John Banville - The Kilkenny Connection
I didn’t realise there were Kilkenny connections with John Banville until I sat down to preview his works ahead his reading at the Kilkenny Arts Festival next August 17th. He is, of course, a Wexford man but in John Kenny’s book, ‘John Banville’, I learned that in 1966 The Kilkenny Magazine published ‘The Party’ – Banville’s first short story.
Then, in 2002, while I was working as box office manager for the Kilkenny Arts Festival, we put on the world premier of Alan Gilsenan’s adaptation of Banville’s ‘The Book of Evidence’ and I watched Declan Conlon give a spine-chilling performance of convicted killer, Malcolm MacArthur. Along with the other festival managers, I was attending a first-reading of the one-man show and when I arrived at the venue I took the last seat available, which happened to be in front of the rest of the group and only feet away from Conlon.
The result being, for over an hour I felt as though MacArthur was recounting his harrowing ‘adventure’ in his chillingly detached manner to me alone. The experience disturbed me for weeks after. When the play moved to The Gate Theatre in Dublin some months later, and I had sufficiently recovered, I went to see it once more so that I could concentrate on the incredible writing and acting, instead of being distractingly scared witless.
Jump forward six years and I returned to third-level education as a mature student. My dream was to study creative writing but I had only diplomas and no degree. I was shocked to discover that Ireland, the land of saints and scholars, didn’t offer any degree course in creative writing, only Masters and higher level programmes. When I was on the verge of giving up both search and dream, I came across a new course at NUI Galway offering a Bachelor of Arts with a Connect Programme in Creative Writing. I jumped at the chance, applied and crossed my fingers for six months – there were only fifteen places available, and about four of these were for mature student. That June I was on a holiday in Italy with my then boyfriend, Tom, when I got a call from home to say that I had been accepted. After some very one-sided celebrations I finished the relationship with Tom – a Dublin-based father of his three would not fit in with my new Galway-based life. At NUIG the course director was John Kenny – the writer of John Banville, so I got to study his work more closely with an expert on the subject.
Two years into my studies, and back working with the Kilkenny Arts Festival, Banville was giving a reading. I just had to get to Canice’s Cathedral to listen to one of our literary national treasures. Afterwards, I got him to sign a copy of his disturbing and exquisite masterpiece, ‘The Sea’, which was awarded the Man Booker Prize. And last year, ahead of his appearance under the penname, Benjamin Black, I read ‘A Death in Summer’. Although crime fiction is not my main literary interest, Banville’s talent permeates all of his work so that I take pleasure in, and learn from everything he writes.
If you haven’t already, I suggest you get reading any of John Banville’s books – it is impossible to remain unmoved by the story, his clinical choice of words, and his far-reaching talent. The Parade Tower hosts John Banville this evening, where he will be discussing the latest Benjamin Black novel ‘Ancient Light’ with Mick Hearney.