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Poet hopes for diverse audience


Irish poet Mary O'Malley is eager to see what kind of an audience will gather to hear her read in Columbia next week.

"I would love to see an audience that is broad," O'Malley said in a phone interview from Ireland. She noted that in her native country, poetry readings often draw general audiences, not just literary scholars.

As the featured speaker at the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society (HoCoPoLitSo) Evening of Irish Music and Poetry, O'Malley likely will get her wish. The society -- celebrating its 30th year -- draws hundreds of people to its annual fund-raiser with a time-tested formula of prominent Irish writers, traditional Irish music, step-dance performances and socializing.

The 26th Irish Evening, featuring O'Malley, will be held Feb. 27 in Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School.

"It is kind of like a seasonal rite," said Catherine McLoughlin-Hayes, who organizes the evening for the society. "People see each other there every year."

A native of Ireland, McLoughlin-Hayes travels to that country every year and keeps up on its important writers, which helps her choose a guest.

Word of mouth from previous participants has made her job easier. O'Malley said that when she was asked to attend, she had heard about the event from fellow Irish writers Colum McCann and Eavan Boland.

Other writers who have taken part in the Irish Evening include Colm Toibin, Paul Durcan, Nuala O'Faolain and, last year, Ciaran Carson.

"We've really had an education about different parts of the country," said Ellen Conroy Kennedy, president and founder of the society.

As a native of the Irish-speaking West coast of Ireland, O'Malley, 49, brings a working-class background and her experiences as a writer to her work, Kennedy said. "We haven't had anyone like her before."

The idea of place is "huge in my work," O'Malley said, explaining that she grew up as one of 10 children of a fisherman in Connemara, County Galway. She also said her work has a "very, very strong grounding in mythology and story."

O'Malley, who recently moved from Connemara to Galway, graduated from University College in Galway and taught for eight years at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. She frequently broadcasts for Radio TelefM-ms Éireann, the Irish public service broadcasting organization and contributes to The Irish Times newspaper.

Married with two adult children, she is the author of five books, including The Boning Hall: New and Selected Poems, published last year. Her work also appears in a new anthology, Three Irish Poets, along with work by Paula Meehan and Boland (both previous Irish Evening guests.)

O'Malley said she travels a great deal. She spent three months last year as a writer-in-residence at the Irish College in Paris and often goes to Spain and Portugal. She said she also works often in the United States, and "I'm very much looking forward to going back."

She said she loves American and Latin American poetry, which have influenced her work, and the "very beautiful landscape" in the United States.

She added, "The audiences [in the United States] by and large are very sophisticated. ... They tend to listen with great attention, they tend to work hard."

The second half of the program will feature Irish reels, jigs, hornpipes, airs and ballads.

Guitarist Dominick Murray, bodhran (Irish drum) player Jesse Winch, and accordionist and songwriter Terry Winch were original members of the group Celtic Thunder, which started playing at Irish Evenings in 1980. A quarter-century later, they are still part of the event, along with singer Grace Griffith, flutist and tin whistle player Linda Hickman and fiddler Tony DeMarco.

"This is our one regular reunion," Murray said. "We treasure the HoCoPoLitSo evenings. It's like a continual gathering of old friends. It's become such a tradition, and we believe the music has been a big part of that."

Though the players are familiar to Irish Evening audiences, they always try to bring out new material, Murray said.

He also invites Irish step dancers to perform. This year will feature world step-dance competitors Maura Hodgetts -- who has appeared at the Irish Evening since 1999 -- and Jonathon Srour.

O'Malley, who will be introduced by the Irish ambassador to the United States, Noel Fahey, said, "I never really plan my reading that far in advance. I hold back a little until I get a feel of the place."

She does plan to read from The Boning Hall, which includes a wide range of her work, and said she might offer a few unpublished poems.

In return, she said, she hopes the Howard County audience will be curious about her poetry.

"That's the point about poetry," she said. "You don't have to have been in the same background to understand."

The Evening of Irish Music and Poetry will begin at 8 p.m. in Jim Rouse Theatre, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia. Tickets are $25 at the door or $26 with a credit card by calling 410-730-1802 and pressing 6. Information: 410-730-7524, or

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