Former RTE newscaster Eileen Dunne on stage with Myles Dungan. PHOTO: RAF WOJCICKI

Gallery: Kells basks in the afterglow of another glorious chapter of Hinterland

The sun did not always shine on Kells for the 2023 Hinterland Festival of Literature and Arts. Occasionally the rain was biblical, which seemed oddly apt in a place world-famous for its Bible (although Noah’s not actually in the Book of Kells, but let’s not split hairs). Still, through sunshine and showers, the crowds came. There were over 50 events this year and over a fifth of those were completely sold out. One of the highlights was 85-year-old Liverpudlian punk poet Roger McGough, who on Saturday received a standing ovation. John Creedon, who sold out Kells Theatre, spent almost an hour talking to people in the book-signing queue afterwards. Author Sarah Webb did a survey of children’s events in this summer’s literary festivals and Hinterland won hands down with nine events for kids. Galway International Arts Festival was runner-up with five events, Sligo and Kilkenny hosted just four and Borris’s prestigious Festival of Writing and Ideas hosted a big fat zero. Kudos to Hinterland for offering so much for the chisellers. Those tiny readers are the writers, librarians and scholars of tomorrow.

The festival kicked off on Thursday with the first of the Hinterland Hindsight events. Hindsight is virtually a festival in itself, a series of talks from historians, archivists and other experts on aspects of the nation’s history. The theme this year was ‘Fare thee well, decade of centenaries’ and included talks from Ciarán Wallace, Ronan McCreevy, Catriona Crowe and Cecile Chemin. Navan native Ultan Courtney invited his audience to be the jury as he presented the evidence from his book Sons of Fire, about the murder of Navan postmaster Thomas Hodgett in 1921. On Thursday night, Pray for Our Sinners, the documentary exploring the plight of unmarried mothers in Navan, made by Navan native Sinéad O’Shea, was sold out. O’Shea’s film is the most attended documentary in Ireland so far this year.

Hinterland’s own ‘Fringe Fest’ called The Lit Crawl had eight events, all free, happening in O’Rorke’s Bar and Kells Library, and the yearly Typetrail was evident all over town, with this year’s word being ‘Connect’. Bestselling crime novelists Liz Nugent and Jane Casey (a Kells native) recalled a previous visit to Hinterland when they were stopped in the street by an odd-looking stranger who asked them if they’d ever met a real murderer. That stranger was Malcolm MacArthur, Meath’s most notorious citizen. Authors Anne Griffin, Adrian Duncan and Sam Blake all guested on Saturday, while broadcaster Tom Dunne spoke about Bowie’s album Aladdin Sane, now 50 years old.

John Boyne read from All the Broken Places, a sequel of sorts to his blockbuster The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas. Riverdance composer Bill Whelan spoke about his memoir The Road to Riverdance while RTE reporter, the daddy of them all, Tommie Gorman, spoke about his own recent memoir Never Better. On Saturday night, singer Lisa Lambe sold out well ahead of the gig, with her own brand of old songs and stories in a hauntingly beautiful show titled Night Visiting.

On Sunday, the current Lord Dunsany, Randall Plunkett, talked about his rewilding project on the Dunsany estate, while broadcaster Eileen Dunne spoke about her years in the newsroom and her passion for GAA sports and culture, and Irish Times art critic Cristín Leach discussed her beautifully written memoir Negative Spaces.

Pulitzer Prizewinner Richard Ford, arguably America’s most important contemporary novelist, popped into Kells Theatre on Sunday afternoon. Ford has been in Ireland for the last month, the headliner at this year’s major summer lit fests, starting with Listowel Writers Week and finishing up at Kells.

He told interviewer Gerry Foley that Hinterland was by far the best of the Irish events he’d attended (I bet he says that to all the festivals!).

Fintan O’Toole packed the house with a talk on the role of the journalist in this era of crazy. This talk was also an affectionate and fitting tribute to journalist, RTE reporter, trade union activist, historian, author and Meath resident Liam Cahill, who died suddenly last year. O’Toole spoke of Liam’s many achievements and later used the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes to address not just the State of The Nation, but the absolute state of everything. Quoting a former Meath Church of Ireland Rector you may have heard of, Jonathan Swift, he said ‘Falsehood flies and the truth comes limping after it’, going on to express his concern about our soundbite world of lies, half-lies and blatant deceptions (including the Tubridy scandal). Touching on everything from Covid to Convents and their horrific laundries, he made a stirring case to a rapt audience for non-partisan journalism, which he described as a most necessary ‘adjunct to democratic society’.

Joseph O’Connor also addressed a standing-room only house to talk about Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, that most courageous of clerics who saved many thousands of lives of Allied POWs and Jews in Nazi-occupied Rome, using the tenuous safety of the Vatican as his base. He had plenty of help, of course, and folk singer Delia Murphy, married to the then Irish Ambassador to Rome, Tom Kiernan, also took many risks to help the Monsignor. She ignored, just as O’Flaherty did, a stern telegram from the Department of Foreign Affairs ordering O’Flaherty to cease his activities.

O’Connor reminded his hushed audience that there are tens of thousands of people alive today who simply wouldn’t be here, had it not been for the efforts of this humble, quiet, scholarly man and the subject of his latest novel, My Father’s House. But before embarking on the interview proper, O’Connor proffered sincere gratitude to the Hinterland committee and the small army of volunteer stewards and guides who make the well-oiled Hinterland machine so utterly enjoyable every year.

One would need to be as ubiquitous as God to attend everything one would like to, but reports from reliable sources have been unanimous: Hinterland 2023 was another roaring success. Or to put it in decidedly more literary terms; lads, the joint was jumpin’.