programme was the opportunity to share Broderick’s work with new audiences and through a schedule of literary talks, writing workshops and reading groups to invite people to discuss the themes explored in his books. Born in Athlone, Broderick was a daring writer whose first novel, The Pilgrimage (1961), was promptly banned by the Censorship of Publications Board. Undeterred he went on to publish twelve novels in London, dealing with a variety of subjects once considered thorny — sexuality, the influence of the Catholic Church in rural Ireland, and the role of money in the power dynamics of familial and romantic relationships.
Of all John’s books, my own personal favourite is The Waking of Willie Ryan (1965). The stunning opening chapter introduces the reader to Willie, a white-haired man who has just escaped the asylum. This is the harrowing tale of Willie’s reunion with the same family and priest who, twenty-five years earlier, had him imprisoned in the asylum on account of his affair with a local man. In the first few pages, Broderick treats us to the magical image of Willie, who is now elderly, standing against the midlands landscape in wonder of the new and old world, and clasping between his palms the majesty of a single gold leaf. It was exactly this passage, full of tenderness and beauty, that first captured my imagination and nurtured in me a deep admiration of Broderick’s style.
Over ten weeks in the Aidan Heavey Library, the John Broderick Writer in Residence programme delivered a range of busy and dynamic events, engaging both adults and children as writers, poets and creative thinkers. Some personal highlight included work with Scoil na gCeithre Máistrí National School, Wilson’s Hospital Secondary School, Athlone Institute of Technology, various local writing groups – among them the Castle Writers and the Athlone Writers Group, The Active Retirement Abbey Group and the local Gateway LGBT Youth Group. I provided several one-to-one manuscript consultations with emerging writers, mentored a local poet and short story writer and had the absolute pleasure of judging the Inspired by Broderick 2019 Writing Competition. In wrapping up the programme, I was delighted to plan and host Voices of the Ford - a special literary salon at Luan Gallery to celebrate the work and talent of local poets and musicians.
In addition to time and physical space at the beautiful library, a major benefit of the John Broderick Writer in Residence programme was the chance to explore the rich Westmeath landscape, in particular the Hill of Uisneach. While it’s not the exact geographical centre of Ireland, in Irish mythology this ancient ceremonial site is widely considered to be the symbolic centre of the country and it is said that here is where the Goddess Ériu is buried. One of the poems arising from my interest in Ireland’s mythical past is Lúireach Bhríde, a long-length poem that draws upon stories of the pre-Christian goddess Brigid and which was commissioned by RTE Radio 1 to celebrate the lives of Irish women over the past 100 years. The poem honours the memory of the children of the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home, Tuam and it was set to music by the four-part harmony group Landless. The song was debuted at the RTE Radio 1 Folk Awards 2018.
In relation to the midland boglands I also began to consider the subject of bog-bodies, completing a poem titled ‘The Turf-Cutter Speaks’ which was letter-press printed by The Salvage Press at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) Dublin. This special edition print became part of Extraction: On The Edge of the Abyss, a global project of Codex International Foundation. Additional poems composed and published during the residency have since been read in Florida, New York, New Mexico and North Carolina with dates reading dates pending in Texas and Europe this summer.
Without a true spirit of collaboration and the willingness to embrace the unknown, no new community creative writing programme can flourish. It was my experience that carefully allocated time and resources made the programme the phenomenal success that it was. By way of thanks I wish to acknowledge the support, commitment and vision of Westmeath Arts Office in partnership with the Arts Council. I wish to thank all at the Aidan Heavey Library Athlone, the local Athlone community and the individuals who shared language, ideas and who made my time as 2018-19 John Broderick Writer in Residence so unforgettable.
Annemarie Ní Churreáin is a poet from North West Donegal. She is the author of Bloodroot (Doire Press, 2017) and Town (The Salvage Press, 2018).
Applications for the 2019-2020 John Broderick Writer in Residence are now open. More information on the residency application process is available here or from firstname.lastname@example.org