Five Minutes With: Karen Walshe, Artistic Director Of St Patrick’s Festival
How did you first get involved in the events industry, and at what point did you realise you had a knack and passion for this?
At the age of 23, I started in the Temple Bar Music Centre (now the Button Factory). I spent some of my best years there, cutting my teeth in the scene, meeting lots of interesting people who I still work closely with today. The minute I started, I couldn’t resist the energy and buzz about the place, and I immediately felt at home. I initially started my career in the marketing department – the process of programming, promotion and event management felt so natural and exciting to me. The years that followed were spent working on other events and festivals such as the Festival of World Cultures, the Dublin International Film Festival, Dublin Electronic Arts Festival and Electric Picnic. I thoroughly enjoy the mix of programming and production, I love the creative space when I’m planning an event, and then it’s the grit of getting my hands dirty during the build and set-up stage. Then the ultimate satisfaction is when the event you’ve worked on for months is being enjoyed by the audience… it’s like welcoming people into my home.
What do you think would surprise people most about your job?
My job is a full-time, year-round role, and the variety would surprise people. I can be working with the Parade pageants one minute, producing a film with an artist the next, and last week I was on a research trip to Ardnacrusha to visit the Power Station, as we’re hosting an Instarail train trip with ESB Archives and Irish Rail on Monday, March 19. On this trip, I was given a tour of the station by the lead engineer and was blown away by the history and stories of the era and how it was the first of its kind in the world at the time.
While I’m at my desk half of the time, the other half of my time can be doing site visits, looking for unusual locations to suit an event I’m working on. For the Herstory talk celebrating the partial vote for women in 1918, I decided upon the Freemasons Hall based on the juxtaposition of venue with the talk theme. For an outdoor performance of Druid’s Waiting for Godot, I found a derelict site called the Daisy Market, as the site needed to be barren and desolate, similar to their stage setting. Two weeks before the festival, I’d spend two days driving around Ireland visiting the pageant companies, from Donegal to Cork to Wexford, to see how their designs are coming along for the Parade day.
What have been the greatest challenges in your career to date?
I worked as a sole trader for many years. Working as a freelance event producer can be tough, as you are always looking for the next job. While I loved the mystery of finding new work all the time, as you get older I think it gets harder. It was tough during the recession years – I did a stint in corporate events for a while, but I missed working with artists and creating events for the public domain, so that didn’t last long!
Your proudest moments?
Last St Patrick’s Day was a proud moment that sticks out in my head. It was my first year in the role of artistic director. After spending months working on the Parade, working closely with the pageants throughout the year from all over the country and making arrangements with the marching bands from across the world to take part in our parade – it all finally comes together on March 17. You can be so busy in those months that you don’t think about how it will actually feel on the day. On the morning of the parade last year, it dawned on me that I’m a part of organising our national parade, celebrating our national day that is watched not only across Ireland, but streamed live all over the world. I felt very proud to be Irish that day and to work for the festival. To see the happiness and joy on the faces of the spectators, and of those participating in the parade – it’s a magical time.
What’s an average working day and week for you?
The average day starts at 9.30am and ends at approx 6pm. Some evenings are longer depending on how close we are to the key deadlines like print, and obviously as the festival nears, it can be later. I do try to get home for 6 for dinner and if needs be I’ll open up the computer again after the kids are in bed.
The first thing you do when you get to your desk in the morning?
I get the ticket sales email to my phone first thing in the morning, so I usually check this before I even get out of bed. This is a good indication for what our focus is on or not that week.
When I get into the office, I start with a fresh to-do list and ensure I stick to it rigidly throughout the day. At the moment, as we’re weeks away from the festival, I will regularly check social media platforms and Google any festival news. I check in with my team to see where they’re at with their projects and how they’re getting on.
Last thing you do before switching off?
I check through my to-do list and hopefully I’ve cleared what’s important. I work out my plan for the following day, reply to all my mails so I’m ready to go the next day afresh. If I have presentations or meetings the next day, I’ll ensure they’re ready to go, or work on them later.
Where did the inspiration for this year’s St Patrick’s Festival theme of Home come from?
By framing the St Patrick’s Festival programme around the theme Home, it has allowed me to delve into the richness and depth of our past, to pick at the narratives of today and peer into what the future may hold. I wanted an overarching theme that allowed the festival enough scope to create a wide and varied programme, to give me that space for enquiry. This year’s programme will explore the many perspectives of home, through an artistic programme that includes a unique film commission, music, theatre, literature, visual art, street spectacle, talks, walks and more.
What are you most excited about with regards to this year’s programme?
My top three include:
1. One of our flagship events is a once-off show by leading producer Kormac with the Irish Chamber Orchestra, Kormac’s Big Band, and an array of guests in Vicar Street on Sunday, March 18. This is an exciting new departure for Kormac, as he embarked on a new journey last year – he studied orchestration with the Bulgarian orchestra and returned to write new music for the Irish Chamber Orchestra. All aspects of this show involve deep collaboration, and his guests on the night will each perform this brand new collection of songs include artsoul singer Loah, spoken word poet Stephen James Smith, famed conductor composer Eimear Noone, soul singer songwriter Jack O’Rourke, hip hop musician Moncrieff, plus celebrated urban artist Maser, who worked with Kormac to create the artwork and visuals for the show.
2. Our opening night is a very special event in the gothic surrounds of St Patrick’s Cathedral as we celebrate internationally renowned Irishman and film director Rex Ingram, who emigrated from Ireland to the US in 1911, with a very rare screening of the 1921 American silent epic war film The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It will feature a new score by internationally renowned composers Matthew Nolan and Barry Adamson, who has composed for Oliver Stone, David Lynch, and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, which will be performed live.
3. Both of the Herstory Salons are going to be electric! In the salon “Ireland of Equals” on Friday, March 16 at 6.30pm in the Freemasons Hall, we’ll explore that in nearly every remarkable woman’s biography, there was a man who saw her as an equal. Speakers will reveal the dynamic duos who spearheaded the 1916 Rising and the Suffrage Movement at home in Ireland and abroad. Featuring Senia Paseta (professor of Modern History, Oxford University) and Dr Micheline Sheehy-Skef?ngton (women’s rights activist and granddaughter of Hanna and Francis Sheehy-Skef?ngton), and many more.
On Sunday, March 18 in the Unitarian Church, “Revolutionary Religious Women” will discuss the key roles women played in the early development of many world religions. Mary Magdalene emerges from the shadows with Khadijah, the Prophet Muhammad’s wife. The female disciples return, once lost by history, now rediscovered by Herstory. Speakers include comedian Tara Flynn, poet John Ennis, author Danushia Kaczmarek, and many more.
What do you think will surprise attendees most?
I think the variety in the programme, the fact that we are a five-day festival that includes the parade, will surprise many. I hope people will find it fresh, diverse and speaks of an Irishness they can connect with, from an historic interest to that of contemporary Ireland today.
When do plans for next year’s festival kick off?
Planning started last year, and a lot of the major plans are already in place for 2019. I’m also in discussions around 2020!
What are your must-have work essentials?
My phone! It has everything I need – email, calendar, messaging in all their forms these days, phone, social media and old reliable Google.
Do you have a uniform for when you have an important meeting or presentation?
I usually go for a pleated style skirt, with a neat knit jumper, tights and brogue style shoes. I love to shop in Cos and Zara for workwear. Otherwise, it’s jeans and trainers on days in production or for casual days in the office.
Do you have any secret weapons that give you confidence?
Sleep is my secret weapon… and good face cream! If I’m going to a meeting or doing a presentation, I feel confident if I look smart; therefore, clothes are my armour. Also, I believe experience is an important key to confidence, but that only comes with time. And of course, always be yourself.
The St Patrick’s Festival takes place from March 15-19. The vibrant and colourful programme of over 30 events will create a world-class cultural celebration of Ireland, its people and our national holiday.
For more information and to view the full programme, visit stpatricksfestival.ie.