Famous (not really) by Association

My wife, Marilynn Richtarik, is a rock star. Admittedly, her rock star world is relatively small, Irish literature, but it’s neat to be near the spotlight and see someone receive the accolades she richly deserves.

Not only are we in Belfast because she won a Fulbright Scholarship, Marilynn has a new book out. She has two radio interviews lined up for next week (one for RTÉ and one for BBC Northern Ireland) in conjunction with “Hopdance,” a semi-autobiographical novel by the late playwright Stewart Parker that she edited for publication.

The guest speaker at the Dublin book launch on May 12 (which also happens to be our wedding anniversary) is actor Stephen Rea. Northern Irish author Glenn Patterson will help Marilynn launch the book at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast on May 23. She’ll also be reading from the novel next week at Belfast’s Crescent Arts Centre as part of a Seamus Heaney Centre Fulbright program.

Finally (for now, at least), she will appear at the Belfast Book Festival on June 10, talking about and reading from the book. And before I forget, a big shout out to David Torrans from No Alibis Bookstore for the great display in his store and for agreeing to sell the book during Marilynn’s Belfast appearances.

Now for a little perspective

The six degrees of separation on this island is more like three. Let me explain. “Hopdance” was written by Parker about the amputation of his cancerous left leg at age 19. He wrote the stylized, vignette-driven novel around the 10th anniversary of the amputation, returning to it during times of great stress or when he had absolutely nothing else to do. After receiving a second cancer diagnosis, he started preparing the manuscript for publication but died in 1988 before advancing very far. However, since the novel is scene-driven and jumps around before, during and after the amputation, it can be viewed as a complete work.

Parker is the subject of Marilynn’s second book, the acclaimed “Stewart Parker: A Life,” published by Oxford University Press in 2012. She’s had a copy of “Hopdance” since the research phase of her second book, and she quoted liberally from it in the biography. Following the publication of the biography, she decided to ask Parker’s executor for permission to prepare “Hopdance” for publication.

Parker’s final play, “Pentecost,” was commissioned by the Field Day Theatre Company, co-founded by Stephen Rea. Field Day was the subject of Marilynn’s first book, and she interviewed Rea for it. When Rea was asked to help launch “Hopdance” in Dublin, he said simply, “Anything for Stewart Parker.”

Marilynn met Glenn Patterson at the 1998 Belfast Festival, where he read and talked about his work. The two hit it off and have kept in contact since. Patterson was a guest in our house when Marilynn helped put together a Belfast issue of the literary journal “Five Points,” which included an interview with Patterson, who came to Atlanta for the launch.

Mary-Louise Muir is the host of “Arts Extra” on BBC Radio Ulster and also appears on TV arts programs. She’s interviewed Marilynn about Parker for the program several times, the last time in 2013 at her home, while Declan and I sat quietly in an adjacent room.

Sinéad Gleeson hosts “The Book Show” on RTÉ Radio 1. Actually, Marilynn hasn’t met her, and this interview was arranged by Marilynn’s publisher, Lilliput Press in Dublin. But I have no doubt the two will become fast friends—it’s just the way things go on this crazy little island.

Conferences, Book Launches and Pilgrimages, Oh My

Marilynn left for the states this morning, Kansas City to be precise, for the American Conference for Irish Studies. Which leaves Declan and me on our own until Monday. Heh, heh, heh.

She is a plenary speaker for the conference, which is academic-speak for Really Big Deal. Business folks would be more familiar with the term keynote speaker, and the rest of us would have no clue.

Academic conferences are full of panel discussions and similar papers on a theme because institutions are more likely to reimburse a professor attending the conference if she is giving a paper. That means there are usually several tracks running at the same time, cutting the audience size for each panel. So a plenary is a single-track talk, with an undivided audience in attendance.

Despite being an excellent speaker, Marilynn was nervous about this, which underscores the Really Big Deal aspect. But I know she will knock it out of the park, like she always does.

Book launch events coming up

Marilynn edited an uncompleted but still powerful novel that her playwright Stewart Parker wrote about the amputation of his left leg when he was a 19-year-old student at Queen’s University Belfast. He sketched out the story a few years later, in a style reminiscent of James Joyce (but the readable James Joyce).

Stewart would pull out “Hopdance” during times of personal turmoil, tweaking the dialog, reordering scenes and writing new ones. He returned to it a final time in the months preceding his death from cancer in 1988 but never completed it. Marilynn took his original manuscript, much of it hand-written, typed it up and then went through it with a graduate assistant word-for-word at least twice, standardizing the spelling and punctuation while retaining Stewart’s writing quirks whenever possible.

It’s a labor of love and a great read. I’ve read it twice and look forward to hearing what the critics and the reading public think.

But it also means book launches in Belfast and Derry, either in late April or early May. Details aren’t final, but Marilynn, her agent and publisher hope to attract some high-powered help in launching the book in both cities. Fingers crossed that they succeed, but it’ll be a blast in any event.

Worshipping at the Emirates

So what will the boys be up to while Marilynn’s at her conference? By a happy coincidence, we’ll be in London this weekend, seeing our first competitive English Premier League match, our beloved Arsenal vs. Manchester City (boo hiss!).

Declan became an Arsenal fan in 2013 for reasons he still can’t articulate. But I got dragged into it, too, and became a fan of “real” football. This is one of the top matches of the year, and we were very lucky to score tickets from an Arsenal season ticket holder I met in the strangest of places.

But that’s a story for another day, which will be next week.

About the photo: We toured the “glorious” Emirates Stadium in 2014 while Marilynn was giving a talk in London. The certificates we received after the tour touted the stadium as “glorious,” and it stuck.

A World Away, But Close to Home

We were so glad to welcome family friend Carina Gold to Belfast last week. OK, she didn’t stay with us or anything. She’s a freshman (woman?) at Agnes Scott College, just two blocks from our home in Decatur.

Marilynn and Carina’s mom, Katy, went to school together in Lawrence, KS, from elementary school through high school, and Katy attended our wedding. I’d only met Carina once before she came to visit the campus last spring, but we’ve gotten to know her much better in the short time she’s been in Atlanta.

An interest in the North

Freshpeople at Agnes Scott, a female undergraduate liberal arts college, go on trips during their first year, and Carina’s trip is mainly to Belfast and Derry with another two dozen young women led by professor Christine Cozzens. Christine has an interest in Northern Ireland, so of course Marilynn knows her. In fact, Christine hosted a speaker last fall that Marilynn brought to town as part of Ireland’s world-wide commemoration of the centenary of the Easter Rising last year.

We met Carina at her hotel, a short walk from our flat, and went next door to The Botanic Inn, a 150-year-old pub better known as The Bot. We’ve been coming to The Bot since Marilynn first hauled me to the island 17 years ago now because it’s where Stewart Parker drank. Except she recently remembered (from rereading her own book on Parker), that his preferred watering hole (across the street) was The Eglantine Inn, better known as The Egg. But tradition is tradition, and even Declan has spent many a day at The Bot, so The Bot remains our favorite local.

Friends of friends

We ran into Christine at The Bot, and she invited us to a talk by Northern Irish writer Anne Devlin that evening and the nationalist/unionist/British Army roundtable the next morning. We had to decline the reading because Marilynn had book proofs to look over, but I agreed to attend the roundtable.

As we were chatting with Carina at the hotel, Marilynn noticed Anne waiting in the lobby, so she went over and struck up a conversation. Marilynn says she met Anne at the Stewart Parker conference in 2008. She’s also met Anne’s son Connal Parr, who’s a researcher at Northumbria University and who wrote about Stewart (thus referencing Marilynn) in his forthcoming book. It’s a small world here, where academia and culture mix liberally.

I’ll never forget the first time I came to Ireland with Marilynn. She ran into someone outside Christ Church Dublin that she had attended Oxford with. Later, in Belfast, someone was yelling her name in the street, an acquaintance from the Institute for Irish Studies who saw us walking past.

In Ireland, it’s not six degrees of separation. It’s more like three.

About the photo: Declan and Carina at The Bot. A later photo series will feature Declan in the vicinity of tasty brews in some of our favorite watering holes.

Friends with Stewart, 30 Years On

Although none of us ever met playwright Stewart Parker, he’s largely responsible for us being in Belfast and knowing as many people in the city as we do. So it was like homecoming on Friday when we attended a staged reading of Stewart’s final play, “Pentecost,” first performed 30 years ago.

Among those in attendance were Stewart’s niece, Lynne Parker, who is artistic director of the Rough Magic Theatre Company in Dublin, and her parents, George and Margaret Parker. Lynne was helping members of PintSized Productions, a troupe of up-and-coming performers, as a veteran presence among the younger artists.

Fortunately, Stewart remains a fantastic playwright whose work is just as fresh and vibrant in 2017 as it was when it premiered. Who needs a set when you have a talented set of performers and a sizzling script?

A little backstory

Marilynn’s second book is a critical biography of Stewart, “Stewart Parker: A Life.” Published in 2012, it was enthusiastically reviewed on both sides of the pond and won awards from the South Atlantic Modern Language Association (SAMLA) and the American Conference for Irish Studies.

She discovered Parker while researching her first book, about the first five years of the Field Day Theatre Company, an influential outfit that staged plays and published books and other materials from both sides of the sectarian divide in both the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Parker died tragically at 47, just as he was hitting his stride as a writer. While researching the book, Marilynn interviewed 150 or so of his friends, relatives, school chums, other associates and former teachers. And many of those people are now our friends–hence the homecoming with the Parkers, with Lynne’s parents treating Declan like another grandchild.

The script’s the thing

This was the third time I’ve seen “Pentecost” in some form, including two staged productions—one in Washington, D.C., and the other in Belfast in 2008. “Pentecost” is about life, loss and redemption as glimpsed through the Ulster Workers’ Council strike of 1974. Each of the five characters (including the ghost of the woman in whose house the play is set) has secrets that are exacerbated by the backdrop of the Troubles.

I’ve also seen his plays “Spokesong,” a musical about bicycles set against the Troubles; “Northern Star,” about the 1798 rebellion; and a staged reading of “Catchpenny Twist,” about songwriters who get in trouble by penning ditties for both sides during the Troubles.

The version of “Northern Star” I saw was in London, where it was in repertoire with another play that had a real set. “Northern Star” was staged on the other set that looked like a rich man’s study—and it mattered not one whit. The brilliance of the writing and a talented actor who portrayed Henry Joy McCracken carried the day despite the odd setting.

Marilynn and I have seen countless plays that start off strong (or have a good premise) only to disappoint by the time the final curtain falls. The sets can be fantastic and the cast Broadway quality, but if the script doesn’t deliver, then the play ultimately fails.

We’re fortunate that Stewart Parker is that rare combination of great playwright and great guy, as evidenced by the quality of his plays and the abundance of friends and family who still recall him fondly.

About the photo: This is the picture of Stewart we have in the living room of our house. He looked down on us from a wall in Marilynn’s open office into the dining room of our house in Atlanta for the 13 years we lived there.

When we moved to Decatur, Stewart’s photo was moved to her new office, a suite on the main level. But after two weeks, I asked that he be returned to his rightful place in the center of the action.

Enjoying a Sunny Day at Belfast Castle

Although this weekend has been one of the coldest we’ve experienced in Belfast, it’s also been the sunniest. So what to do when it’s cold and sunny? Go for a walk in the park, of course.

And not just any park, but Cave Hill Country Park, steeped in history and steeped in, well, steep. The paths are generally unpaved muddy trails carved into the side of a mountain. While the views are spectacular, the footing was treacherous.

The park includes Belfast Castle, where we had lunch, as well as the Belfast Zoo. Declan and I visited the zoo on a previous trip, but you could see bears and deer of some sort from our vantage point high above Belfast Lough while walking along the Cave Hill path.

‘Citizens of Belfast, Unite!’

Our destination was McArt’s Fort, a promontory about halfway up the trail. We were interested because it was here where United Irishmen, including Wolfe Tone and Henry Joy McCracken, first pledged to fight for Irish Independence in 1795. It was also where McCracken was arrested in 1798 after a failed uprising. The evening of his capture forms the basis of the Stewart Parker play, “Northern Star.” Parker is the subject of Marilynn’s second book, so anything Parker-related is interesting to us.

However, we gave up a decent way into the climb. The footing wasn’t getting any better, and we knew that however far we went up, we would have to walk that far back down. It didn’t deter the locals, though. Despite the slippery conditions, we saw literally dozens of peoplemost with either kids or dogsclimbing all over the mountain. It’s heartening to see so many people out on such a fine day.

A walk back in time

Cave Hill Country Park also encompasses Belfast Castle, which serves as the focal point of the park. This is at least the third castle on the site, dating to the Normans in the 12th century.  In 1611, the Baron of Belfast, Sir Arthur Chichester, built a new castle on the site, but it burned a century later.

The current castle was completed in 1870 by descendants of Chichester, now known as the Donegalls. A few generations of aristocrats later, it was donated to the city in 1934 and plays a prominent role in the city’s cultural life as an event space. Prospective brides even have their own toilet, although I didn’t open that door for a peek. Forgot to take a photo, too. Sorry.

Some aristocrat had a thing for cats, because there were two cat mosaics on the grounds to go with a cat topiary, a bronze statue on the base of the central fountain, a concrete cat to one side and an engraved marker featuring a TS Eliot saying that could have marked a feline grave.

Taking in the sun in such beautiful, but muddy, surroundings, made us feel like the localsSouthern accents, notwithstanding.