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Dublin Writers Festival 2014: Where the Disappeared Lie

These two events grappled energetically with Ireland’s scruffily banging-through post-Celtic Tiger present and the not-so-buried wounds of its terrorized past.

Mary O’Donnell

Dublin Writers Festival 2014

City: Dublin
Date: 2014-05-20

Above: Dublin signpost image from Shutterstock.com.

In a spare white lobby-like space just off Temple Bar, the walls are decorated with highly personable photographic portraits of distinctive faces. A facepainted woman with a wry smile, the tough-looking trio of girls leaning up against a brick wall, the farmer with his tractor, the bearded drunk with lidded eyes, the young drunks with wide-open eyes.

All were taken by musician and blogger Mark Graham, who had decided not too long ago to haul himself around to three festivals a week for a year and tell people about his experiences, first through a blog and then his book A Year of Festivals in Ireland.

For just over one story-packed hour at the Dublin Writers Festival, the garrulous Graham made a convincing case that it was one of those things that nearly anybody who could do it, should. That’s granted, of course, that they didn’t mind crawling over the freezing cold rocks at Donegal without shoes, socks, or sleep or (more enjoyably) taking part in a bog-diving contest or watching a silver-painted performer being shot with pellet guns by some rampaging Traveller youths.

Graham is a practiced and organized speaker, whose ease at delivering entertaining stories stand in direct opposition to his self-deprecating opinions about his own writing: “It’s the opposite of Ulysses, in every way.” Saying that his plan was “to become something of a positivity vampire”, he bought a “fifth-hand” camper and took off around Ireland.

While what he found along the way was the expected homogenization of festivals – pig on a spit, the bouncy castle, that ever-present facepaint, and the same damn bands – he also came in touch with a surprisingly vibrant side of Irish life that had weathered the recent economic travails with astonishing verve and stubbornness.

Being a positivity vampire, Graham admitted that he wasn’t too keen about talking up most of the more miserable festivals he encountered, focusing instead on the fun that he had. Although that lead him to a number of lines that sounded almost tourist board-approved (like “I discovered Ireland”), it was also impossible to disagree with his findings.

His stories about the smalltown pub’s St. Patrick’s Day chainsaw raffle, the Cloud Appreciation Society festival, or the “air of menacing joviality” at the Ballinasloe Horse Fair were enough to make you believe in the indomitable nature of the Irish spirit. That was even after coming across a number of mad, eccentric, drunken eejits who, if they had been portrayed in a Hollywood movie, would have caused their countrymen to groan, “Ah, they’re takin’ the piss out of us again.”

Graham repeatedly returned to his frustration at hearing politicians talk about how his countrymen “had lost the run of themselves” in the financial crisis. “We might be short a few bob,” he said, but the Irish remained wealthy in spirit. If he had been selling seventh-hand campers, there most likely would have been a few takers.

“Where They Lie” was held in the grand main building of the National Library. Situated on the normally elegant avenue of Kildare Street -- one of the quieter lanes that connects the stately grounds of Trinity College to the leafy quiet of St. Stephen’s Green and now cluttered with shouty banners for the various Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil politicos wrestling to be elected to the European Parliament on Friday -- it was a serene location for such a grim discussion.

The evening’s theme was the phenomenon of “the disappeared” Like many countries convulsed by sectarian strife, northern Ireland saw its share of unaccounted-for disappearances during the time euphemistically referred to (at least in more peaceable and possibly forgetful southern Ireland, as was sardonically pointed out by one panelist) as “The Troubles”.

During the ‘70s and ‘80s, the Irish Republican Army waged an intimidation campaign in which over a dozen civilians suspected of collaborating with the British or their Unionist allies were allegedly kidnapped at gunpoint, driven to remote areas, executed, and buried in hidden graves. This left their family members to suffer decades of unknowing torment.

Giving the talk some more immediate relevance was the recent news that Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams, who continues to maintain that he was never part of the IRA (though a poll in the Irish Times the morning of the event showed that most voters didn’t believe him but didn’t think it would change their vote) had been questioned by police about allegations that he had been involved in the disappearance of Jean McConville, who left behind ten children.

Taking part in the talk were: Alison Milar, a filmmaker who screened a few minutes from her documentary The Disappeared; photographer David Farrell, presenting some slides from his book Innocent Landscapes; and Mary O’Donnell, reading a selection from her novel Where They Lie.

Things got off to a slow start with a too-long introduction from the moderator, who would have been better served allowing her guests to just get right to it. Milar wasted little time in her segment, showing bracing clips of bruisingly apocalyptic Belfast (bleak council estates spearing through the fog out of fields of rubble while hollow-eyed children and armored vehicles roamed below), Adams denying any IRA entanglement, and the disappeared’s surviving family relating their tear-stained stories.

O’Donnell prefaced her reading by describing it as about “those who have been made deliberately invisible.” Her vivid fictional scene about one of these abductions lead smartly into Farrell’s photographs of the various places where authorities have tried digging for the disappeared’s remains. He called these often wild and desolately beautiful places “very classical Irish landscapes … interrupted” by the buried evil. To Farrell’s more lyrical eye, the bogs and forests which moved so much over the years that even people who wanted to lead authorities to the bodies could be unable to, evoked “memory being slowly consumed by a voracious nature.”

Just as for the family members who never receive any kind of closure to this erasure, the evening had to come to a kind of rough non-ending, almost by definition. There was an absence at the heart of this deeply engaged but occasionally wandering discussion, which couldn’t be filled. Near the event’s conclusion, Milar helped snap some of the mournful theorizing into place with her near-fury about the torture endured by her interviewees: “I wanted to make an anti-war film… it’s a war crime.”

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