Recent events at Listowel Writers’ Week (LWW) appear right out of John B Keane’s playbook of small-town community fractures and personal power dynamics. Keane was one of the 1971 founders of Listowel’s prestigious literary festival, now going through growing pains manifested in fraught and fractious rows, divided loyalties, reports of a “toxic” culture, and accusations of sidelining, exclusion, and bullying and harassment.
Amid the turmoil last autumn when the festival was being restructured, writer Colm Tóibín stepped aside as festival president. “Listowel is moving, on the recommendation of a report paid for by the Arts Council, from a community-led festival to a curator-led festival,” he says. “The community is unhappy about this, and relayed to me the extent of their unhappiness. Since many of these people are old friends and associates, and since I believe fundamentally that a festival like Listowel must have a significant input from local readers, I felt I could no longer stay on as president. I also thought it might be easier for the board and the new curator not to have me in the way.”
In November, a letter signed by 16 other prominent Irish writers was published in The Irish Times calling for the reinstatement of the festival’s voluntary committee, “the lifeblood of this friendly and professionally-run festival”.
It also came up in the Seanad, when Listowel senator Ned O’Sullivan (Fianna Fáil) spoke of anger and bewilderment in the community, saying governance and control were limiting “creative freedom and the level of community involvement” in events, and an “overemphasis on governance issues is leading to a paralysis in creative thinking on many boards”.
The report leaked to local media before committee members received it, a bone of contention. Though just five pages long, it proved controversial
But that’s not how everyone sees it. Board chairwoman Catherine Moylan says “Some people have repeatedly and wrongly sought to present the changes in Listowel Writers’ Week as being the big bad Dublin-based Arts Council telling a small town festival what to do. This is far from the truth. The council and its staff have been stalwart supporters of Writers’ Week for many years and, without their unstinting support and funding over the years, the festival would not be what it is.”
She points out Listowel Writers’ Week (LWW) is a company limited by guarantee, a registered charity, an employer. These come with legal, contractual and moral obligations, and public funding requires good corporate governance. She says the board’s priority is a viable, sustainable organisation, to continue its renowned literary programme.
Moylan also says “several of the writers who appended their names to letters to the press have [since then] contacted the board to say they fully and completely support the board and they may perhaps have misunderstood what was intended by the letters that were written. A few have confirmed they did not see the actual text of the letter before it was published.” There is no suggestion that the organisers of the letter acted in anything other than good faith.
It is interesting that the close involvement of the Senator’s wife in Writers’ Week does not appear to have been mentioned in the context of his comments about it in the Seanad. Madeleine O’Sullivan has been a LWW committee member for decades (including chairing it), and has also been a board member.
[ Listowel Writers’ Week appoints curator for first time in 52 years ]
For decades LWW was programmed and run by a large voluntary committee of 20 to 30 people and various subcommittees. More recently a board and chair were added, and there are a small number of paid staff. An independent consultant’s review last summer, a condition of continued Arts Council funding, followed concern about LWW’s governance and artistic programming; its recommendations brought things to a head that may have been festering, pitting the committee against the board and chair.
Dermot McLaughlin’s report describes LWW as “at a considerable remove from” good organisational practice, and its structures as “no longer fit for purpose”. In wide consultations for the report, “I encountered nobody who was either happy or satisfied with the status quo”.
He recommended a sequence of urgent actions, including appointing a professional curator, streamlining financial control, and discontinuing “existing and dysfunctional ways of working”, including committee structures. Moylan observes the report was “not a la carte. The recommendations were interlinked and we had to accept them all.” The board unanimously did so.
The report leaked to local media before committee members received it, a bone of contention. Though just five pages long, it proved controversial, describing an organisational culture that “allowed the evolution of behaviours and practices that sustain avoidable dysfunction, conflict, and animosity, and that create risk for the Company as an employer.
“The existing culture and practices (which are now being challenged and changed by the Board) create expectations and perceived entitlements that have scant regard for good professional practice, ignore risks of conflict of interest, and undermine dignity & safety in the workplace, and that create clear risks to the best interests of the Company. It is reassuring that the Board is committed to changing that toxic culture, and to taking the necessary steps to secure the viability and sustainability of LWW.”
The committee structure was disbanded in September. In December the 52-year-old festival appointed its first ever professional curator, Stephen Connolly; plans are well along for this year’s Writers’ Week, from May 31st-June 4th.
But Madeleine O’Sullivan observes that “there is a lot of anger and sadness and bereavement in the town” following the report. Stressing she’s only speaking for herself, she says “the festival was run by the committee and was run very well. We had a good system, and meetings. It was absolute harmony to be in.”
We had a great system. The committee is voluntary, 100 per cent. There were no egos at all on the committee and there still isn’t
Though it’s been discontinued, the committee it still exists as an unofficial group of 20-25 people and has even elected a chair, Aidan Ó Murchú. On his own behalf only, he says “there was a lot I certainly didn’t recognise” in the report, such as a “toxic culture”: “I don’t know where that came from. Yes, certainly meetings were hot and heavy, but toxic, absolutely not.” Regarding “expectations and perceived entitlements”, he says “I never saw that in the committee that I was part of, or anything like that. When that was released, we were all brought under that banner, and that’s just not good enough, not acceptable.” Whatever about disbanding the committee, “to put that kind of lingo into it was just outrageous. I’m not alone in thinking that”.
He’d like to see the correspondence between the Arts Council and the board leading up to establishing the review.
O’Sullivan says “We’ve been told some of the committee will be invited back, but we would like to have a more meaningful role, like we used to have with the subcommittees. We had a great system. The committee is voluntary, 100 per cent. There were no egos at all on the committee and there still isn’t.”
That’s not everyone’s perception. Liz Dunn, another committee member, who resigned this year after 10 years and several roles, says “the current debacle seems to be focusing on some [committee] members, who, having previously exhibited a sense of entitlement towards others, expressed that they were feeling ‘distraught’ and ‘angry’ at their perceived ill-treatment”.
[ Listowel Writers’ Week subject of growing row over proposal to disband volunteer committee ]
Moylan says it was suggested a large committee of 40 people met regularly and selected writers, but “in practice, whilst everyone in theory could make suggestions, only a very small subset would meet and decide who to invite every year. Quite often the loudest voice in the room would be successful, with other suggestions falling by the wayside. This literary programme would then be presented as a fait accompli, and rubber-stamped by the larger committee.”
Dunn says she’d regularly communicated to the then board “my own increasing frustration” about “the reluctance of some volunteers to embrace change, the conduct of some members of the committee towards other volunteers, and the attitude of some volunteers towards staff”. Despite assurances, matters “remained unresolved”.
In retrospect she found some meetings “very stressful” and should have stuck to what she liked best, meeting and greeting guests and attendees, the volunteer role in other festivals. But “when I joined LWW I was informed volunteers were required and expected to attend fortnightly meetings and thus embrace the hierarchy such meetings inevitably presented to attendees”.
Moylan confirmed ‘there have been several formal complaints, from staff and committee members, of bullying and harassment by a handful of other committee members’
But O’Sullivan says she’s “heartbroken with the consultant’s report. I don’t think it’s fair or a reflection of the conversations he had with each of us.” Toxicity mentioned in the report “is not from the committee. We have been working hand-in-glove for over 50 years, older and younger members, a united group,” important to the success of Writers’ Week, she says.
Her difficulties are with communication, and the board’s management. “There is a breakdown of trust between festival committee members and the chair and board”, and a “sadness and anger at being very arbitrarily dismissed”.
Since the committee was disbanded, “there is complete unity between 21 former committee members; 99% of the committee are of one mind about where the problem lies – with the board and chair.”
However, Moylan says there’s “a false and untrue narrative being promoted by a very small number of disaffected people that the entire volunteer committee has been ‘sacked and gotten rid of’ by the board. This is not true. It is correct that the independent consultant who consulted widely, including with the committee, recommended the committee structure be disbanded.” She notes the consultant said not “a single person” said the committee system was working well.
Moylan says the only practical change was the curator, which most of the former committee support. “Every single volunteer” was welcome to “do all they did before, under a revamped volunteer code and system”. The board proposes all volunteers can make suggestions to the curator. “Rightly or wrongly, some few members of the former volunteer committee and some writers had been complaining they felt they were being sidelined and excluded from the festival. This new process will be more open, transparent, diverse and inclusive. In the old system, it appears some volunteers were deemed more important than others. Despite there being policies in place and efforts to safeguard the volunteers and staff, some volunteers refused to sign a volunteer policy.”
Both Ó Murchú and O’Sullivan say the former committee wants a mediator involved. “We’d plead for mediation, it’s the only show in town,” says Ó Murchú. “If there’s an impasse the only way it’ll be resolved is by talking.”
Some individuals have been suggested as mediator, without agreement; the board wants to define areas for mediation, while Ó Murchú feels “everything should be on the table”.
Moylan confirmed “there have been several formal complaints, from staff and committee members, of bullying and harassment by a handful of other committee members”. She became chairwoman in March 2022 and “inherited” complaints, she said. An external, independent person is to investigate.
Aidan Ó Murchú says “My response is, happy days. If there’s investigation initiated, bring it on. We are tired and sick and sore of listening to these allegations being thrown about for months with no specific names, and we’re all under suspicion then.”
Moylan says the board is aware of its obligations, and “fully committed to addressing and investigating all such allegations and to making the festival a safe and enjoyable space for employees, guests, writers and volunteers”. It’s committed to implementing the new Safe to Create programme, and all volunteers will be required to sign the new volunteer code.
Clearly, there are competing narratives and differing truths in Listowel.
All the same, as this year’s festival programme takes strong shape, there’s widespread approval of the curator’s appointment. Moylan says many people have contacted the board, positive about changes afoot and keen to be involved again.
And what stands out from talking to multiple people involved is a deep commitment to Writers’ Week, and a unity of purpose that the festival should thrive.