Feature Articles

THE WESTERN WRITERS' CENTRE: A WORK IN PROGRESS by Fred Johnston

(Poetry Ireland News, March/April 2005)

The Western Writers' Centre- Ionad Scríbhneoirí Chaitlín Maude- is moving into its sixth year of operation. The only dedicated writers' centre West of the Shannon, it has been responsible for initiatives such as the establishment of the very first writers' residency for a Galway hospital- with poet Nuala Ní Chonchúir, at Galway's Merlin Park Hospital- and an entire weekend festival of Northern Irish literary culture, Invisible Silences, that included readings in Irish and English, lectures on Ulster-Scots, and discussions on women in Northern Irish theatre, all funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland at a time when the Arts Council/ An Chomhairle Ealaion of the Repulic was continueing to refuse the Centre grant-aid. Local poets had their work published inside Galway city and country buses, in an early Poetry on the Buses project in collaboration with Bus Eireann.
Established poets such as Macdara Woods and Gabriel Rosenstock gave permission to have a selection of their poems handed out free in the street to passers-by one Balway lunchtime in another initiative aimed, like the Poetry on the Buses project, at making poetry a living presence in the busy work-day. In another project with a similar objective, the Centre took over the ancient Fisheries Tower on the river Corrib and staged lunchtime poetry readings there; at the same times, the workshops on poetry and prose have continued non-stop. Recently the centre worked with EuroNews on providing a Gaelic-speaking poet for a programme on the Irish language in the EU. The international media at least have not ignored the Western Writers' Centre. The Western Writers' Centre website at www.twwc.ie continues to publish literary news, new prose and poems, and a section of button reviews of new books and publications, in French as well as English. The Centre gave birth to the Dark Gate Writers' Group, under the tutelage of Margaret Cullagh, which still meets regularly in the Centre's premises on Nuns Island. And the current successful series run at Galway City Library, the Over the Edge series of readings, began life as the On the Edge project here at the Western Writers' Centre.
To date, the Arts Council/An Chomhairle Ealaion have consistently refused important funding, save for a small equipment grant a couple of years ago for a computer and a Small Festivals and Events grant last year. But vital Revenue Funding has always been refused, often for contradictory or different reasons. Galway City and Country Councils do fund the Centre and it receives individual sponsorship and private donations; and it's supported too by Poetry Ireland for occasional readings and events.
Spreading out into the surrounding country, the Centre has organised visits by, for instance, playwright Billy Roche to Loughrea, County Galway, and one-day writing seminars in Loughrea too with novelists June Considine and Patricia Fitzpatrick. Keeping to its brief as a Centre for the West, the Western Writers' Centre has also brought June and Patricia to give workshops in Ennis, in County Clare. And working with another County Clare writers' group, I recently attended what is hoped to be the first of a series of exchange readings with a French-speaking writers' group in Paris.
The Western Writers' Centre is currently searching for a dedicated premises. Although a component part of the Galway City Development plan for some time, it is only recently thatCouncil members have taken to making very positive statements about finding such premises. Attempts in the past have met with problems; the old Walter Macken house outside the City was deemed too costly to refurbish by the Council;
another building has been suggested near Furbo, County Galway; and an early ouncil-inspired suggestion to occupy the upstairs rooms at 47 Dominick Street, home to Galway Arts Centre, was rejected on the grounds that it already housed an Arts group. At the time of writing, the old Galway museum rooms at Spanish Arch are being considered for re-use by Galway City Council and the Centre is campaigning to have these considered as new home.
Galway Writers' Workshop, determined publishers of the literary magazine Crannóg, have worked regularly with the Centre. Regrettably, not every component of Galway city's intimate and often tribal cultural world has been as enthusiastic, to see an independent writers' centre create a niche for itsself. Co-operation amongst other art and literary groups has been minimal, in spite of the Western Writers' Centre's open door policy on working with other projects and organisations. Sadly, some other organisations have seen the rise of the Centre in terms of threat and competitiveness; in a small city such as Galway, this is always counterproductive. There has evolved in some cases a notion of 'If-you-go-to-this-event- then-you-con't-come-to-mine'; an 'everything-is-personal' philosophy more appropriate to the primary school yard than to a city which prides itself on its cultural fram-work. But co-operation is vital and inevitable. The Western Writers' Centre remains willing to work with residencies, groups and organisations of any stamp. Perhaps in the end only regional Arts Officers and the Arts Council itself can ensure that such co-operation takes place. In a new premises, the Western Writers Centre hopes to nourish as many varied literary groups and, as a consequence, creative ideas, as will fit through the front door.

Writer Fred Johnston is Director of the Western Writers' Centre. A new collection of poems, The Orcale Room and a novel, The Neon Rose, will be published this year by Cinnammon Press and bluechrome respectively.


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