How a small Irish town fixed its eyes on the prize

In just three years, a poetry festival, and its lucrative prize, has brought fame to Strokestown
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The Independent Culture

The glory of Ireland, it has often been said, is in its ruins. But now that they are being done up as holiday cottages, Ireland's glory is more evident in the struggle for survivalof its small towns. Once it was London and New York that sucked them dry of young blood; now it is the Celtic Tiger, a resident of Dublin, who grows fat on the school-leavers of the rural west of Ireland.

The glory of Ireland, it has often been said, is in its ruins. But now that they are being done up as holiday cottages, Ireland's glory is more evident in the struggle for survivalof its small towns. Once it was London and New York that sucked them dry of young blood; now it is the Celtic Tiger, a resident of Dublin, who grows fat on the school-leavers of the rural west of Ireland.

Strokestown in Co Roscommon is one such small country town. Each year, out of its roughly 45 students, an average of only eight can find work in the area. Strokestown, however, has formed a strange, and perhaps unlikely plan to fight back.

While the drawbacks of Strokestown are common, its graces are unique. It was laid out to an elegant cruciform design, in the 18th century, by Maurice Mahon, who lived in the demesne at one end, and drove on Sunday to church at the other. This is one of the widest roads in Ireland, and the last incumbent of the big house, Olive Hales-Pakenham-Mahon, used to park haphazardly in the middle of it. To anyone who remonstrated, she would say that her ancestor had built that road to provide room enough for everyone. To this day, the town remains in a 1950s motoring time-warp: you can stop your car anywhere and walk away leaving your keys in it. There are no yellow lines or crime in Strokestown.

From the central cross, the whole town is visible - its shops, the Bank of Ireland, its bridge, its own small mountain, Sliabh Ban, and its probably 10 pubs (no one has ever been able to count them conclusively). At the end of each day, the troubles of Strokestown are sluiced away in Pat McHugh's, Anthony Beirne's, Donal's, The Sportsman's Inn et al. Rain cleans the streets nightly, and in the early mornings, every roof hosts convocations of jackdaws. No one very famous has ever come from Strokestown, although a witty, brilliant local drains inspector gave his name to its hotel - The Percy French.

Strokestown would have continued its picturesque decline, blending contentment with apathy, hope with fatalism, were it not for a visionary postman living at the foot of Sliabh Ban, who, faced with the prospect of his own children's emigration, embarked on a mission to help revitalise the economic and social prospects of the town. Together with other concerned townspeople, he set about finding ways to make Strokestown a magnet, first for outsiders, for businesses, and finally for its own progeny. One thing the town needed, they decided, was a festival.

Every one-horse town in Ireland aspires to a festival. Ideally, the festival suggests itself, such as Keadue's Harp Festival in honour of its composer O'Carolan; or Youghal's potato festival commemorating its early colonist, Sir Walter Raleigh's first import. Clarinbridge Oyster Festival is a particular triumph because if there is an "r" in the month, it means the tourist season is extended.

Strokestown decided, in 1999, on a poetry festival. Poetry would mirror its own aspirations - to be small but intense, simple but enticing: the crucible to the cauldron of Galway City's huge literary festival. Besides which, the temperament of the people inclines naturally to poetry. Around Sliabh Ban there was a tradition of writing satirical verse, necessarily anonymous, commemorating wild social gatherings.

The postman became the chairman of a festival committee, and somehow persuaded the board of the Post Office to donate enough money to inaugurate a high-powered poetry competition. This was to provide the festival's engine.

Strokestown Park House (which, since the demise of Olive, had become a museum owned by a local garage) threw open its doors, lit the fires, and in flooded the poets - known and unknown, Irish and English, political satirists, flowing-haired Irish-speakers - like the stoats into Toad Hall.

There was poetry and music in the pubs, poetry readings, and guided walks up Sliabh Ban with the visionary postman, who unveiled the history of the wild, rough Roscommon landscape. Even Brendan Kennelly - Ireland's most charismatic poet - came to town . It was such a success that it is now becoming an annual event. In May this year, the postman will preside over a third, grander festival, and the Strokestown Poetry Prize has now emerged as one of the most lucrative and prestigious in these islands.

Ireland is at a historical crossroads - its settled communities have been intersected by new wealth and materialism. The fortunes of its poetry festival will show whether Strokestown, and the many towns like it, can save both its economy and its soul.

 

The Strokestown Poetry Festival will take place 4-6 May. It offers a £3,000 prize for an unpublished poem of up to 70 lines, £1,000 second prize, £500 third. The three judges -Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, Robert Welch and PJ Kavanagh - will read all the entries. The competition closes on 23 Feb, and entry forms can be printed off the website: www.strokestownpoetryprize.com; or obtained from Strokestown Poetry Festival, Strokestown, Co Roscommon, Republic of Ireland (tel: 00 353 78 33759; e-mail: twiggezvous @eircom.net)

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