Literature: Craicing night out

"I owe London a huge amount - and not just for the free teeth and glasses we got back then. It's good to be able to put something back in," gushes Maeve Binchy (right), one of the six Irish writers lining up to read at Islington's Union Chapel tonight. This annual St Patrick's Day (or thereabouts) charity read-in, organised by Seamus Heaney, is always a lively affair, teaming an eclectic evening of Irish Lit with a full- on ceilidh, complete with traditional band, dancing and late bar.

Featuring Dermot Healy, Joe O'Connor, Josephine "Damage" Hart, Cherry Smyth and Michael D Higgins (poet and Ireland's visionary former arts minister), the gala runs the full gamut of Irish writing: from the loves of small-town girls in lacy cardigans and the rascally exploits of wee boys slipping through the hands of the Christian brothers, to raucous slabs of pogueish urban savvy.

"It's striking how confident and diverse the voices are now. We've finally stopped being influenced by each other," points out Joe O'Connor, who will be reading from his new Dublin-based comic revenge thriller, The Salesman.

For all Ireland's post-Maastricht economic success and Riverdance PR make-over, tonight's gala also serves as a reminder of the needs of many of its young emigrants in London, raising funds for the Action Group for Irish Youth. "It's convenient to ignore anyone who doesn't fit into our new Celtic tiger image," says O'Connor. "But we continue to export our problems - our poor, our uneducated, our weak. I'm always struck by how many of the young homeless people you meet in London are Irish."

Maeve Binchy, like Joe O'Connor has filled many a wry page with mixed- blessing descriptions of the young Irish-in-London experience, and both writers agree they have one thing to thank London for. "Like a lot of us, I never wrote anything until I left Ireland. Not because I was so crucified by Mother Ireland, I was just too busy having fun," explains Binchy who went on to best-seller earnings with Light a Penny Candle. "But in London, a city of so many million, there was a little bit of loneliness, and, without it, I'm not sure that I'd ever have sat down and written a thing. I'd still be sitting around with friends in Dublin bars talking about the book I was going to write."

Union Chapel, Compton Terrace, Islington Nl (0171-278 8787) 14 Mar, 7.30pm, pounds 1O (pounds 5)

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