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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.