Last year I volunteered at the Hay Festival in Kells and was lucky enough to be assigned to St Columba’s Church for the weekend. How do I describe the church to you? Think old country churchyard. Now age it a couple more centuries. Add the remnants of four eleventh century Celtic crosses and a round tower from the same period. Now, you’ve got it.
It’s Ireland in less than an acre.
Into this serene scene streamed our guests: the speakers and the listeners.
Some of the visitors hadn’t planned to attend whatever event happened to be on at the time, but the location drew them in. Come for the tower, stay for the books. Could you blame them? The discussions on offer were fabulous. This is a small place, peaceful, so we didn’t have the rock star writers like Joe O’Connor. They were at the bigger venues, like the Headfort Arms. Instead, we had the poets and the historians, as befits so ancient and elegiac a site.
Being a volunteer, I sat at the back, keeping an ear out for people wanting information or looking to buy tickets, and all the while I listened to the experts talking about the difficulties of writing poetry in a minority language, or Ireland’s part in the First World War, or researching the historical background to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. Each was a revelation and a joy.
There was a family from Kent who were on holiday in Dublin and drove up to Kells for the day. They enjoyed themselves so much they stayed for the whole weekend. Oh the scenery is spectacular, and the books are magnificent, but it’s the people. You know?
Everywhere you went there were happy volunteers in bright blue tee-shirts giving directions, suggesting events or places to eat, or just sharing the joy of the occasion. You couldn’t walk down the street without hearing laughter or a book being quoted. (That’s my definition of Paradise, right there.)
A man wandered around the worn old tombstones in the churchyard and stopped to ask what event was up next. A discussion about the JFK assassination? Sounds interesting. So he stayed for that and for the lecture that followed too. Later, as a soft evening fell, he shook my hand and thanked me. Like I’d done it all myself: the tower and the sunshine and the books. “It’s been a day,” he said. He had that peaceful look of a man who’s just enjoyed a long massage. “This is some event. I’ll be back next year.” Then as he stepped down the path he turned and said, “It’s like Disneyland with books.”
The Hay Festival returns to Kells on June 25th to 28th. You can get the full programme and tickets from www.hayfestival.com/kells . Tickets are also available in Kells from the Kells Chamber Office (Carrick Street) – 046 924 0055 – open from 9.30am to 5pm from Monday to Friday, and from Antonia’s Bookstore in Trim, County Meath on 046 943 7532.