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Op Ed

Why we need a Western Writers' Centre

Wednesday, 27 August 2014
7:45 AM GMT

The Western Writers’ Centre – Ionad Scríbhneoirí Chaitlín Maude – has been based in Galway city for almost 13 years. Perhaps the number 13 will prove auspicious; named for an eminent Connemara poet in the Irish language, the entire centre project has from the start been devoted to the idea of celebrating the rich literary heritage of the city and the region of the West and encouraging an interest in creative writing in all its forms.

Since a first inquiring conversation with poet Peter Sirr, then director of The Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin, the idea behind the centre has blossomed into an entity of literary organisation. ‘The Forge at Gort’ annual weekend of literature continues at Gort, Co. Galway; added to this is the Dylan Thomas weekend held in Ennistymon, Co. Clare, and collaboration in commemorative events around Ted Hughes and his time in Connemara and a festival on Inis Mór. The centre provided the very first writer-in-residence at a Galway hospital, at Merlin Park, with the novelist and poet Nuala Ní Chonchúir, out of which was created an anthology of poetry. The 'Poetry on the Buses' project was also a first for the centre. Creative Writing classes and lectures have been held, editorial advice dispensed, and the first online series of writing courses presented. The centre’s CV is varied and diverse.

The centre was, however, always a project-in-progress. Having looked at writers’ centres in Dublin, Cork, Listowel, and Belfast – the now-thriving Limerick Writers’ Centre was established through initial consultation with the Western Writers’ Centre – it appeared as an obvious development of the centre that it would expand into a space to include a literary museum as well as a modest library, and a reading space for the use of anyone engaged in literary activities. A presentation was made to a Cultural Committee of Galway City Council some few years ago. Efforts were begun to seek a suitable premises – perhaps the old museum premises at Spanish Arch, or some similar building?

Now, as the city approaches presenting a bid for the European City of Culture, the value of the already-established centre ought to be clear. The Western Writers’ Centre in its developed form would commemorate the enormous breadth of Galway’s literary history; not just the relatively new emergence of Galway writers, but those who have travelled through the city and contributed in doing so to the wider world of literature. One thinks of J.R.R.Tolkien, playwright Antonin Artaud, who stayed at what is now Galway’s Imperial Hotel, the Breton folklorist Anatole Le Braz, the poet and nationalist Wilfrid Scawen Blunt. Mary Shelley, in her Frankenstein – or The Modern Prometheus, locates one of her scenes at Cregg Castle in Co. Galway. There are others, such as the city’s own Pádraic Ó Conaire, Walter Macken, Máirtin Ó Direáin, Micheál Mac Liammoír, Ted Hughes, and Richard Murphy, (who worked in the city’s post office.) The list is long, encompassing different languages and cultures. 

The centre’s dedicated museum would strive to remember these writers, its modest library permit a peek into their works. In terms of literary tourism, the fully-fledged centre would be a fairly distinct and obvious attraction. It would also create a literary hub around which other literary organisations and events might circle. Above all, I would argue that the developed Western Writers’ Centre would compliment directly the city’s cultural reputation, beaconed abroad by such organisations as The Druid Lane Theatre, An Taibhdhearc and the Cúirt International Festival of Literature. Other cities and towns on the island have not been slow to recognise the value of celebrating their literary heritage – must Galway lag behind, while on the brink of making presentations for major European cultural recognition?

The Western Writers’ Centre requires a suitable premises and the goodwill of the city council and businesses which might provide such a site. To signal, as part of the city’s presentation for the title of European City of Culture, a developing Western Writers’ Centre, in appropriate surroundings with its museum and reading-room, would surely complement the varied cultural infrastructure such a bid requires. There has not been a more apt time, nor alluring motive.

Fred Johnston is a novelist, poet and critic and Director of the Western Writers’ Centre – Ionad Scríbhneoiri Chaitlín Maude – Galway. The centre is based at The Hynes Building, St Clare’s Walk, Merchants Road, Galway. See or phone 087-2178138.

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