Hundreds of readers from either side of the border descended on Ballinamore last weekend to listen and interact with 16 award winning Irish authors at the first Cross Border Readers Symposium at Sean O’Heslin GAA Park.
The three-day event gave book club members from Leitrim, Cavan, Fermanagh and Tyrone a chance to come together and engage with renowned authors, poets, actors, sports journalists, non-fiction writers and musicians from across the island of Ireland, north and south.
A packed programme of lectures, discussions and workshops were enjoyed by all at the very first year of the ‘Dialogues through Literature’ project, which is funded by the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) and was administered by Ballinamore Sean O’Heslin’s GAA club in partnership with Leitrim County Library and in co-operation with Cavan County Library and Libraries Northern Ireland.
The two-year project uses books and reading to enhance the levels of interaction, communication and reconciliation among communities from both traditions by developing contacts between existing reading groups in the targeted counties with the ultimate goal of challenging stereotypes, developing greater mutual understanding and building sustainable cross-community relationships.
The project began in January this year by bringing cross-community partners together to identify and select literature for reading groups with a view to exploring past hurts, fears and experiences and working towards promoting greater understanding between both traditions. Five key themes are incorporated in the shared reading list: identity and belonging; rural and urban life; community dynamics and cultural clashes; the voices of others (such as women and young people); looking North – looking South; and looking West – looking East.
The event was opened on Thursday, August 2 by Uachtarán Cumann Lúthchleas Gael, Liam Ó Néill. Sports personalities Colm O’Rourke and Trevor Ringland attended and interacted with the audience, while local playwright and actor Seamus O’Rourke provided hilarious entertainment using words in a different setting than literature with ‘Stories and Observations from a Rural Life.’
Ballinamore Sean O’Heslins is the first GAA club to host such a major event. Paddy Connaughton, Secretary of the club said “GAA is not just a sporting organisation, it is also a cultural association.” He said the symposium is important for “the future of the club and the town,” to not only embrace the peace process but to also “play a part in the change.”
Dorothy Clarke, of the International Fund for Ireland said, “The Fund is committed to the long-term task of breaking down traditional barriers in order to help build positive relations and contact between the two main communities on the island of Ireland.” She paid tribute to the club for their “dedication to your community.” Ruth Gonsalves Moore, Cultural Coordinator for the project, spoke about how this project was the first chance that she, a Northern Ireland Protestant got the opportunity to work with the GAA. She said, “The symposium is the culmination of months of cross-border engagement with reading groups, encouraging people from different community backgrounds to meet and discuss various intertwined aspects of our shared history and cultural identities.”
Authors Theo Dorgan, Mary O’Donnell, David Park, Susan McKay, DBC Pierre, Christina Dwyer Hickey, Tony McAuley, were among the 26 who took to the stage to speak about writing and about the influence of the border on their own writing. There were also Irish language sessions with Ré Ó Laighléis and music and song from Gearóid Mac Lochlainn and Caoimhín Mac G.
Huge praise was voiced for the Ballinamore GAA club, which celebrated its 120th anniversary in 2009. The club puts a major emphasis on cultural development and has a broad cultural agenda that goes beyond its sporting activity. It has been one of the leading GAA clubs nationally in promoting Scór – an initiative promoting Irish music, song and dance, drama and comedy, ballad groups, solo singing, and sean-nós dancing.
Sean O’Suilleabhain and Paddy Connaughton were attributed with the hard work of bringing the unique symposium to the town.
GAA President Liam O’Neill said he hoped this project could be expanded to other areas around Ireland, he spoke of the need to understand everyones “point of view” as well as the huge importance of communities. He said a friend told him that if we have learned anything from this recession it is that “Communities are all that matter, individualism has failed.”
A second symposium is planned for August 2013.