This year’s Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend offers talks, walks, seminars and more online
One of Germany’s foremost post-World War II writers, Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll visited Achill Island regularly during the 1950s and ’60s. His travelogue, ‘Irisches Tagebuch’ (‘Irish Journal’), lovingly describes his journey to Achill, his time there, and his observations on island life and the Irish psyche.
The book contains heart-wrenching accounts of hardships, such as emigration – ‘farewells at Irish railway stations, at bus stops in the middle of the bog, when tears blend with raindrops and the Atlantic wind is blowing’. But these are balanced with evocations of happier times, when a village hall in Keem could become a makeshift cinema and a great leveller, “where bog farmers, peat cutters, and fishermen offer cigarettes to and accept chocolates from seductively smiling ladies who drive around during the day in great cars, where the retired colonel chats with the postman […] Here classless society has become a reality.”
Since 2006, the German novelist is fondly remembered on Achill annually with a festival of literature, arts and culture, the Heinrich Böll Memorial Weekend. This year’s three-day festival starts this Friday, April 30, and like so many others in Ireland and around the world, it is taking place wholly online.
The weekend will be opened by Deike Potzel, Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to Ireland, who will present awards for the Heinrich Böll Essay Competition to to winning students from Colaiste Pobail Acla. Dr Ellen Ueberschär, Co-President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and Ulrike Gasser, Director Goethe-Institut Irland, will each give a short address focusing on the cooperation and support between Heinrich Böll Foundation and their organisations.
The Heinrich Böll Cottage near Dugort, where the author stayed during his time on the island, was purchased by the Achill Heinrich Böll Association from the Böll family in 2003, and it is now used as an artists’ retreat. Following recent renovations, Heinrich Böll’s son, René, will conduct a virtual tour of the property. Just last year, René was conferred with the inaugural Ambassador of Ireland – St Patrick’s Day Award by the Irish Embassy in Germany. The award recognises the significant role he has played through his writing and art, in keeping alive the links between Achill and Germany, and in promoting strong relations and mutual understanding between our Ireland and Germany.
Also on the schedule is Irish-Nigerian academic, activist and broadcaster Emma Dabiri, who will read from her book ‘What White People Can Do Next: From Allyship to Coalition’. Dabiri’s 2019 debut, ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ (Penguin), was an Irish Times Bestseller and published to critical and commercial acclaim.
An incisive, radical and practical essay, ‘What White People Can Do Next’ is a deliberate provocation; a robust, powerful and nuanced examination of race, class and capitalism drawn from years of academic study and lived experience, as well as personal reflections on a year like no other. With intellectual rigour, wit and clarity, Dabiri ushers in a vision of a new, reimagined future where ‘whiteness’ and ‘white privilege’ are interrogated, the impact of class reexamined and racialised thinking deconstructed.
A regular broadcaster on the BBC, Dabiri presented ‘Back in Time Brixton’ (BBC2), ‘Britain’s Lost Masterpieces’ (BBC4), as well as the sociological experiment ‘Is Love Racist?’ (Ch4). Most recently, she hosted Radio 4’s critically-acclaimed documentary ‘Journeys into Afro-futurism’.
John Patrck McHugh will also read from his recent debut story collection, ‘Pure Gold’. Set on an imagined island off the west coast of Ireland, McHugh’s stories conjure a complete and varied cast of characters – some lost, some lonely, many dreaming and others self-deceiving. With nuance, compassion and the darkest humour, McHugh casts a bold eye on masculinity, family and class, friendships and betrayal, and embeds us in the moments on which a life can twist and turn. He will read the opening story of ‘Pure Gold’, entitled, ‘Bonfire’ – a tale of two boys who start to play with fire as their world falls apart.
John Patrick McHugh is from Galway with strong family connections on Achill. His work has appeared in The Stinging Fly, The Tangerine, Banshee, Granta and Winter Papers. Other readings over the weekend will be delivered by Anne Shannon and Edward King.
Music pays a big part in the celebrations every year, and this year will be no different. A highlight of the weekend will be the Irish chamber music ensemble Cuar, who explore composition and improvisation within the framework of Irish traditional music. Founder Neil Ó Lochlainn (double bass, flute, compositions) will be accompanied by Ultan O’Brien (fiddle), Matthew Berrill (clarinet) and Colm O’Hara (trombone). Cuar have gone down a storm at festivals and events through out Ireland, including Kaleidoscope Night (Dublin), the NUI Galway Arts in Action concert series, the Galway Jazz Festival, Féile na Bealthaine (Dingle) and Masters of Tradition (Bantry).
Music will also be provided by Michael Lavelle, John Butler and TG4 Gradam Ceoil Traditional Musician of the Year 2020, harpist Laoise Kelly.
The weekend will see two guided walks – virtual walks of course. The first is a guided walk along the Dooagh Bog Road with Eoin Halpin, Operations Manager with Archaeology and Heritage Consultancy Ltd, and Kevin Toolis, BAFTA-winning writer, filmmaker and bardic poet who has reported on wars, famines and plagues for the New York Times and the Guardian.
The walk will start down at the shore in Dooagh, where Eoin will talk about the famous disappearing beach and the natural forces behind this phenomenon. They will then progress up the bog road and will examine areas where gold was found in 1992 and what that tells us about the geology of the area. Deep peat cuttings will also spark a discussion on peat development and the environmental stories that these peat columns contain.
The walk will also feature a stop at an enigmatic and multi-period megalithic site, which may have its origins in the neolithic and could be the remains of a court tomb, similar to those found on Slievemore. The walk will return to Dooagh along the banks of the Tonregee River.
The second walk is a guided wildlife stroll with naturalist and nature artist Gordon D’Arcy, video photographer Seán Molloy and Sheila McHugh. Beginning at Dookinella National School, the trio will walk as far as St Colman’s holy well at Trawmore beach, taking in a range of habitats from roadside gardens to mountain, wetland and machair.
The walk will end back at Dookinella NS, where D’Arcy will exhibit his drawing skills to recreate the wonders of the flora and fauna encountered on the morning walk – a wonderful opportunity to see a master nature artist at work.
A writers’ seminar, ‘The Giant Oaks Would Remember’, will be hosted by Annemarie Ní Churreáin. A multi-award-winning poet from the Donegal Gaeltacht, Ní Churreáin’s publications include ‘Bloodroot’ (Doire Press, 2017) and ‘Town’ (The Salvage Press, 2018). Her work has been shortlisted for the Shine Strong Award and for the 2018 Julie Suk Award in the US, and she has been awarded literary fellowships by Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany and The Jack Kerouac House of Orlando.
Ní Churreáin was a 2019-2020 writer in residence at National University of Ireland, Maynooth, and a 2020 artist-in-residence at Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris. She is an active panellist on the Writers In Prisons Scheme. Her second full-length poetry collection due out later this year with The Gallery Press.