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Famed author Alice McDermott to speak at Irish Evening at Howard Community College

Author Alice McDermott, a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, will speak at Howard County Poetry and Literature Society’s Irish Evening at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, in Howard Community College’s Smith Theatre in Columbia.
Author Alice McDermott, a three-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, will speak at Howard County Poetry and Literature Society’s Irish Evening at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, in Howard Community College’s Smith Theatre in Columbia.(Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

The Howard County Poetry and Literature Society will celebrate its 42nd annual Irish Evening at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, in Howard Community College’s Smith Theatre.

This immersion in all things Irish includes music from O’Malley’s March — the Celtic rock band led by former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley — and dance from the Teelin Irish Dance Company. Besides the entertainment on stage, the ethnic theme extends to the Irish coffee and beer that are among the refreshments.

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Of course, this annual event always features a writer to give voice to Ireland’s vigorous literary history. Prominent Irish writers who have appeared here in the past include Colm Toibin, Emma Donoghue, Colum McCann, Anne Enright and Frank McCourt. Some of them made a long trip to reach Columbia, but this year’s featured writer, Alice McDermott, is making a much shorter commute from Bethesda.

McDermott, 66, is professor emeritus in the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, where she began teaching in 1996. Having spent decades teaching at Hopkins and at other colleges in prior years, she mentored generations of students who were engaged in the process of transforming personal experience and observation into works of fiction.

In the case of the Brooklyn, New York-born McDermott, who grew up in the Long Island community of Elmont, her formative experiences included being an Irish-American Catholic schoolgirl educated at St. Boniface School and Sacred Heart Academy. By way of more secular settings for her college years, she received her B.A. from the State University of New York at Oswego and M.A. from the University of New Hampshire.

While teaching at Hopkins and raising a family, McDermott maintained a writing career that has earned her critical acclaim and various awards. Her eight novels include “Charming Billy” in 1998, which won the National Book Award.

While teaching at Hopkins and raising a family, McDermott maintained a writing career that has earned her critical acclaim and various awards. Her eight novels include “Charming Billy” in 1998, which won the National Book Award.

Her most recent novel, "The Ninth Hour,” was published in 2017. Much of it is set in Brooklyn in the early 20th century, with the Roman Catholic Church playing a dominant role in the lives of the characters.

Having written about similar characters before, McDermott was not really looking to do so again when she began writing the novel. McDermott has said that she did not set out to write a novel about nuns and yet that is what she ended up doing. Crucially, however, she was determined that these nuns not be treated as the stern, ruler-wielding classroom stereotypes that are so often and unfairly invoked by Catholic adults recalling a parochial school education.

In order to get even further away from that stereotype, McDermott decided that she would not have a teaching order of nuns at the heart of her novel. Instead, she created a fictitious nursing order that she calls the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor. Their dedication to their profession comes across quite movingly, and McDermott is also exceptionally good at describing the details of convent life.

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The dramatic plot in “The Ninth Hour” raises profound considerations about how poverty and faith shape both the convent and the larger community. For the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society audience, “the Ninth Hour” and McDermott’s other novels amount to food for thought during an evening that’s already brimming with food and entertainment.

Howard County Poetry and Literature Society’s Irish Evening is at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21, in Howard Community College’s Smith Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Tickets are $40. Call 443-518-4568 or go to brownpapertickets.com/event/4416880.

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