History Society Lecture on Westmeath writers and poets

Local accents and ‘bold bad baronets’: a glance at three centuries of Westmeath literature

Westmeath is teeming with fine literature, from poems and memoirs, to novels and theatre. Predictably, that rich heritage is diverse, complex and contradictory; it is also utterly compelling.

The county has been the focus or locus of writers as eminent as Jonathan Swift, James Joyce and Oliver Goldsmith, as fine as Dermot Healy, as famous as John Betjeman, as little known as Peg Leeson, as brooding as Brinsley MacNamara and John Broderick.

Literary traditions are cherished and reinvented in the pens of contemporary writers associated with the county. Contemporary poets like Vona Groarke and John Ennis continue to distil its history into rich, evocative verse.

One recurring preoccupation evident in Westmeath literature is the control that social class and codes exercise on its inhabitants.

Big houses abound on the landscape and on the pages. Often they are down at heel, like Gaulstown House, where Swift indulged his penchant for light verse. Sometimes they are institutional, like Hannah Greally’s or Connie Robert’s. Peg Leeson’s is another matter entirely.

Laurence Whyte’s tenant-farmers’ homes are in harmony with their environment, and Main Street, Ireland, is also well represented with brutal realism.

Taken together, factual and fictional narratives contain the elements of great stories: savage power relations, villainy, mean-spiritedness – but also passion, peace, exquisite tenderness and nostalgia. And a respect for form.

As Westmeath is both the literal and metaphoric centre of Ireland, so literary concepts of time associated with it are elastic. It’s a place that is a ‘halfway house between the magic realism of the west and the bustling consciousness of the east’.

For Joyce, it is a formative influence, the home both of mythological time and of commercial progressive time: Mullingar is where ‘great biz’ is done, selling heifers; and the nearby Hill of Uisneach is the Ireland’s geographic, fabled centre.

The memoirist Hannah Greally admonished her readers to ‘Live life magnificently!’. Not every literary character we encounter – or their authors – meet the challenge, but the effort has made for great stories from the length and breadth of Westmeath.

Literature associated with Westmeath will form the basis for a talk by Mary Shine Thompson at 8pm on Wednesday February 22 at The Greville Arms Hotel, Mullingar. We will, celebrate, decry and brood over life in Westmeath with a wide selection of writers associated with Westmeath.

Mary Shine Thompson is a former lecturer in English literature and Dean of humanities and research. She qualified as a barrister in 2015. She is a director of Restorative Justice Ireland and of Fire Station Arts Studios.