Tuesday, November 7, 2017

No Borders, No Boundaries - John O'Connor Writing School and Literary Festival, Armagh 2017

I sat stock-still in the darkness of the Abbey Lane Theatre, my skin prickling with goosebumps, my heart bursting with sympathy for Bellina Prior (21) the woman otherwise known in Armagh as the Green Lady who had killed little Anne Slavin (4). It was a surprising reaction, but such was the impact of Armagh writer and actor Karl O Neill's play, Bellina and the Softening of The Stones, magically brought to life by wonderful actors Maggie Cronin and  Brenda Winter-Palmer.

This was the first of many moments where my emotions were pummeled during the course of the John O'Connor Writing School and Literary Arts Festival 2017.

The programme was ingenious - 5 concurring schools would run in the mornings (Friday through to Sunday) covering poetry, playwriting, songwriting, fiction and screenwriting. In the afternoon and evening, students, artists, tutors and members of the public could mingle as they attend the panel talks and live performances. The intimate settings such as the gracious Charlemont Arms Hotel, the Amma Centre, the Robinson Library, the Planetarium, Abbey Lane theatre (to mention but a few) brought me shoulder-to-shoulder with other writers and artists. Some were musicians I had only ever dreamed of seeing play live, never mind actually conversing with!

After Bellina and the Softening of the Stones that first evening, everyone gathered at the Charlemont. I had to pinch myself to check I wasn't dreaming as I sat around a table with Maggie Cronin, Karl O Neil, Barry Devlin and Jim Lockhart from Horslips (The actual Horslips - OMG!)

Karl and I discovered a connection through family and friendship - my father and his sister had taught together. Karl patiently answered my questions about the play and how he'd come to research and write it - questions I'm sure he has answered a thousand times. Maggie had enjoyed the craic, I think, as we'd walked from the theatre to the Charlemont (I was volunteering at the event and had been 'on the door.') I had dared her to walk down Vicars Hill in her costume that night. Barry and Jim, I'm sure, were just being polite - probably wondering who the hell I was!

We chatted about writing, story, good things to watch on the telly... all an addition for my memory folder of golden moments.

The next morning, (Friday) I attended the registration in the Robinson Library. I sat feet from the original copy of  Gulliver's Travels with Jonathan Swift's notes handwritten in the margins. Karl O Neill arrived in and chose to sit beside me. Behind me sat the talented author Jo Baker, next to her husband Daragh Carville, a very successful screenwriter from Armagh. They greeted me warmly, epitomizing the ethos of this festival, inclusion, no borders, no boundaries - we were fellow Armachians, in this together.

After the Lord Mayor's opening address, Lemn Sissey read a beautiful poem that brought tears to my eyes. I especially loved the following lines, that spoke to me of My Husband's support of and faith in my writing.
If there was ever one
Who when you achieve
Was there before the dream
And even then believed;

And then it was to school. I chose screenwriting, something I've always had an interest in but just didn't know where to begin. Deirdre Cartmill, my teacher, showed me. Her enthusiasm for the art-form is boundless and she had our class enthralled and hanging on her every word. Yes, she told us it was a hard business. Yes, we needed a thick skin to survived the editing and rewriting process, yet nothing about her warnings put me off. She had the rare talent of making you feel everything was possible and that you deserved that everything too.

For the second time that morning, I choked back emotion as I listen to her tell us that writing was not a selfish pursuit  - she read a quote which basically said that if you were born to write you could either write or not write. If you didn't write you hurt yourself, others, and the planet! It finished by telling us that our unique gifts nudged us closer to God and commanded us to "Give us what you've got."

Those are words I'll draw upon in the solitary place at my computer when I wonder what the hell I am doing here. Thank you, Deirdre.

That afternoon I attended a panel discussion on "What makes good theatre?" These people have spent a lifetime on their craft: Jo Egan, Jane Coyle, Rosemary Jenkinson and more Armachians, Conall Morrison and Paul Bosco McEneany. At the end, I had the chance to chat to Conall and Paul. I'd known both of their sisters at school - it's a small city, Armagh, but with a far-reaching web of connections. Both men seemed genuinely pleased that I'd apprehended them, God Bless them. I'm sure they get a lot of this. 

I said to Conall that I felt overwhelmed being such a newcomer to the scene, having had a life in science and teaching before writing. He told me that didn't matter, that new people like me were most likely less jaded and brought our own freshness to the scene. Kind words, that I certainly soaked up. 

Paul was heading my way and we walked from the Local and Irish Studies Library to Market Street together. As we passed the Cathedral, I told Paul about how it featured in my current project, in-between our exchanging the do-you-remember-such-and-such-person? and other reminiscences of Armagh.

Friday evening events were sold out. I was too tired and filled to the brim with inspiration to be too disappointed. I needed some quietude to mull over what Deidre had taught me that day.

Saturday morning dawned with bluebird skies and breath-clouds that hung before your face.


Market Street, where I lived when I was in single digits, looked splendid. I sat in class in the Amma Centre looking out over my old playground - now minus the bollards and black fire-pocked tarmac.

Our teacher was joined by Barry Devlin for the industry talk about the nitty-gritty of life as a screenwriter. Barry was as entertaining as he was informative, his self-depreciating humour unveiling a gentleman and a scholar. 

When I was thirteen I discovered the Horslips. The first time I heard Dearg Doom my imagination burst into visions of stallions galloping through surf, of rebel warriors charging, of thunderclaps over mountain peaks, of hot blood pumping through hearts and of feet unable to stop dancing. I was bereft then when I discovered that the band had 'retired' in 1980, three years before I'd first heard of them (I was always a bit slow on the old music scene - where my friends had posters of Duran Duran, I had posters of elephants and tigers from David Attenborough documentaries!)

Horslips reformed in 2009 but by then I was living in America, though I did have their CD with me. So I, for one, was thrilled to hear that Horslips would be playing in The Charlemont Hotel that evening.

After class, there was another panel discussion "Lights, Camera, Action." with Barry Devlin, Daragh Carville, Ronan Blaney, Jude Sharvin and the adorable Ursula Devine from Screen NI. In short, the message was thrilling - it's a great time to be getting into screenwriting in this part of the world. I left feeling excited about the possibilities opening up in this region in film and drama production. Ursula couldn't have been more encouraging when I had a chance to talk to her later in the Charlemont at the Celebration Night.

After that I needed to eat - I'd been too busy, too excited, too inspired to stop for lunch... 

I found Brenda Winter-Palmer, her husband Richard and Libby Smyth in the Charlemont Hotel lounge. They invited me (wee me!) to join them and we spent the next two hours in animated discussion in what turned into a workshop on screenwriting ideas. Both actors made me promise to write a screenplay for them - a promise I fully intend to keep.

Later, I watched, enthralled, as Libby Smyth transformed on stage at the Abbey Lane Theatre to perform Both Sides an interlocking monologue along with Hannah Coyle, set in Paris and Nice, written by Jane Coyle.

The ultimate highlight of the festival for me was the John O'Connor Celebration Evening, because My Husband, My Sister, My Bro-In-Law and friends joined in the festivities. 

We were treated to a plethora of amazing talent. Glenn Patterson read a piece about the Titanic sinking, using maritime distress signals that literally left My Husband speechless with emotion.

Gareth Dunlop's music inspired me so much, I had to actually whip out my phone and jot down some notes and ideas as I sat and listened to him. Lisa Lambe and Fiachna Ó Braonáin from Hothouse Flowers joined Horslips on stage and soon had the hall rocking. But it was when Horslips played the opening bars of their best-known song, Dearg Doom, the place went ape-shit and we all lost our heads (and hearts) to the music in a freestyle ceili that had the stage lights bouncing. We danced, stamped, punched the air, clapped and were transported to another time, another world. Barry Devlin ceased to be my screenwriting tutor, Jim Lockheart, no longer that guy beside me in the coffee line (earlier that morning.) They and the rest of Horslips had become Time Lords and Dearg Doom their Tardis.

Later in the bar of the Charlemont, someone produced a guitar and a sing-song erupted. I could hardly breathe with excitement when Gareth Dunlop appeared and joined in. Then Lisa and Fiachna had us all singing with them. 


It was spine-tingling good and for me soul-filling. I'd missed an ould sing-along session in the pub during all those years I'd lived abroad. No-one does this like the Irish, and here we were soaking up the talent of these amazing artists as if we were all on the same level - No borders, no boundaries.

As a venue the Charlemont Hotel was outstanding. The staff could not do enough for us. We'd kept them up half the night but still, they looked after us with good humour and a cheerful smile. I'll be back to do a separate blog on this amazing place...

I made it on time (9.30am) to class the next day - an accomplishment in itself! And the literary lunch was a final treat in what had been an excellent long weekend. Author Orla McAlinden and I swapped signed copies of our books. I can't wait to read the Accidental Wife.

We were served local cheese, cider and can-you-believe-it - locally grown Armagh grapes!


I'm truly amazed at the vision, passion and sheer dedication that festival director Cathy McCullough poured into this event. It showcased the great talent that Armagh has to offer and that Armagh wants to welcome. It was a weekend that celebrated words, that celebrated the people who are guardians of those words and celebrated the connections between people across borders and across boundaries -  connections interweaving like gossamer silk cocoons glistening soft and supple in the warmth of friendship and camaraderie, and which even in the cold frost of the solitariness of writing, allures us with their brittle sparkle.

Thank you, Cathy, for this amazing experience.

Byddi Lee


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Halloween from Hangman's Hill


Mist sifts through the trees, hanging there as if caught on the leafless branches like cold deathly fingers. Hairs rise on the back of my neck. The young trees are now too flimsy to support more than a birds nest, but I shudder at the thought of what might have been hanging in the same spot four hundred years ago.

Every night it's the same routine as I pull my bedroom curtains; A look that doesn't want to see, a held breath released in a relieved sigh and an imagination far too vivid for this view because, you see, we look out over the prime real estate of what was once Gallow's Hill.


I'd grown up knowing about this site in Armagh, but a part of me thought that it was just a spooky old wive's tale. It wasn't until the first night we'd moved in and the thought hit me as I looked out the bedroom window - What if I looked up and saw a ghost swinging by the neck from the tree.



"Catch yourself on," I told myself. I never saw any ghosts in Paris and those streets were bathed in the blood of past revolutions. Even where I lived in San Jose could well have seen the untold slaughter of the indigenous people. We live in a world bathed in echoes of the past and I, fortunately, do not have the finely tuned sixth sense to expose me to it.  However, an imagination like mine is a two-edged sword - great for building a world to set a trilogy in, but I'm also liable to scare the bejayus out of myself!

I was curious to see if I could, in fact, find out more about Hangman's or Gallow's Hill, (I've heard it called both) so myself and my Trusty Research Assistant (one rather cute 9-year-old nephew)  set off on a quest to see if we could find the exact spot on a map. The main library sent us to the Irish and Local studies Library - a history lesson in itself for the Trusty Research Assistant, as I told him it used to be the Armagh City Hospital and that I remembered having to go sometimes after school and wait for My Mum (his granny) who was a nurse there. The hallways still smelt of the old wards, I thought, but the library section had that comforting book smell. The Librarian was so helpful when we explained our quest and before too long a curly blond (mine) and a curly red (TRA's) head were bend over a huge table covered in piles of ancient maps of Old Armagh.

It was actually exciting to find the first (of several) maps with a road labelled "Gallows Hill."

"That's it!"
"Oh my God, it actually existed."
We grinned at each other, delighted with ourselves.



Because of copyright issues, we couldn't copy the old maps but we transcribed the position of not one, but two labels onto a google map. The blue line is where the Robert Livingstone map of 1766 (redrawn in 1835) shows Gallows Hill, and the purple line is how it is written on a later map, possibly a more generic area after the site was abandoned as an execution spot.

In the Archbishop's Palace Grounds (now a public park) there is a sign that tells us a little bit more about Gallows Hill.


This is the view from that spot - directly towards the ground at the back of our house. In the background you can see the bell of St Malachy's Church - that is definitely more than 150m north of the sign, so let your gaze rest just beyond the red foliage...and that's where it is...


The research was fascinating - I found the following anecdote  - Apparently, hangings were a big day out for the townspeople. Gruesome, I know, but when you consider the TV viewing we have nowadays, are we really all that different? Murders and mayhem right in the corner of our living room. However, on one occasion in 1721 the hanging spectacle was trumped by another event:-

1721. Primate Lindsey presented to the Vicars Choral a second organ for divine service, and a peal of six fine-toned bells for the Cathedral. On the day of their arrival it is said that an execution took place on Gallows-hill. The appointed hour arrived, and the crowd was in eager expectation for the appearance of the unfortunate victim, when intelligence came that the bells were on the Dublin road within a short distance of the city. In a moment the vast multitude dispersed,leaving the sheriff, posse comitatus and finisher of the law alone to discharge their painful duty. The horses were unyoked from the waggons and Primate Lindscy's merry bells were towed in triumph to their final resting place.


When researching this, I came across a lot of gruesome stories especially of murderers being hanged, but most records were post 1780 when the executions took place outside the Goal on the Mall.

Now thankfully all I have to look out at in the branches of the trees is a murder of crows! Hope it stays that way.


Happy Halloween!

Byddi Lee









Friday, October 20, 2017

The Craic'd Pot - Coffee Culture in Armagh

I had noticed the sign for the Craic'd Pot on my visit home back in March. It brought to my mind the coffee shops I'd seen in California - not the plague of Starbucks or Peets you see on every street corner, but more the "Mom & Pop" type coffee shops nestled into the likes of Palo Alto and Los Gatos - nice places, up-market places, places that made you feel you were on vacation.


As soon as I could after I moved home, I made a beeline for the Craic'd Pot to see what the craic actually was. I was not disappointed.


It had the ambience to match any upmarket Californian or Seattle coffee house, with that added Irish vibe - good craic (obviously) and great scones...

 

... not to mention the best-tasting coffee in town! Thank God they sell the beans so we can make the brew at home too - you know, for hurricane days, when you can't leave the house!

 

I loved the thought that had been applied to the decor. Every last detail attended to in such a way as to make me feel that I, their customer, was valued and worth the effort.

 

I was complimenting the staff on the cups and asking if they had been specially made for the business when a person bringing an armful of empty dishes appeared and confirmed that, yes, they had been specially made. This was my introduction to Scott King the owner.

Amazing staff - Sharon Donnelly and Ryan Little along with owner Scott King

Like myself, Scott, a county Armagh native, had travelled and lived abroad, though I considered his list of places that bit more exotic than mine - places like Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Vienna, Austria and Istanbul, Turkey. He spent 4 years at University in Scotland studying Management with Business Law and then went on to do a PGCE in Liverpool teaching Business Economics and eventually returning home to Armagh. By then he'd taught business for a while so decided it was time to stop teaching it and actually do it.



You could certainly see his expertise in marketing - Branding at its most functional level.

Not only is he a coffee connoisseur, he knows how to spread the love of the bean juice too - he gave us tasters of different varieties of beans made with various filtering techniques. Just fab!

But how did the grub match up?

Remember, this is a coffee shop. It doesn't claim to be a restaurant or a bistro, like other excellent places in Armagh such as 4 Vicars, The Moody Boar, Mulberry or the nearby Rumours. The Craic'd Pot has created its own perfect niche - light bites - both savoury and sweet.

The beverage menu is extensive, but they've kept the food really simple and it works! You can put together your own sandwich from a choice of ingredients - not overly extensive but absolutely in the Goldilocks range of "just right." There’s soup and all kinds of sumptuous tray bakes, cakes and buns to try too. One look at their Facebook page will have your mouth watering.


I had a panini with bacon, cheese and tapenade, with a side of salad ingredients of my choice.


Along with her salad choices, My Sister had the sausage roll - no ordinary sausage roll - this one had apple and herbs in it. And oh my, look at that pastry!


We had a delicious lunch, and a relaxing chat, enjoying the lovely surroundings and the friendly staff. It makes me so proud of Armagh to have such high-quality places for us to enjoy and to which we can welcome visitors to our lovely little city.

Come in and try a warm beverage here. I can guarantee you too will leave your cup like this!


 Byddi Lee












Monday, October 9, 2017

Hello Again Armagh

View of Lake Huron from Manitoulin Island
I remember the first time I moved to Armagh. I'm a genetic Armagh native but I wasn't born there, or even in Ireland - it doesn't mean I'm not Irish... Like my mother often told me - Jesus was born in a stable. It doesn't make him a donkey.

The Church I was baptised in, Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve

I was four years old when my parents moved back to Armagh after having lived in the Wikwemikong Unceded Reserve in Canada for 8 years. (By coincidence 8 years is how long we lived in California. Funny that.)

Armagh's version of the dark hedges - taken while on the Armagh Photo Walk


I vividly remember travelling home from the airport in the car. No seat beats - I'm from that daredevil generation who didn't bother with such safety features. Instead, I car-surfed in the gap between the driver seat and the passenger seat, a foot planted on the floor in each footwell of the backseat. Even with straight legs and ramrod back, my skimming of white curls was nowhere near the ceiling of the car. I did have, however, a birds-eye view of my Uncle's face in the rearview mirror. And he had a great view of me. He'd catch my eye and make faces at me, making me squirm with embarrassment but not enough to make me relinquish my perch - prime real-estate in a car for a kid of four years old. I was more bemused than amused at this strange man (who it unfolded is a very dear uncle, life mentor and family comedian!) but that was merely the beginning of my bewildering introduction to Ireland.

Gatelodge at Armagh Observatory

We stayed with my Granny for the first while in a whitewashed cottage with no inside toilet and a black and white TV. Oh the hardship - the TV, I mean. The toilet, I could somewhat cope with! We had a "slop bucket" under the bed if we "took short" during the night. My Mum and her siblings still laugh about how I said in a booming Canadian accent, "How come people in Ireland sleep in the bathroom." Bathroom was pronounced with a very long "A" - Baaath-room.

To this day, I still dream of living in a whitewashed cottage with roses around the door so the experience couldn't have been all that bad. There were kittens galore and a grumpy corgi called, "Dusty," that lived under the TV stand. He'd growl and snarl at anyone who approached, scrunching up his nose and baring his teeth. Us kids would copy him in making a "Dusty face." We never needed telling to leave him be. Dusty was perfectly capable of maintaining disciple among the hordes of grandchildren that visited Granny. And when I say hordes, I'm not exaggerating. Granny had nine children, and I am the third grandchild - of twenty-nine. And that is just on My Mum's side. My Dads side is a smaller collection, though more spread apart. I am the eldest of five cousins on that side.

St Marks Church, Armagh

There was always something going on at Granny's and my collection of fragmented memories includes getting stung by a wasp for the first time while playing on rusty metal barrels in the "street" which what we called the driveway. Granny's house was two miles out of town!

St Marks, Armagh
I always had a sense of "otherness" - In Wikwemikong, I was the odd child out with my fair skin and bald head amongst all the other children who all seemed to have beautiful straight, blue-black hair.

Even in school in Ireland, I felt that sense of "otherness." I was from Canada and that seemed to interest people but I wanted to be like everyone else. Having a curly bap didn't help matters. My Mum, unable to get a comb thru the frizz kept my hair short. In fact, she was so worried about how dry and frizzy my hair was that she took me to see the doctor. It wasn't until she walked into his office that she realized she was on a fool's errand - the doctor also had a head of frizzy dry curls (though no relation!)
Harvest moon over Market Street, Armagh

We moved out of Granny's into a flat in Market Street, beside my other Granny. My Aunties had a sewing shop in the same street. My cousins lived around the corner and I was thrilled to finally have cousins to play with. All the children back in Canada had large extended families and I had felt that I was missing out.


Over time, the fabric of Irish society wove me into their culture. My accent changed to an Armagh accent, which I still have today. (Thank God! Hey bai, I can only imagine the slagging I'd get if I came back with another North American twang.)

Now I can appreciate the cultural references that tie me to my peers in Armagh. Only recently I was describing having felt a mild earthquake in California - one that a true Californian wouldn't bat an eyelid at.

"You know that feeling as you walked through Lennox's and the floor flexed beneath you? It was like that," I said.

My Armagh friends knew exactly what I meant. Though that's a place and time reference younger people won't get.
The Mall, Armagh

When I was abroad, I was always "that Irish girl."  I didn't mind - it was my identity and I realised there was no escaping it, even after 8 years in California and another year in France. But at home, I have less to explain. People know what I mean when I ask, "What's the craic?" and say, "Thon's a quare feed." (Nothing to with internet.) Even My Husband speaks the lingo. I heard him the other day talking about some "yoke" and he wasn't referencing the yellow part of an egg.

I've travelled manys paths in my life, and am incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to do so. Yet, I've never been as excited by a move as this one. And the world is still out there and still full of paths to explore


Bebamikawe Memorial Trail - Wikwemikong Unceded Territory
 Byddi Lee

Monday, October 2, 2017

Goodbye Paris

Point Zero the centre of Paris

We had a beautiful weather for our last-weekend in Paris - it was like the city was saying, "Don't go!" I wanted to photograph everything, remember every tiny detail and store it away for a time I might need it. I'd felt like that leaving my garden in California too, staring at our view, drinking as much of it in as I could but I never had returned to those soaked up memories since, and I'm hoping when I get to Armagh I'll be the same way.


We decided to go to the Picasso Museum


The best part of this museum is the building -  Hôtel Salé (not really a hotel like the  Hôtel de Ville!) 

 

Of the five floors, only three were open.
  
 

It was a bit annoying because they charged the same for the tickets in, but it's actually not that pricey so probably no need to complain. The basement was a dead loss - very little art and mostly boards on the walls with writing about Picasso. Random disjointed factoids - you'd do better on Wikipedia.

 

Upstairs there was more art on display but a lot of white space. 


An entire wall was black and white photos of Picasso working in his studio; a bit repetitive and not that interesting - a dire lack of painting when the signage keeps reminding what a prolific artist Picasso was! But we enjoyed what we did see.



And the coffee shop was nice.



After the museum, we wandered the streets - with me taking photos of absolutely everything - just in case I might forget even one second of the amazing experience that living in Paris is. 


A Rather Large Collection of Random Paris Photos

Some as a video:



Or if you want to puruse the photos at your own leisure:


























Naked Ping-pong player!

















Byddi Lee