The IrishCenral's worldview on Irish culture contributed to the success of an inaugural, an international literary event in Paris. 

Just a month and a half after the inception of #CelebratingWomenWithWords, a new literary movement was hatched, and its inaugural event was hosted at the renowned Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris (CCI). The Cercle Littéraire Irlandais (CLI), UCD Alumni Relations, and a dynamic organizing team staged one of the most successful, inclusive and enjoyable events of the Paris cultural scene. IrishCentral's worldview on Irish culture and publishing articles speaking about the event was also central (forgive the pun) in spreading the word. One of the highlights of the event was the announcement of the winners of the #CelebratingWomenWithWords International Writing Competition Paris 2020. On the threshold of International Women’s Day, we learned that Irish women were the laureates.

When we visit the historic CCI building, we are reminded of the former well known Irish residents, soldiers, priests, scholars, and artists - ghosts of the past - for the most part, men. The majority of the contestants chose to rake up unknown women's past and celebrated them in powerful, beautiful words. Women who had flown below the radar ostracized women who had been swept under the carpet of family life, along with women who had somehow been erased from Irish history. A cenotaph of words was erected to these women, who were resuscitated, honored, and keened. Beloved ‘Irish Mammies’ also served as a muse for a number of contestants.

The #CelebratingWomenWithWords event attracted a full house. This event connects St. Brigid’s Day 1 February with International Women’s Day 8 March. Words and messages came in from people at home and abroad. The IrishCentral article “There has never before been more love in the air in Paris” connected the Diaspora with the event, and knowing Irish people around the world were with us in spirit was stimulating. 

The writing competition was open to male and female poetry and prose writers, of any nationality, who picked up their pens to celebrate an Irish woman. This year's winners were Maria McManus, (Poetry) originally from Fermanagh, now residing in Belfast - Grace Fahey (Prose) originally from Dublin now residing near Paris. Originally from Monaghan and now residing in Paris, Gráinne Dirwan won the best social media post. Shauna Kelly-Lefevre, representing EI Travel Group awarded the winners with tour vouchers for spectacular Irish tours of Dublin and the Wild Atlantic Way.

I had an opportunity to speak with the lady laureates. Maria McManus found out about the writing competition through a retweet of IrishCentral’s article “Saint Brigid is now the most in vogue Saint in Paris”. She wrote her winning poem “A Rose for Summer” in remembrance of Captain Priscilla Gotto, a Belfast born woman in the British Army’s Mechanised Transport Corps during WWII. She died in 1944 when an American Air Force plane she was traveling in crashed. At her death, she was the same age as Maria’s own daughter Órla at the time that Maria picked up her pen to honor her. She chose to write a poem from a mother’s perspective. The beautiful lament of loss and the poem’s words and images must have brought solace to Priscilla’s family still living in Belfast. They might also be happy to know that their ancestor was celebrated in the CCI which sheltered many fleeing persecution during WWII.

Loss is no foreign subject for Maria, and along with the beauty of nature we find loss, grief, and reconciliation as regular themes in her poetry. She believes that “grief has its own life force that has to be honored”. Her words bring to mind two of our great reconciliation poets, the late Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley, who lives in Belfast. Both poets often penned words hoping they would be stones on a path to peace and healing. Maria incorporates both the caring side of St. Brigid along with the other Brigid; the fiery pagan goddess. A powerful cultural catalyst and activist, one of her life’s missions is bringing poetry into public spaces, where everyone has the opportunity to be touched by an unexpected, and perhaps a bullseye shoot of words. Maria is artistic Director and curator of Poetry Jukebox, an on-street audio installation of contemporary poetry recently installed in the CCI Paris. Words of Irish poets spout from a giant, blue pipe, delighting visitors in the historic CCI courtyard. Maria and Nora Hickey M'Sichili, Directrice of the CCI since 2013, collaborated on this project. When two women hailing from Fermanagh, got together on this international project - poetry erupted!

Maria also launched an annual concept in Belfast where poets tie luggage labels with micro poems or quotations in the most unlikely places. She feels it is “important for the public to find something unexpected and for them to be touched and entertained.” People, going about their lives found the labels in random public spaces; bus shelters, cafes etc. often retweeting the words and uplifting the role of social media. She also collaborated with composer Keith Acheson on “WRETCHES: Revolutions, Rights & Wrongs” which will be staged 23 April 2020 at St Columb's Cathedral Derry. This unique, original musical work commemorates 100 years since women in Belfast gained the right to vote, and features choir, string quartet, and Maria’s words.  

Grace Fahey, winner of the Prose section like Maria has a great gift for the written word. The fact that a well-known poet and playwright was the laureate of the poetry section, and a writer stepping out on the road of creative writing, was the winner of the prose section was significant, showing the spectrum of the event. The themes of the competition - celebrating women, celebrating women's creativity, and giving a voice to women - resounded with Grace. She wrote about an ancestor whose voice she felt had been undeservedly written out of her family history for a long time. “I feel that family secrets are a bad thing, which can have a negative impact on future generations, and that skeletons need to be taken out of closets and dusted down and examined for what they really are”. Writing her winning prose entry was “a way to give a voice to a strong, independent, creative woman” who she felt “should have been held up as an example for her children, grandchildren and indeed all future generations”. Her ancestors spent some time in Europe and passed through Paris when she was a young woman. Reading her story out loud, in the CCI, was a way of somehow bringing things full circle for Grace.

Winning the prize meant a great deal to her. Firstly because the story of her ancestor touched and spoke to so many people in the audience. And secondly, although Grace has always loved writing and writes on a daily basis in her work as a translator, this was the first time she entered an original piece in a competition. She said, “winning has given me a huge sense of achievement and personal pride.” We are waiting with bated breath to read Grace’s future words.

Gráinne Dirwan, who has been living and working in Paris for the past couple of years choose to post a quote by Lara Marlowe, the event’s keynote speaker: “Let’s do some serious soul searching on our own unconscious biases about women and celebrate inspiring women.” Gráinne found the compelling words spoke a confession.

She explained “since the early days of time, we have been carrying the belief that women are the most flawed of the two genders. In matters of both subsistence and success, women contend with bigger judgments. Moving towards an equilibrium requires equal self-reflection of unconscious attitudes about women by both genders and the normalization of celebrating women's achievements. This requires seeing history and the stories of our families in new terms.”

Gráinne feels that her own personal and professional growth in France has been spurred along by her progressive abandonment of ideas she had about herself as a woman that were holding her back - Self-restricting ideas like “to want success is to be greedy and my femininity is blocking my way.”

Gráinne feels “France has been very generous to me as I have become more generous with myself.” It is wonderful to see young Irish women blossoming in Paris. The words of writers and philosophers, many of them women, pave the streets of this city interweaving with our own storylines. Embracing a less critical “interior French woman,” while maintaining their own strong identity, is a challenge many Irish women in France take on – and win!

I was also impressed and touched by two women who brought music and a multidisciplinary aspect to the festivities. Young Fiona McGetrick’s musical introduction on the harp was magical.

Fiona later said, “I dearly hope that the situation of girls around the world improves, in particular for girls in India”. It seemed she represented daughters around the world, from India to Ireland and it was great to see her, and the other young people present, making the event intergenerational as well as international.

La Bâronne de Paname, who stages scintillating historic soirées in Paris once told me “to pull off a successful event, introduce a secret act, an element of surprise”. The spellbinding surprise and second musical intervention of the day, was when Louise Taylor-Scott (co-founder of the CLI) announced at the end of her short speech “now I’m going to sing a little song.” She sang ‘A Parting Glass,’ to rapturous applause and an odd tear. It fit the occasion like a hand in a glove.

Summing up the success of the event, Dr. Desmond McGetrick, Chairperson, Cercle Littéraire Irlandais felt the warm opening speech by Deirdre Farrell on behalf of The Irish Embassy, Paris, gave a sense of import to the afternoon. Lara Marlowe’s, (Irish Times Correspondent to France) inspiring presentation spanning women over time, geography, business, politics, and the arts was pivotal. Dr. Dúnlaith Bird, head of the three-women-one-man jury summarized the competition entries with academic brio. Pamela Boutin-Bird, Paris based sophrologist (SophroYou) guided the audience into a rare sense of relaxation and positive visualization. They were subsequently invited to write and affix notes celebrating women on the “Wall of Love.” Readings by Patricia Costello, (Roddy Doyle's “The Pram”) and Conan Dalton (“Anna Livia Plurabelle”, J. Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake”) highlighted female characters in fiction with stage-worthy drama and comedy.

All the people involved in organizing and staging the day gave of themselves generously. Marcel Proust was perhaps imagining people like Desmond McGetrick, the members of the Cercle Littéraire Irlandais and all the persons, partners and organizations who made this event possible when he said: “let us be grateful to people who make us happy, they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom”.

Over ‘a parting glass,’ Desmond confided that he felt “we had moved beyond fun into the space where meaning had been created”. Róisín Dockery, a former Directrice of the CCI, and jury member for the writing competition noted: “many stories that may never have seen the light of day had been given a voice.” A great day was had by all and the CCI acknowledged this by readily offering to host next year’s event on 7 March 2021. Follow @CIrlandais (short for Cercle Littéraire Irlandais) on Twitter for news and details of next year’s writing competition.

Diaspora be ready to pick up your pens!

This article was submitted to the IrishCentral contributors network by a member of the global Irish community. To become an IrishCentral contributor click here.

Desmond McGetrick