The Howard County Poetry and Literature Society’s Evening of Irish Music and Poetry is always a festive occasion, but its step dancers may be stepping even higher than usual as this event observes its 40th anniversary on Friday, Feb. 9 at 7:30 p.m. in Howard Community College’s Smith Theatre.
Irish writer Mike McCormack reads from his work during the first half of the program and the Narrowbacks perform traditional Irish music accompanied by those step dancers during the second half of the program.
It’s not an exaggeration to state that the faithful audience members for this event really look forward to it every year. Indeed, the Irish Evening is intertwined with their lives.
At the younger end of that audience spectrum, Mallory Smith, 21, grew up in Ellicott City, graduated from Howard High School, and is currently a senior majoring in English and creative writing at Washington College in Chestertown. Her interest in writing prompted her to attend various readings by the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo), and she even served as HoCoPoLitSo's first student board member from 2010- 2014.
“I first became involved with HoCoPoLitSo at around 14 years old and initially it was nerve-wracking for me to be around these literary figures,” Smith recalled. “As a board member, I worked to increase student engagement in the organization with things like Blackbird Poetry Festival and Poem in the Pocket activities.
“I am not Irish at all, but I loved the Irish Evening and it got me really interested in Irish literature,” added Smith, whose recent college experiences have included study trips to Ireland. “I can’t imagine a better place to study literature than Ireland, which is geographically a remote and yet accessible place with storytelling traditions.”
Although she is currently getting into the spring semester at her college on the Eastern Shore, Smith said she definitely will be attending this year’s Irish Evening.
At the other end of the audience spectrum for attending the event is Denny Lynch, 68, a retired Baltimore City Public School history teacher who lives in the city’s Hampden neighborhood. He has been attending the Irish Evening since 1981, and as a photographer who has made around 30 trips to Ireland, he has an Irish Evening tradition of his own that involves exhibiting his Irish photographs in the Smith Theatre lobby area.
“I’m interested in my family’s Irish roots and go over every year,” said Lynch, who has been a dual Irish citizen since 1999. “My photos are the visual component (to complement) the music and literature.”
Lynch also takes photos during the Irish Evening’s intermission, when a book signing finds the guest writers casually chatting with audience members. He loves this opportunity to meet famous writers, and his many personal anecdotes about them prompted him to enthusiastically observe about the sponsoring organization that “it has created this little Irish world on this side of the Atlantic. I look forward to it every year and circle it on my calendar.”
Organizing that event at HoCoPoLitSo for many years have been Irish Evening chair Catherine McLoughlin-Hayes and other HoCoPoLitSo board members. This event is a core activity for the organization. That’s why HoCoPoLitSo managing director Pamela Kroll Simonson described the Irish Evening as “a mid-winter ritual in Howard County (that) serves as an extended family reunion.”
And McLoughlin-Hayes stated in HoCoPoLitSo’s annual report: "” love the fact that my heritage and tradition is passed on to my children and grandchildren in this way. May it continue.”
It does continue with this year’s featured writer, Mike McCormack, whose 2016 novel “Solar Bones” has garnered critical praise and prizes. Surely this novel’s most notable attribute is that the entire novel is a single sentence. The audience this weekend will find out how much of that sentence he shares with it.
Born in 1965, the Galway-based McCormack is a novelist and short-story writer who seems to be on the brink of gaining wider recognition because of “Solar Bones.”
He’s the latest in a long line of Irish writers to appear at the Irish Evening, among them Frank McCourt, Edna O’Brien, Seamus Heaney, Emma Donoghue, Colum McCann, Paula Meehan, Anne Enright and Colm Toibin.
The literary first half of the program gives way in the second half to music by the Narrowbacks, featuring Jesse and Terence Winch, as well as step dancers from the Culkin School.
“We have been playing for Irish Evening almost from its inception. This year will be our 39th appearance,” Terence Winch said. “For the first 20 years, we appeared as Celtic Thunder, but more recently we perform as Narrowbacks. It’s been an extraordinary gig from our perspective, always with a very knowledgeable, enthusiastic audience ... I know of no other show in America that offers great Irish literary figures combined with traditional Irish music and dance. For 40 years, through snowstorms and snafus, the show has gone on, as I hope it will for many years to come.” The Howard County Poetry and Literature Society's 40th annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry is Friday, Feb. 9 at 7:30 p.m. at Howard Community College’s Smith Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy in Columbia. The event includes a book sale and signing, as well as such refreshments as Irish coffee and Guinness. Tickets are $35. Call 443-518-4568 or go to HoCoPoLitSo.org