Reading and Writing for Peace: A poetic celebration
by Catherine Doyle for Northern Ireland Foundation
20 June 2014
The Reading and Writing for Peace event at the Brian Friel Theatre was a performance of poetry from different perspectives across Northern Ireland.
The project saw community groups produce their own original poems on the theme of peace and reconciliation. Their work was read by four actors: Laura Hughes, James Doran, Matthew McElhinney and Tara Lynne O’Neill.
It was organised by Dr Leon Litvack (Queen’s University; Community Relations Council (Council Member)). It came at an opportune moment, as Dr Litvack explained, just the evening before the Day of Reflection, a time set aside to remember the Northern Ireland conflict.
All of the writing was impressive as poetic works and very emotive. Maura Johnston’s ‘The Keeper’ gave an insight into women’s role in peace building during the Troubles. Others took the audience through the motions with their poignancy, anger and humour, like ‘Sundays in St Agnes’ by Pauline Jackson (Fall’s Women’s Centre).
Some stood out for their comic relief, like ‘Pride’ by Laura Cameron, which contained that unique Northern Irish humour with its alternative answer to questions about mixed marriage.
During the interval Tara Lynn O’Neill told me that although all of the works are important, she particularly liked how ‘Pride’ “looks to the future”.
Both an actor and writer herself, she said: “New work and new writing is so important to invest in.”
The second part kicked off with Ciaran Carson playing ‘Aisling on the Tin Whistle’. He also read ‘Switch’ and ‘Belfast Confetti’.
Moyra Donaldson read ‘Exile’ and extracts from ‘A Local Tragedy’.
It was constructive to hear the new poetry alongside established authors. Dr Litvack described the set-up as complementary.
Jo Egan (Director) emphasised the relevance of ordinary people’s stories: “People who haven’t written before always assume their story isn’t interesting.”
Jacqueline Irwin (CEO, Community Relations Council) spoke about the “weight of emotion” coming from the poems. She also praised Dr Litvack for “thinking globally and acting locally”.
During the panel discussion, Ciaran Carson talked about the power of poetry, he said: “everything happens in a small back room and here we are in a smallish back room.” The renowned writer also explained that ‘stanza’ is the Italian word for room: “Stanza in a poem is a space for the author to stand. You can enter that space in your own manner.”
John Donaghy talked about the process of writing in the community groups, as having a “friendly, non-judgmental atmosphere”.
The public forum allowed for a conversation about the benefits of writing poetry based on the conflict.
The audience was mostly made up of the poets themselves. Many contributed to the discussion, with one saying “poetry can be a very powerful tool”, and another described his trauma due to the Troubles: “Writing released it for me better than any pill the doctor gave me.”
This sentiment was shared by all of the participants. Pauline Jackson said: “It is therapeutic.” Another of the writers explained: “Poetry allows us to say the unsayable”, and compared their endeavours to WWI poets: “We are leaving a legacy.”
Another audience member described their experience as a “journey of self-discovery”. The writer went on to say that it is “fruitful for your own development, and the collective development”.
This idea that poetry can have a wider effect was also argued. Tom (in the audience) said that it was helpful “so that people will understand better” and another said: “A poem can start a train of thought” and identify shared emotions.
The selection of poetry was autobiographical at times, but could also be empathetic to a different perspective, such as Tom French’s ‘Automatic Bullet’s’ personification of a paramilitary’s weapon, showing the futility of violence. For most it was a first attempt at writing poetry, but they still created some high-calibre work.
The project will continue with Dr Litvack’s plans to publish a selection of the poetry. They are also available in the Reading and Writing for Peace Facebook Page.