The Festival of Writing and Ideas takes place in Borris House, Co Carlow from 7-9 June. The speaker list includes a wealth of writers including Mary Robinson, Adam Clayton, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Sinéad Gleeson and Sebastian Barry. Here we catch up with Oliva O’Leary ahead of her appearance.

Tell us about you connection to the Borris Festival?

“I grew up in Borris so I have been involved since the start. It was founded as part of the Carlow Arts Festival. As the years passed, Hugo Jellett and Vivienne Guinness, who run the Borris show, realised it could have a life of its own. When you look at the calibre of speakers, it’s brilliant.

One of the important things that Hugo and Viv realised was that in Ireland, there is a great appetite for current affairs, history and politics, as well as literature. They always had a stream of speakers alongside fiction writers. Recently, there has been a lot of discussions about one of the biggest challenge we all face – climate change. This year they have U2’s Adam Clayton (who has a stunning garden at his home, Danesmoate, near Dublin) talking about rewilding. They’ve also got Manchán Magan discussing that terrific book of his Listen to the Land Speak. Magan’s very good on that – people and the land and people who have been on the land.”

Journalist, Olivia O'Leary.

When you started in journalism, what were your ambitions?

“To get a job and keep a job. I started out in the Carlow Nationalist. My first job was to interview a widow for an obituary and ask for a picture of her recently deceased husband. I remember standing outside that woman’s door and thinking, ‘I can’t do this’. But I did. She was so gracious and answered all my questions. Afterwards, I thanked her and she replied, ‘No, it’s nice the paper is going to be writing about my husband’. I began to realise that a lot of the time people might fear you’re intruding, but they will be quite happy to talk to you as long as you get it right.”

What journalists inspired you when you were starting out?

“Predominantly, at the time, it was Nell McCafferty. Nell wrote like an angel; she had a capacity to make you feel you were there. Particularly the day of Bloody Sunday, in Northern Ireland. Nell was on that march. And when the shooting happened, she ducked down and lay on the ground with everybody. She wrote afterwards, that she did it from the point of view of somebody sitting with her nose to the ground, not knowing if they were going to be alive in the next moment. She said, ‘that’s the sort of journalist I am, on the ground with everybody else’. I tried to do that in my own career. When you go to a political conference, or an Ard Fheis, don’t sit up with the press, sit down in the audience with everybody else.”

Tell us about the two authors you are interviewing at the festival – Máiría Cahill and Simon Armitage.

“Máiría Cahill’s book, Rough Beast: My Story and the Reality of Sinn Féin, is similar to Anna Burns’ Milkman, which lifts the lid on what it was like to live in that enclave, which was West Belfast, under the aegis of the IRA and Sinn Féin for all of those years. I find that very interesting. It was a no-go area; the ordinary rules of policing didn’t apply. There was suspicion of every single government agency and women’s lives were lived under the radar.

There was that old thing going on during wartime, and Sinn Féin always said that it was a war, that the warriors come first and everything the warriors needed, whether it was food or safe houses or women, that was allowed for.

If women were abused or raped, you didn’t go to the police, because the warriors could not be disturbed or if they had to be punished, they would be punished by Sinn Féin. And we know how they treated Máiría Cahill.

Simon Armitage is the Poet Laureate in Britain and an incredibly interesting guy. He writes in a beautifully plain and powerful way. There’s no end to his energy, he’s in a rock band, he’s written novels and he’s a great walker. He’s a typical Yorkshireman, I worked for Yorkshire television for a while. He cares about his family and friends. He loves where he’s from and is a proud Englishman and doesn’t feel he has to hide that.”

Your poem Great Vowels which you read on Sunday Miscellany on RTÉ Radio One got a great reaction. Would you ever bring out a collection?

“I have been dabbling with poetry, but I’m very conscious at my age of not having done the apprenticeship. Seamus Heaney always said you put a long apprenticeship in for poetry.

There’s a fascinating flowering of poetry in this country, particularly new young women poets. It’s fascinating to see women come through with the confidence of knowing that what they write about will be accepted in the canon of poetry. That took long work by people like Eavan Boland – to establish the fact that a poem about night feeding your baby is as important as some Austin Clarke poem about the state of the nation.”

How does it feel to be a national treasure?

Oh God, if I am, I’m a pretty dusty one at the back of the shelf! I’m having humbly to realise that but it’s been a great time and I’ve loved the life I’ve lived. I started in journalism when Northern Ireland was blowing up. I’ve listened with dread to the morning news – the body counts, the shootings.

The big relief is listening to the radio, people talking about Northern Ireland, knowing that today nobody died, that’s massive.


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