My mother was raised by Irish nuns at Loreto Convent, an institution that has produced thousands of Indian women known for their carefully neutral accents, good grooming, a ravenous appetite for lacy doilies, and a propensity to hum weird Irish ditties (“Pooot your eeer agaaainst the craaahck, somebody wants to heeer”—which, back then, referred to listening at a door).
She spent much of her youth saying Hail Marys and trying to be a ‘naughty fairy’ rather than an ‘eejit’; and while her essential nature is sunny and fun loving, she developed a lifetime supply of guilt about it. It’s become a bit of a family joke that, wherever she goes, she is attended by a ghostly cohort of moral supervisors, wimples agog. “We can fit in one car,” my sister might say, “though it’ll be a bit of a squeeze what with Mother Bernadine and Mother Damien.” If we plan anything even faintly fun, we assure mum, sotto voce, that we won’t tell Them.
On the upside, my mother bequeathed to us the incredible literary tradition that They left her—the tradition of Jonathan Swift, WB Yeats, Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde. The girls at Loreto weren’t allowed to read the likes of James Joyce, who used swear words, but I devoured them all, down to John Banville and Anne Enright. Of all the literary traditions in the world, it’s the Irish I feel the greatest affinity with. So, despite Delhi’s bitter cold, my cultural genes drew me out on many evenings this last fortnight to attend the first Irish Literary Festival, organised by the Embassy of Ireland and the Ireland Literature Exchange.
It introduced me to the work of novelists Dermot Bolger and Gerard Donovan. I loved photographer John Minihan’s iconic shots of Samuel Beckett, and his documentation of the “dying Irish art of dying”. Children’s fantasy writers Oisin McGann (that’s Oh-sheen) and Conor Kostick read from their books, as did novelists John Boyne, Claire Kilroy, and Northern Ireland’s Glenn Patterson, who brought high humour to the evening. Kilroy’s Tenderwire was the only book available for sale; I bought it, and read it, and it’s a treat.
It was a treat, too, to listen to poet Anthony Cronin, a frail old giant of Irish letters, and Anne Haverty, who is also a poet and a novelist. Poet Derek Mahon, introduced as one of the most important writers of all time, talked about his first experience of Indo-Irish links being the time he was almost mown down by the passing cortege of the Irish Prime Minister Eamon de Valera and President Radhakrishnan, who was visiting.
Micheál O Conghaile represented the small but dedicated world of Irish-language publishing. A native Irish speaker, he beautifully likened the experience of expressing oneself in a second language (English) with waking in an unfamiliar house and trying to get breakfast together in an unfamiliar kitchen. He read a brilliant short story about a dead man who crashes his own wake, with understandably disturbing consequences.
The festival was sadly under-attended, partly because of the clash with the Jaipur literary event, and partly because these writers are unfamiliar to Indian audiences—even though that’s the best reason to be in the audience. It’s too bad that contemporary Irish work is largely absent in our bookstores, and it’s too bad that most of the authors’ books were not available at the events, but I like to think that this will change with future editions of the festival. And maybe, next time, the authors’ lodgings at The Grand Hyatt won’t go up in flames midway through the festival.
I reported to my mother that there was a total absence of wimples at the festival. She said that in that case, she’d come next year.