The biggest fan of Canadian Writers in Person

You could call Diarmuid Swan the oldest fan of the Canadian Writers in Person reading series. He is 78, after all. “Well, I’m the longest fan you might say,” he says in his soft Irish lilt.

                 Right: Diarmuid Swan

The retired transportation executive from Downsview has heard almost every one of the more than 100 authors who have come to read to this literature class since John Unrau launched it in 1999. Even while Swan was taking care of his dying wife Eva a couple of years ago, he made it to the readings, if not the lectures. “It gave me an escape.”

“I love the program,” says Swan. “I love the written word and I love to hear how it’s spoken. I think it is marvelous to read a book and then discuss with the author why he writes and what he thinks.”

Last night, Canadian Writers in Person celebrated its 10th anniversary (see YFile, Dec. 2) and Swan wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It gave him a chance to catch up with Unrau, who had encouraged him to attend so many years ago, and to walk down memory lane. Swan saw a new documentary featuring interviews with Unrau, other professors, supporters and students about how the series evolved. And he viewed newly digitized film clips (accessible on Artmob) of authors reading and discussing their work with the class.

Swan grew up in Dublin, around the corner from legendary Irish writer Brendan Behan. He earned a high-school leaving certificate and sailed to Canada at the age of 24, lured by a buddy who wanted him to play on his soccer team and the prospect of work. A few years later, he had married Eva Adams from Nova Scotia, bought a house in Etobicoke and started a family. During his 38 years climbing the ladder in the transportation business, he took sales and management courses. When he retired and was driving his daughter Melanie (BA Hons. ’04) back and forth to York, his oldest son Maurice (BA ’92, LLB ’95) urged him to stay on campus and take a course. Swan began to sit in on Melanie’s English classes, veered into political science and ended up studying Celtic literature with Unrau. When Unrau started Canadian Writers in Person, the poet professor pressed Swan to come – the readings were free and open to the public.

Left: Poster by Erik Morin

Before each class, Swan reads the featured novel, poetry or play, researches the author on the Internet and comes to the reading armed with questions. “I love to hear the author speaking about what he’s written, having formed my own opinion. It’s great to hear an author telling me I’m full of baloney.” Some he’s liked better than others.

His favourite was Alistair MacLeod. “He came to our class to read No Great Mischief and a week later he won the IMPAC!” Swan found Jane Urquhart, author of The Stone Carvers, “magnificent” and was delighted by the “biggest showman of them all”, Barry Callaghan, author of A Kiss Is Still A Kiss. Susan Swan (no relation) “amazed everybody when she came out dressed as D’Artagnan in the Three Musketeers” to read from The Wives Of Bath.

For the Irishman who brags that Dublin has produced more Nobel Prize winners in literature (five)  than any other place in the world, the Canadian Writers in Person series has given him new insight. “I’ve come to understand that Canadians appreciate writers, whereas in Ireland they absolutely savage them.”

Attending the Canadian Writers in Person series is just one of many things Swan does to stay mentally and physically fit. He’s no couch potato, though he does like watching British series on TVO and PBS. An avid golfer all his life, he competes every year at the Bushmills Open in Ireland. Once a tenor, he sings baritone in his church choir. He listens to jazz – as far away as New Orleans. And he just returned from the World Masters Games in Sydney with a silver medal in men’s squash, for players 75 to 79 years old.

If you see a white-haired man wearing an Outback oilskin hat rushing down the hall at Keele campus, that’s probably him. In the bag slung over his shoulder is likely a book stuffed with a piece of paper and a list of questions for its author, about to read to the Canadian Writers in Person class. 

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer