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Howard County literary society brings its yearly Irish Evening online with author Joseph O’Neill

On Friday, the Howard County Poetry Literature Society plans to transport its audience via Zoom to an Irish pub, where everyone can enjoy Irish music, an Irish jig lesson, literature, conversation and perhaps an Irish spirit or two.

Realistically, organizers of the Evening of Irish Music and Poetry event know that it will really take place in individual homes on monitors, with Joseph O’Neill — the 2009 PEN/Faulkner Award winner for fiction — speaking and answering questions from his residence in New York.

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“We know everyone is Zoomed out; we know that,” said Susan Thornton Hobby, a member of the society’s board and special project coordinator. “We’re trying to make it feel like you are in a pub and having a good time.”

Since the event’s beginnings in 1979, the Howard County Poetry Literature Society’s Irish evening has featured Irish writers talking about and reading from their works live onstage followed by Irish music and dancing. Both before and during an intermission, Irish food and drinks were available.

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“It was really lovely,” Hobby said. “People would come in, mingle, buy books and raffle tickets. Our signature drink was Jameson and ginger. There was also lots of Guinness.”

With this year’s event being held virtually, people will not gather at Howard Community College as in years past, but Hobby believes the event will still deliver. It will feature both live and recorded parts woven together with readings and music.

Joseph O'Neill is the featured author at the Howard County Poetry Literature Society's Evening of Irish Music and Poetry on Friday, Feb. 19.
Joseph O'Neill is the featured author at the Howard County Poetry Literature Society's Evening of Irish Music and Poetry on Friday, Feb. 19. (Courtesy photo / HANDOUT)

“Joseph O’Neill is a phenomenal writer,” Hobby said. “He writes short stories. His novel, ‘The Netherland,’ is set in Staten Island and is about a cricket team with players from all over the world.”

For the first time, the evening will feature a question-and-answer session with O’Neill led by author Belinda McKeon, who will also act as emcee.

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“A lot of people are shy and don’t want to stand up and ask questions,” Hobby said. “Now, you can ask whatever you want, and we’ll make sure the author gets it.”

Maureen Berry, owner and director of the Teelin School of Irish Dance, will host a virtual Irish dance lesson.

“This is a little different,” Berry said. “Instead of a performance, they can do a dance around their living room using a prop, like a pillow, to jump over. Hopefully, they’ll have fun with it.”

The dance lesson will feature Irish music performed by Jim Eagan, who will also be a performer during the event.

“It is fun to participate in something even if it is virtual,” Berry said. “It keeps us connected.”

Former Gov. Martin O’Malley, Jared Denhard, Laura Byrne and Sean McComiskey will also perform.

“It is an incredible group of musicians,” Hobby said. “They had to each perform separately because of COVID. They’re incredible.”

Partnering with The Wine Bin in Ellicott City, a signature cocktail kit for the event was created. For an additional cost, participants can order An Irishman in Istanbul cocktail kit which provides the ingredients — Jameson, cardamom, apricot and citrus — for two drinks.

“Our featured author’s mother was from Turkey and his father was from Cork, Ireland,” Hobby said, explaining the drink’s origins.

Maureen Berry, owner and director of the Teelin School of Irish Dance, will teach an Irish dance lesson during the Howard County Poetry Literature Society's Evening of Irish Music and Poetry on Friday, Feb. 19.
Maureen Berry, owner and director of the Teelin School of Irish Dance, will teach an Irish dance lesson during the Howard County Poetry Literature Society's Evening of Irish Music and Poetry on Friday, Feb. 19. (Submitted photo /)

The Irish Evening is typically the society’s largest fundraiser of the year. Proceeds from the event help fund the group’s numerous programs, including its education programs.

“It’s really about bringing literature into the community,” Hobby said. “We host open mics, readings, writers in schools. We need to fund those programs.”

With this year’s event being virtual, it could reach a larger audience than ever before.

“We would love to have lots and lots of folks join us,” Hobby said. “There were many Irish Evenings where weather was a problem. It doesn’t matter what the weather is now.”

Howard County Poetry Literature Society’s 43rd annual Evening of Irish Music and Poetry will take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19. Tickets are $20 and available at howardcc.edu/IrishEvening or by calling 443-51801500.

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