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HoCoPoLitSo’s 35th Irish Evening started the night before, on Feb. 28, when National Book Award-winning novelist Colum McCann drove down from New York to hang out late with Gov. Martin O’Malley and the musical Winch brothers.
It just got better from there — prose that edged us to the rims of our seats, Irish sing-a-longs with O’Malley as song-leader, midnight evocations of Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins, a lot of Guinness, and perhaps a trace of miracle.
When McCann and Terence Winch sat down around 3:30 in the afternoon – after a little nip to get them in the mood – to record an edition of the writer-to-writer talk show, The Writing Life, McCann rubbed his hands together and said, “Let’s have some fun here today.”
Winch and McCann spoke for half an hour about McCann’s books, especially Let the Great World Spin, a 2005 National Book Award-winning novel about New York City in the 1970s, with a prostitute, a monk, a mother who loses her son to Vietnam’s destruction and a man who walks on a wire between the Twin Towers. At Winch’s request, McCann read a section from that book that he had never read aloud before, a section about a group of mothers from across the city who have lost their sons in the war:
Writing, he said, is a form of adventure, for both the writer and the reader. Fiction is an exploration of the world from inside another’s skin, a constant discovery that keeps us alive, he explained.
“Without the stories,” McCann said, “we’re just dead meat.”
That evening, after Irish Ambassador Michael Collins called McCann’s writing “undeniably and indisputably Irish,” McCann took the stage and thanked the audience, and especially O’Malley, for coming.
“I have great hope for this country because we have somebody like Gov. O’Malley,” McCann said, citing his stance on gun control. “And he can sing too. I can’t. I do, but I can’t.”
McCann read stories from his books, ranging from Newfoundland to Ireland, to Park Avenue and the Bronx and back again. McCann read from Let the Great World Spin, about the prostitute Tillie and her tricks and the Park Avenue matron bidding farewell to her doomed son in his too-short Army trousers.
Then, for the first time in public, McCann read from his new novel, TransAtlantic, set to be published in June by Random House. A multi-layered novel with three main plots, TransAtlantic follows co-pilots on the first flight across the Atlantic, in an open-cockpit modified bomber, landing in Ireland in 1919, as well as travels along on the 1845 trip to Ireland that Frederick Douglass took as a slave, hoping to convince the Irish to fight slavery, and about the efforts of Sen. George Mitchell to forge a peace in Ireland in the 1990s.
What emerged from McCann’s reading was a yearning for the sort of grace and hope that I haven’t felt in an auditorium in years. McCann spoke about finding “the miracle of the actual” in the world, and writing it. During some readings, there are moments when an audience waits, their collective breath held, all focused on the words. The author speaks those words and a tiny miracle of harmony bubbles up.
“I try to write toward grace,” McCann said, and talked about the ideas of redemption and recovery in a world of pain.
McCann revealed that the high school seniors of Newtown, Connecticut, have read Let the Great World Spin this winter, as a way to cope with the grief of the mass shootings at their town’s elementary school last year. This spring, he’ll be speaking with them about his book, about “grace and recovery and beauty in the face of enormous tragedy. It’s one of the best moments of my writing life.”
After the reading, the Narrowbacks, with Jesse and Terence Winch, as well as Eileen Korn Estes, Linda Hickman and Brendan Mulvihill, played and talked, until Terence called O’Malley up on stage. Dominick Murray, who played at Irish Evening for decades, but has recently become the state’s Business and Economic Development secretary, joined in on his guitar.
O’Malley grabbed a guitar and sat down to explain that he tried to protest the Winch brothers’ entreaties.
“Terry, no one wants to listen to a guy in a tie,” O’Malley told him.
“So take off your tie,” Winch replied.
He did. Then O’Malley played and sang, and lead the crowd in a sing-along to the classic Irish tune, “Jug of Punch.”
The party kept going in the gallery next door (as painter Trudy Babchak’s flamboyant women stared us down from their frames) with past HoCoPoLitSo guest and novelist Alice McDermott, along with HoCoPoLitSo’s managing director, Pam Simonson, board members and guests, band members and Estes’ blissfully sleeping baby. McCann and O’Malley invoked Michael Collins’ brave sacrifice for peace as they sipped their beers around midnight.
“Jay-sus,” McCann could occasionally be heard to mutter, as Estes’ voice drifted over the crowd and the Jameson’s whiskey flowed. What a night.
Susan Thornton Hobby
Recording secretary and consultant
On a tight budget? You have no idea.
Here’s how Frank McCourt’s family’s budget – funded by the Irish dole — is tallied by his mother.
“Nineteen shillings for the six of us? That’s less than four dollars in American money and how are we supposed to live on that? What are we to do when we have to pay rent in a fortnight? If the rent for this room is five shillings a week we’ll have fourteen shillings for food and clothes and coal to boil the water for tea.”
That’s from McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, his amazing memoir of a miserable Irish Catholic childhood, from which he read at HoCoPoLitSo’s 2009 Irish Evening of Music and Poetry.
Which is all to say that the Irish have a history of thrifty.
My great-grandmother, who grew up in the Irish and African-American section of Georgetown when it was more the country than the city, could put a meal on the kitchen table for her five children and hungry husband for an amazingly small amount of money. That meal, of course, required hours of her bent-back labor in a small patch of garden, sweating over Ball jars of stewed tomatoes in August and kneading bread until her forearms were as cut as Jillian Michaels’ (almost).
Those around here who want to hear a good Irish story don’t need to sweat or scrape to save a little bit. On Feb. 1, the price of an Irish Evening of Music and Poetry ticket goes from $30 to $35. A small rise, grant you, but a rise nonetheless that my great-grandmother would cluck over, and one that could feed all those little McCourts for a week.
Buy a ticket today and make Frank proud. Save five bucks and here’s what you receive on March 1: Colum McCann, that swashbuckling former reporter who spins yarns that win National Book Awards and lift readers high over Manhattan (Let the Great World Spin) and lower them deep into the tunnels under New York (This Side of Brightness). At the Irish Evening, McCann will read from his work, Narrowbacks will play their sprite Irish tunes, stepdancers from the Culkin School will fling their feet higher than their heads. Bartenders are cooking up a signature Irish drink to go with the Irish coffee and Guinness. Win raffle baskets of Irish books and music and food. Bid on signed Seamus Heaney broadsides and custom-made jewelery. Go on, have a scone.
For tickets, go to http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/287811 or call 443-518-4568.
Susan Thornton Hobby
The international award winning author Colum McCann is HoCoPoLitSo’s guest for its 35th Annual Irish Evening at 7:30 pm, March 1, 2013 at the Smith Theater, Horowitz Center for Visual and Performing Arts on the campus of Howard Community College.
General Admission Tickets are available at http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/287811 or by sending a check payable and mailed to HoCoPoLitSo, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, DH 239, Columbia, MD 21044. Tickets purchased before Feb. 1, 2013 are $30 each, $35 if purchased after Feb. 2.
So Many Stories to Be Told: An Evening with Colum McCann will highlight this major voice in today’s literary landscape’s with a discussion of his National Book Award winning novel Let the Great World Spin and his upcoming novel, Transatlantic, due out in late 2013.
McCann’s reading will be followed by Narrowbacks, Eileen Korn, Jesse Winch, Terence Winch, Linda Hickman, and Brendan Mulvihill on fiddle in a concert of traditional Irish music with stepdancers from the Culkin School.
McCann, a two-time winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the most lucrative literary award in the world, has published 5 novels and numerous short stories and articles. In 2003 McCann was named Esquire Magazine’s “Best and Brightest” young novelist. He has also been awarded a Pushcart Prize, the Rooney Prize, the Irish Novel of the Year Award and the 2002 Ireland Fund of Monaco Princess Grace Memorial Literary Award. He was recently inducted into the Hennessy Hall of Fame.
McCann follows other great Irish authors who have come to Howard County including Frank McCourt, Eavan Boland, Hugo Hamilton, Colm Tóibín, Paul Durcan and Paula Meehan to name a few. For years, HoCoPoLitSo’s Irish Evening has recognized and celebrated the enormous impact of Irish-born writers on the world of contemporary literature.