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Eamon Ward

Opinion 'My book club was my lifeline'

Book clubs are my lifeline. When we first floated the idea of a festival of books, I thought it was idle dreaming but it was a total success, writes Bridgit McGinnity.

BOOK READING IS a solitary occupation but reading a book with a book club transforms it into an activity where you connect with people, often in deeper ways than you normally would.

My first exposure to a book club was back in the 1980s when I lived in Copenhagen and joined a book club full of lively Irish women.

We were quite isolated, living abroad in pre-internet days. We still read the paper on Saturday, but a week late, when it arrived by post.

An Irish voice on the street was excuse enough to stop and say hello. And our book club was a place where we laughed and cried and understood one another, our link to home.

Moving to Ennis with a young family was a different form of isolation, and in some ways, it was more difficult to meet people, as an Irish accent wasn’t reason enough to talk to someone.

Again, a book club was a lifeline, and I’ve been with my current book club in Ennis for over 20 years. For me, talking about a book with others crystallises my thoughts and it’s eye-opening to hear a different response to my own.

A couple of times a year our book club head off on outings – maybe a hill walk, trip to a city or whatever. I recall a meeting almost 15 years ago when we were planning our next outing.

We talked about how great it would be to have a weekend that combined reading and books with fun and chat, an event that would be stimulating and engaging. What I took to be idle dreaming turned out to be anything but.

Next thing, a core group of our book club joined forces with two people who had organised an Ennis arts festival and were busy planning the Ennis Book Club Festival.
It was intended as a one-off event but was so successful that it has been held the first weekend of March since 2007.

A steady stream of leading and upcoming authors have come to Ennis, entertaining and inspiring us.

For me it was a revelation to hear authors reading from their book, it brings nuances that I haven’t always picked up when reading their words in my voice.

I remember laughing while Ian McEwan read On Chesil Beach, a book I had cried my way through when reading it.

Learning about the authors’ lives, their passions and the process of writing enriches the reading of their books. And it’s clear that they love to meet readers and other authors in a relaxed, friendly environment.

More recently, I lived in Helsinki for a few years. In the internet age, there was no difficulty in keeping abreast with friends, family and news from Ireland. But I still needed a book club and was driven to forming one.

My Helsinki bookclub was a mix of several nationalities and we read books from everyone’s home countries. There we read some great Finnish authors, such as Sofi Oksanan.

An Italian member introduced us to Elena Ferrante, a book club favourite in Ireland too.

A mediocre memoir about growing up in East Germany was vividly brought to life by a German club member whose life had closely paralleled that of the author.

I remember her speaking in fascinating detail about her upbringing, with the time, focus and depth that a book club can permit.

And it is that depth and breadth of discussion and the consequent bonding that mean most to me in book clubs. And this connection is not just within the confines of my own book club.

I know that at the Ennis Book Club Festival this weekend, I can turn to the person beside me and immediately find common ground. I will listen to authors like Conor O’Cleary, Elif Shafak and Emilie Pine, and I know that something they say will touch a chord in me, and stay with me.

I also plan to go to the yoga session and some poetry and music for a bit of chill time.

For this, I am grateful to those capable women who had the vision and confidence to set it up, to the volunteers, county library, venues, businesses and local authorities who supported it especially to the many speakers who transported me to their world.

And this year will be special for me, as five members of the Copenhagen book club gather together at the Ennis Book Club Festival, a reunion after almost 30 years.

Bridget Ginnity is a committee member of Ennis Book Club Festival and long-term book club member. The Ennis Book Club Festival takes place from 1-3 March.  

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