Colm Tóibín steps down as Listowel Writers’ Week chair as row escalates

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Efforts are underway to resolve a growing row threatening Listowel Writers’ Week after the festival’s president, novelist Colm Tóibín, resigned because the volunteer committee behind the literary festival was disbanded.

The committee, which planned the festival’s literary intake over five decades, was told in September that, following a consultant’s report, it was to be replaced by a professional curator.

It has now emerged that writer Colm Tóibín, who has a long involvement with Listowel, has stepped down as festival president following the decision to disband the volunteers. Mr. Tóibín said he informed the president of the festival board of his decision.

Speaking from Germany, where he is attending a conference, Mr Tóibín said:

Listowel Writers‘ Week depended on a Listowel literary community that read deeply and widely. This meant that the festival had real roots in the city.

“I see this as a best practice, as a model for any other literary festival.”

The celebrated Enniscorthy-born writer’s work includes the later novel and film, brooklyn, and he is also an essayist and journalist. Mr. Tóibín is also a professor of humanities at Columbia University in New York. He is currently the Irish Fiction Winner 2022-2024.

President Michael D Higgins presented Colm Tóibín with his Laureate Medal earlier this month ahead of the novelist’s inaugural lecture as the 2022-2024 Irish Fiction Laureate. Picture: Maxwells

The voluntary Listowel Writers’ Week committee has been disbanded after a report by an independent consultant to Dermot McLaughlin recommended restructuring

The report – which was funded, but not directly commissioned by the Arts Council – was to ensure the festival complied with governance issues in funding applications. Board chair Catherine Moylan said her recommendations were unanimously accepted by the board.

Ms Moylan said Listowel Writers’ Week – Ireland’s longest-running literary festival – faces growing competition as it is now one of 50 such events. The festival is committed to more diversity and inclusivity and to having more people involved than ever before, as volunteers, albeit in changed roles. She appreciated that the change “would be difficult for some to accept”.

However, the decision to disband the existing committee angered the 30-odd long-time volunteers.

The committee, which has yet to officially see the report, said it was completely surprised by the decision and “the release of the private and confidential report was very offensive to every member.”

Sections of the report – which were leaked to the media – had described Writers Week’s “culture” as “toxic”.

Irish novelist and fiction winner Colm Tóibín with novelist Naoise Dolan at Cork City Library, Grand Parade, for one of a series of nationwide Art of Reading Book Club events in association with the Council of arts earlier this year.  Photo: Michael O'Sullivan/OSM
Irish novelist and fiction winner Colm Tóibín with novelist Naoise Dolan at Cork City Library, Grand Parade, for one of a series of nationwide Art of Reading Book Club events in association with the Council of arts earlier this year. Photo: Michael O’Sullivan/OSM

Former arts minister and board member Jimmy Deenihan said the “impasse” must be resolved because the festival is too important to jeopardize. Things are now at a sensitive stage, he conceded.

He said copies of the report will be sent to senior committee members on Monday.

The appointment of the curator is also underway, with interviews having already taken place.

Meanwhile, the governance issues threatening the 52-year-old Listowel Festival are affecting other arts festivals, Seanad has been told.

Control issues have “stifled” the creative spirit that comes from the local community, Fianna Fáil Senator Ned O’Sullivan, from Listowel, told Seanad this week.

“Governance and control issues that have started to limit creative freedom and the level of community involvement in some of these events,” O’Sullivan told the Senate.

Although changes have been necessary in recent years, it was increasingly clear that “the overemphasis on governance issues is leading to a paralysis of creative thinking on many boards, especially those where the arts are concerned. . The effect is that local effort is nullified and local participation diminishes.

Elsewhere, the senator said there was “anger and confusion” in the Listowel community.

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