One of the characteristics of the Backcountry Literature and Arts Festival that sets it apart from the myriad of arts and “illuminated parties” across the country, is the prominence of history in its program, year after year. It’s a fitting prospect for a festival held in the home of the Book of Kells and the site of one of Colmcille’s earliest monasteries. History – especially the history of the Civil War on its centennial – gave itself a full day on the first day of Outback 2022, and as usual, it drew crowds All day long.
“Niche” historians were also present, for example Dr Andrew Sneddon, an Ulster scholar and expert in the history of witchcraft, who delivered a sobering account of witch hunts in Europe and Ireland, taking place mainly in the North. Over 50,000 people were put to death as “witches” from the Middle Ages until the early 19th century. Asked about Irish witch hunts and why Ulster in particular was so enthusiastic, Dr Sneddon replied that Ulster was where the witch-fearing Scottish Protestants were. The Gaelic-speaking Irish also believed in witchcraft, just as much as their Scottish counterparts, but they weren’t afraid of it!
On the centenary of An Garda Síochána, Diarmaid Ferriter reviewed the highs and lows of the first hundred years of the Guard in the new Irish republic. Leanne McCormick, meanwhile, took us from cops to robbers in Some Bad Bridgets, a compelling story of Irish women emigrating to America who found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
Marty Morrissey, aka Twinkle-Toes, charmed a huge audience and ran well over time, insisting on chatting with everyone who was looking for a handshake, a quick word, or his autograph on their copy of his memoir. Morrissey has more charisma than you can wave one (hurling).
On Saturday, Fintan O’Toole spoke about his book ‘We Don’t Know Each Other’, a personal memoir in social history and winner of book of the year at last year’s An Post awards. A regular and popular backcountry speaker, he sold the house with a thought-provoking and often amusing talk. Martina Devlin, also no stranger to Hinterland, spoke to Deirdre Hurley about Edith Somerville, one half of the duo Sommerville and Ross, famous for their Irish books RM. Devlin’s novel, simply titled Edith, focuses on the years after Ross’ death, when Edith attempted to contact Ross through spiritualism. When asked why she chose those years in Somerville’s life instead of the glory years, Devlin simply remarked “Because failure is so much more interesting than success.”
And grief is more interesting than happiness, or at least more instructive, according to Michael Harding, who spoke to a sold-out house. Reflecting on life, loss, love and aging, he held a rapturous audience in the palm of his hand. In ruminating on life lessons, he remarked that “the goal of accumulating knowledge is wisdom, where you finally discover that you know everything”. Val McDermid knows a bit about detective writing, but she’s also a singer and told her colleague Liz Nugent about her band, Fun’ Lovin’ Crime Writers, the only novelist band to perform at Glastonbury! Scotland’s queen of crime also opened up about her early years in journalism, her Covid-lockdown culinary adventures on Youtube and literally anything that came to mind in a most entertaining interview.
Turtle Bunbury enthralled his audience with a lecture on his book, ‘The Irish Diaspora’, highlighting how Irish emigrants have influenced global affairs in the Americas, continental Europe, the UK and India. We Irish are everywhere and have occupied positions of considerable military power and political influence for centuries. The full ray of our worldwide influence, dating back to long before the flight of the wild geese, was a real eye-opener in a hugely entertaining and informative lecture from a consummate professional.
Sunday morning began with baritone Owen Gilhooly-Byrne singing some of Percy French’s best-loved songs in the magnificent ballroom of Headfort House, accompanied by pianist Niall Kinsella and with a backing script by Myles Dungan. And Myles Dungan appeared later in the day to interview Guardian journalist and author Luke Harding. Harding was the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent until he was banned from Russia. He revealed Putin’s plans to restore the Soviet Empire to its former glory, one country at a time, with Ukraine being just the first. In his previous appearance in Kells just a few years ago, he predicted at the time what would happen with Putin. How prophetic he was and how unprepared Europe and America have remained, despite alarm bells ringing, including the strategic proliferation of Russian oligarchs in the UK.
Declan O’Rourke, composer of songs including the sublime Galileo, rolled over to Hinterland on Sunday afternoon, but not to sing. Instead, he spoke to Gerry Foley about his critically acclaimed novel The Pawnbroker’s Reward, a searing account of the effect of famine on a County Cork peasant family and pawnbroker Macroom who attempted to alleviate the suffering he witnessed around him. Multi-award winning author Jan Carson from Belfast spoke to RTE’s Eileen Dunne about magical realism in fiction, spiritualism, the art of writing and the differences between Kells in Northern Ireland and Kells in County Meath!
There are only a limited number of events one person can attend, but attendance was very high at all of the children’s events throughout the weekend as well as the Sunday LitCrawl events. The public came despite the dreadful weather on Sunday, although the heavy downpours had a negative effect on street life in the town, making browsing the stalls not much of an option. But bars, cafes and restaurants provided ample shelter as well as good food and drink. The nightlife was also as vibrant as ever on this special weekend, for those young and energetic enough to stay up late into the night.
A young video-journalist approached Liz Nugent moments before the event with herself and Val McDermid, asking if she would agree to a brief on-camera interview. Liz graciously consented and a little listening ensued. The last question was what she thinks makes Hinterland so special. In a snap, she replied, “I’ve been coming back here for years, as an interviewer and as a featured author, as a panelist and as a guest. And every time I come back, I meet the same lovely people. The same committee, the same volunteers, the same faces every year. There is no staff turnover here. These people keep Hinterland alive year after year, because they love doing it. And it’s very special. It’s like reuniting with old friends. I can’t think of higher praise for these tireless dedicated individuals who give their time, talents and energy to host a festival that works. like a well-oiled machine, 10 years later and stronger every year. They should all bow. Bravissimo!