Artist John Farrelly with Caitlin Reilly and Tara Hunt.

Hinterland Review: From witches to Wild Geese ... and the wisdom of Harding

One of the features of the Hinterland Festival of Literature and Arts that sets it apart from myriad arts and ‘lit fests’ up and down the country, is the prominence of history in its programme, year after year. It’s a fitting perspective for a festival hosted in the home of the Book of Kells and the site of one of Colmcille’s first monasteries. History –particularly the history of the Civil War in its centenary year – was given a whole day to itself on the first day of Hinterland 2022, and as usual it drew capacity crowds throughout the day.

There were ‘niche’ historians present too, for instance Dr Andrew Sneddon, Ulster University academic and expert on the history of witchcraft, who delivered a sobering account of witch hunts in Europe and those in Ireland, occurring mostly in the North. In excess of 50,000 people were put to death as ‘witches’ from the middle ages right up to the early nineteenth century. When asked about the Irish witch hunts and why Ulster in particular was so keen, Dr Sneddon replied that Ulster was where the witch-fearing Scots Protestants were. The Gaelic-speaking Irish natives believed in witchcraft too, just as much as their Scots counterparts, but they weren’t afraid of it!

In the centenary year of An Garda Síochána, Diarmaid Ferriter reviewed the highs and lows of the first hundred years of the Guards in the new Irish republic. Leanne McCormick, meanwhile, took us from cops to robbers in Some Bad Bridgets, a fascinating history of Irish women emigrants in 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 having the chats with every single person who sought a handshake, a quick word or his autograph on their copy of his memoir. Morrissey’s got more charisma than you can shake a (hurling) stick at.

On Saturday Fintan O’Toole spoke about his book 'We Don’t Know Ourselves', a personal memoir within a social history and winner of the Book of the Year in last year’s An Post awards. A regular and popular Hinterland speaker, he sold the house out with a stimulating and often amusing talk. Martina Devlin, also no stranger to Hinterland, spoke to Deirdre Hurley about Edith Somerville, one half of the Sommerville and Ross duo, famous for their Irish RM books. Devlin’s novel, simply titled Edith, concentrates on the years after Ross’s death, when Edith attempted contact with Ross through spiritualism. Asked why she chose these years in Somerville’s life instead of the glory years, Devlin remarked simply "Because failure is so much more interesting than success".

And grief is more interesting than happiness, or at least more instructional, according to Michael Harding, who spoke to a sold-out house. Reflecting on life, loss, love and ageing, he held a rapt audience in the palm of his hand. Ruminating on life lessons, he remarked "the purpose of the accumulation of knowledge is wisdom, where you finally discover that you know f*ck all". Val McDermid knows a thing or two about crime writing, but she’s also a singer and spoke to fellow crime writer Liz Nugent about her band, Fun’ Lovin’ Crime Writers, the only band of novelists who have performed in Glastonbury! Scotland’s Queen of Crime also spoke of her early years in journalism, her Covid lockdown culinary adventures on Youtube and literally anything else that popped into her head in a most entertaining interview.

Turtle Bunbury fascinated his audience with a talk on his book, 'The Irish Diaspora', outlining the extent to which Irish emigrants have influenced world affairs in both of the Americas, mainland Europe, the UK and India. We’re all over the place, we Irish, and have been holding positions of considerable military power and political influence for centuries. The full radius of our clout worldwide, dating from long before the flight of the Wild Geese, was a real eye-opener in a hugely entertaining and informative talk from a consummate pro.

Sunday morning started with baritone Owen Gilhooly-Byrne singing some of Percy French’s best-loved songs in the beautiful ballroom of Headfort House, accompanied by pianist Niall Kinsella and with a supporting script from Myles Dungan. And Myles Dungan appeared later in the day interviewing 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 return 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 short years ago, he predicted back then what would happen with Putin. How prophetic he was, and how unprepared Europe and America 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, rocked up 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 famine’s effect on a peasant family in County Cork, and of a Macroom pawnbroker 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 craft of writing and the differences between Kells in Northern Ireland and Kells in County Meath!

There are only so many events one person can attend, but attendances were very high at all of the children’s events throughout the weekend as well as the Sunday LitCrawl events. The audiences came despite horrendous Sunday weather, although the heavy showers did have an adverse effect on the streetlife in the town, making browsing the stalls not really an option. But the bars, cafes and restaurants provided ample shelter as well as great food and drink. The nightlife was also as vibrant as always on this special weekend, for those young and energetic enough to stay on their feet well into the night.

A young video-journalist approached Liz Nugent moments before the event with herself and Val McDermid, requesting if she’d agree to a brief filmed interview. Liz graciously consented and a little eavesdropping ensued. The final question was what she thought made Hinterland so special. In a heartbeat she replied: "I’ve been coming back here for years, as an interviewer and as a featured author, as a panellist and as a guest. And every time I return, I encounter the same lovely people. The same committee, the same volunteers, the same faces every year. Staff turnover is not a thing here. These people make Hinterland happen year in, year out, because they love doing it. And that’s very special. It’s like coming back to old friends. " I can’t think of higher praise for those tireless dedicated individuals who give up their time, their talents and their energy to host a festival that runs like a well-oiled machine, 10 years on and stronger every year. They should all take a bow. Bravissimo!