Irish PEN Chair, Joe Armstrong’s, speech at AGM, Thursday, 12 May, 2011

Ladies and gentlemen, is my pleasure to address you as Chair of Irish PEN on the occasion of our AGM. Our year began late. It was July or August when our previous honourable chairperson, Anne Hartigan, resigned due to work pressures and I was asked to take over as chair. Most of the outgoing committee also resigned, taking with them years of experience and knowledge. Only three remained, Dee, Tony and myself.


I was delighted to be asked to become Chair although it was a somewhat daunting prospect. I knew I could not achieve anything without a working and committed committee and, to be honest, the viability of Irish PEN was very much in question. If volunteers would not emerge to form a new committee then it seemed that it may well have been time to wrap up this august organisation, founded by Lady Gregory, and with literary greats like W.B. Yeats, Lord Longford, Sean O’Faolain, Liam O’Flaherty, Frank O’Connor, Mary Lavin, Kate O’Brien, Eavan Boland, Sam McAughtry, John Banville, Joseph O’Connor, and our President, Brian Friel on our membership roll of honour, to name but a few.


In short, the volunteers volunteered! And we have had, what for me has a very humbling and remarkable experience, watching individual volunteers within the committee take on their role and run with it.


Vanessa with her ‘can-do’ attitude to everything, and she has done a marvellous job of editing the newsletter both in the hardcopy versions and also by developing the online Aweber electronic version. She’s also done our PR, she has been the holder of the Irish PEN mobile phone for the last several months, and on her initiative we now have a wonderful Irish PEN banner.


Dee has been a power of strength to me, not only doing the monthly minutes faithfully and the minutes we’ve just read at today’s meeting from last year’s AGM. She has also provided encouragement to me and, very importantly, continuity with previous committees. I’m sorry that Dee won’t be available to continue on the committee in the new year and, on a personal note, and on your behalf, I thank her for all she has done. We will miss her greatly.


Carol has being a wonderful support spending hours and days writing letters and correspondence on our behalf when most of us are not even aware that she’s beavering away doing this. She has also taken a keen interest in the Irish PEN archive and as you know she’s our representative on the UNESCO city of literature committee.


Kay was one of the first to volunteer to join the new committee, initially agreeing to be treasurer, and then very willingly moving aside when Timmy came on board, who is a qualified accountant. She then took on chairing the subcommittee for the Irish PEN dinner and award. And she did a fantastic job, a superb job – what a wonderful night that was – and more recently she has volunteered to give of her time and go to Serbia for the PEN conference in September.


What can I say about Emer? Our membership lists and database were in a bit of a mess, to say the least. Emer willingly took on the job of sorting out the database, and devising the online confidential live database which is continually renewed and kept fresh. She is also the first representative from Irish PEN to attend a PEN International event for several years, and she is the first person in Irish PEN for some time to have the Writers in Prison Committee brief, which is a central part of what we are meant to be about as Irish PEN, in association with our international colleagues worldwide.


It is fabulous having Timmy on board, and very reassuring knowing he is a qualified accountant. He is also a great encourager and supporter and he has been efficient and practical from the word go, helping me to submit grant applications to the Arts Council and to Dublin City Arts Office. And on that point, I want to take this formal opportunity to thank both the Arts Council and Dublin City Arts Office for their continued financial support to Irish PEN.


I thank Tony for his membership of the committee, for the continuity he brings with him as a former chair, the experience he brings as an honorary member, and for his generosity in not only volunteering to attend the Belgrade conference, but for offering to pay his own way, and we’re lucky that he is in a position that he is able to do so.


The latest member of our team is Christine, and as with the whole committee, we are so lucky with what she brings to the table, her competence and familiarity and interest in Facebook and Twitter, her computer competence, and her willingness also to take on the role of Webmaster, a job she is doing very well indeed.


Kristi cannot be here tonight and we are sorry to be losing her too. She is emigrating. Since joining the committee only some months ago she has shown herself to be utterly reliable, committed, intelligent, competent, gracious, indeed as have you all. She did a wonderful job of the website, especially in updating it on the blasphemy campaign. And she was brilliant as e-mail manager, knowing the emails I didn’t need to see, dealing with them, and forwarding them to the appropriate person. And it was also Kristi who handled bookings for events, and she devised an online list for this purpose on the email site. Again, on my own behalf and on behalf of the committee and our members, I thank Kristi for all she has done, and we wish her well in her move from Ireland.


I also want to acknowledge Catherine Daly and Helen Flanagan, both of whom were on the committee for some time. Catherine, a former chair, needed to resign due to family commitments and Helen, who was our first intern, moved on to other work. We are grateful to them both.


I’m happy to report that there have been major achievements in the past year. The most outstanding one was the Irish PEN dinner, which was a wonderful affair. Kay Boland and her subcommittee members Vanessa, Kristi and Dee, made it all happen, as if by magic. At least it felt like magic to me but I’m sure that Kay, Vanessa, Kristi, and Dee know the blood, sweat and tears that went into it. It was a grand location, great to give the award to Colm Tóibín, and an excellent idea – I can’t remember whose it was – to have invited Mary Cloake, Director of the Arts Council, to make the presentation, and she delivered a very fine, highly researched speech.


Another achievement is the newsletter. Not only did we get three hardcopy newsletters written, edited and posted out, and thanks also to those who stuffed envelopes, I think Vanessa, Carol and Dee – apologies if I’ve left anyone out here – but Vanessa also introduced the Aweber format for electronic newsletters, which look well and form a new email database to complement Emer’s even more comprehensive live database.


Apart from the annual dinner, we have also had a superb programme of monthly events. In October 2010, we looked at the changing face of publishing and in particular at electronic publishing. That month we had Eoin Purcell of Irish Publishing News and Gareth Cuddy, director of was there too, as was Catherine Ryan Howard, an author who took the electronic route to publishing, and the event was very competently chaired by Vanessa.


In November 2010 we had our annual ‘Get Published’ event, again chaired by Vanessa. Speakers that night included Sheila Crowley, the literary agent with Curtis Brown; Jean Harrington, President of Publishing Ireland, and Brian Langan, editor with Transworld Ireland.


Our scheduled event in December, 2010, like almost everything else that month throughout Ireland, had to be cancelled because of the freezing conditions.


We had a wonderful debate in March of this year on ‘What makes a good book?’ I was delighted to chair that event which included Patricia Deevy, editorial director of Penguin Ireland, Bob Johnson of the Gutter Book Shop, Ciaran Carty of the sadly now defunct Sunday Tribune but his literary page on new Irish writing has now happily found a new home with the Irish Independent; and there was the much loved book lover Margaret McCann from the Wise Owl Book Club in Navan, who gave us an all-important reader’s perspective.


What a joy it was for those present to hear Patrick Mason, famous director at the Abbey Theatre, speak to us here last month, and how he brought alive so many moments, most memorably for me his account of the ending of a performance of Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ directed by Peter Brook, when all the doors were locked, the darkness fell and that single old man emerges, lies down, under a barely visible shaft of light, and dies.


And tonight, after the business of this AGM is concluded, we have Joseph O’Connor to look forward to, the event being chaired by Tony. I have been pestering Joseph to come for some time so I’m thrilled he’ll be here tonight.


Another important achievement this year has been our reconnection with PEN International. We had let that drop, so much so that I really didn’t know anything about PEN International, and I was delighted to have conversations during the year with Jonathan Heawood, Director of English PEN, and, of course, with Dublin man Frank Geary, Interim Director of PEN International. I was very happy that Frank could join us at our annual dinner and I met him again the following morning for discussions, which in turn has led to our greater awareness of the PEN Charter, Irish PEN’s new involvement in the Writers in Prison Committee, and our having two representatives at next September’s PEN conference in Belgrade. I want to thank Christine as well for her initiative such that now anyone can go to our website, click on a button, and sign up to the PEN Charter.


Another major achievement in the last year has been our agreement as a committee to campaign for a referendum to remove blasphemy from the Irish constitution. We have agreed an Irish PEN position paper, which is on our website, we have written to ministers, thanks to Kay, and to former recipients of the Irish PEN Award thanks to Carol. We have sent out press releases, and we have received unprecedented support from PEN International in our campaign. They issued a statement supporting us, sent it to the Minister for Justice, and took the unusual step of sending it to the Irish media as well.


Another significant achievement, and thanks to Timmy for this, is our successful application for grants, without which, quite simply, we could not function. That we have a healthy financial situation cannot be taken for granted, and I thank Timmy again for his work in this regard.


Having a presence on Facebook and Twitter is another welcome development, just in the last few months. How lucky we are that Christine walked in that door some months ago.


Having a Writers in Prison Committee in Irish PEN is another very welcome development the past year. Emer and I have already this year made representations on behalf of a writer from abroad who is in imminent danger of deportation from Ireland. This is a new activity for Irish PEN in Ireland, at least in recent years.


The ordinary humdrum activities of writing letters, writing minutes, checking e-mail, issuing press releases, updating the website, writing the newsletter, turning up at meetings, and on time, are the things which keep the engine ticking over. I thank each member of the committee for the quiet, unsung work that you do for Irish PEN, our members and our charter.


I also want to thank our members and associates for paying their subscriptions, which we need, and for turning up at events and at the annual dinner.


Issues that I think we need to address next year include poor attendances at some events, declining membership numbers even as, if I may say so, the committee is more committed and hard-working than ever. With declining membership come fewer subscriptions and a depletion of our funds. I think we need to ask ourselves why it is that eminent writers might join but not renew. As for associate members, there are now many organisations, private or public, offering courses, opportunities to meet editors and writers, and of course there is the Internet which is a free source of so much information. If we think, for instance, of events run by the Irish Writers Centre or the many literary festivals or Poetry Ireland, and other writer organisations, it strikes me that what we need to do is to focus on our unique selling point. Our long and honourable tradition, with so many Irish literary luminaries having been members, is one aspect of what makes us different. A second distinguishing feature is our commitment to free speech and to the PEN Charter, which each member is required sign and commit to. Perhaps we need to form alliances with the likes of Amnesty International here in Ireland, and others concerned about free speech and human rights. The third element of our unique selling point is that we belong to an international organisation, that we participate in it, and as has been the case so very recently, we are supported by it. And a fourth is that we defend people incarcerated or discriminated against because of their thoughts and words, oral or written.


Looking ahead, it is unlikely that the referendum on blasphemy will be held this year. I suspect it will be one of the many issues which will be dealt with in the Constitutional Convention promised for next year. But the referendum will come and we need to have a plan to make, and win, the argument. We need to come up with a strategy to communicate to the electorate why they should vote to delete blasphemy from the Irish constitution. And speaking of constitutions, we also need to update our own Irish PEN constitution.


We became aware over the year that English PEN employs seven or eight people. Might it be possible for Irish PEN to employ one or two or three in the future? Could we? To what end? And who might fund us? This is perhaps something that the new committee could explore.


Let us not forget too that each of us has our own personal writing ambition, I assume. I would like to see a situation, particularly for people who serve on the committee and who work so hard for not a button, in fact it costs us to take part, I’d like if the work we do could somehow move forward our own personal aspirations as writers. Perhaps we can somehow help one another towards our personal writing goals, whether to finish that novel, write a bestseller or earn a few bob.


We do need to find replacements for Dee and for Kristi and I hope at least two people will make themselves available to join the committee. Please don’t be shy. You will be very welcome.


Finally, I have really enjoyed this year, and I have been privileged to be your Chair. I have enjoyed the adventure. And if the adventure next year is half as good and half as fruitful as it has been this year, I should be happy. I’m looking forward to the ride. Thank you.


The Link to the PEN International Charter follows here :

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