Hay Festival – Kells – Review


Sarah Gilmartin picks up the pitchfork in Kells.

While the sun shone, the Headfort Arms was awash with Haymakers yesterday evening as Kells welcomed the renowned literary festival for its inaugural Irish installment. Among the attractions at the hotel’s Eirgrid Stage venue were outspoken academic Germaine Greer, writer Jeanette Winterson and Kells comedian Fred Cooke. Kicking off on Thursday with a rare book auction and the launch of the Kells Type Trail, the Hay Festival got into full swing yesterday with the arrival of well-known and well-practiced speakers Greer and Winterson. Events taking place in other venues across the town included readings by playwright Frank McGuinness, poets Nerys Williams and Owen Sheers, a discussion with graphic novelist Karrie Fransman, and a creative writing workshop for teenagers with author Tiffany Murray.

On the Eirgrid stage yesterday evening, Germaine Greer spoke to a packed room, delighting the audience who were there as much to listen to her no-bullshit approach to public speaking as they were to hear her views on Shakespeare’s lovers. Forthright, controversial, and an expert in pithy one-liners, Greer had the audience in the palm of her hand from the beginning. And that was before she spliced images of ye olde earls and minions of Elizabethan times with the posed pouts of modern pin-ups Harry Styles and Justin Bieber. The crowd loved her irreverent take on boy lovers and female fantasies, even if a few eyes glazed over during the more esoteric Shakespearean verse analogies. Greer got them back with her interesting views on Bill’s most famous lovers, asking the audience the same question she often puts to sixth formers: “Why does Juliet want to give herself to a dork?” Drawing parallels between the uncompromising feminising of young male popstars and the beautiful page boys of Elizabethan culture, Greer wondered what it was that women today are actually after. Why do adult females head in packs to boyband concerts? What do they want with these girlish, hairless, rose-lipped young singers? To see them, to be near them. ‘To eat them, if necessary,’ she said to shouts and cheers. Not to disappoint on the feminist firebrand front, Greer provided perhaps the biggest laugh of the evening at the subsequent Q&A session when the first poor fella who stood up to ask a question was quickly put in his place by the ever sharp and smiling speaker: “I won’t take the first question from a man.’

After Greer came Mancunian writer Jeanette Winterson, speaking to a smaller but no less enraptured crowd as she gave her best satirical impression of a Pentecostal preacher. Brought up by a Bible bashing, apocalypse loving mother, Winterson had plenty to say on the subject of religion and love as she enacted passages from her wonderful memoir Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? Mixing the serious (Art is not a luxury. We’re here because life has an inside and an outside. We’re more than shopping and spending and worrying) with the hilarious (Life was just a pre-death experience for Mrs Winterson), the author spoke movingly about the lives we choose for ourselves, the stories we create to assert our identity, the battles for our voices to be heard by – and above – those closest to us: ‘I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t setting my story against hers.’ Winterson is a polished speaker who at times appears to know the passages of her memoir by heart, acting out both sad and lovely moments of a past that has helped shape one of the bravest and most evocative writers of her generation.

The Hay Festival continues throughout the weekend. Some of the bigger name draws include interviews with writers John Banville, DBC Pierre, Sarah Webb and Gerry Stembridge, an album launch by singer songwriter Alex Valentine, and a comedy gig by David O’Doherty. For more information, head to

Categories: Books

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