Long read: What will Irish arts festivals look like post pandemic?

Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas, Galway Arts Festival and Kilkenny Arts Festival are among the highlights of Ireland’s events calendar, each one quashed by the lockdown. We ask the organisers what we can expect from postponed iterations, and the future of cultural events


A dark auditorium, a hushed crowed, the long, low crackle of a spotlight discovering a stage and the first lines of a projected voice. It’s an intoxicating mix for many, and one that is sorely missed during the lockdown. From theatres to concert halls to art galleries to marquees to arenas to pub gigs, not one cultural event has been spared by C-19’s  all-encompassing ferocity.

Outdoor music festivals were among the first site specific jamborees to be postponed until 2021, with multidisciplinary arts events – as in those utilising existing venues and sites and therefore less weather dependent – cautiously hoping they might postpone until autumn. 

One such bash is the much loved Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas in Carlow, which should’ve celebrated its ninth birthday last weekend – June 12-14 – but was pushed back to a more viable September 18-20.

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With so many organisers scrambling to reschedule their events later in the year, while competing for similar audiences, how and why did they choose those particular September dates? “Purely practical,” says co-founder Hugo Jellett. “The majestic Borris House hosts a lot of weddings and we took the only weekend they had left. We also had to have it before the end of September, as it would just be inclement after that, and we need for the outdoors to be a big feature this year…”

Myriad challenges

It’s good to know that, despite the myriad challenges posed by C-19, optimism remains in the air around Co Carlow. Taking place on the undulating, historic grounds of Borris House, the festival is the boutique brainchild of Jellett and Vivienne Guinness, uniting an eclectic and world-class lineup of writers, filmmakers, architects, political commentators, illustrators, historians, comedians and musicians, with previous speakers including Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt, Martin Amis, PJ Harvey, Sally Rooney, Lemn Sissay, Hisham Matar, Joseph O’Connor, Dolly Alderton, Melatu Uche Okorie, Panti Bliss and Cillian Murphy.

Atwood was scheduled for last week’s outing – rubbing shoulders with fellow guests Max Porter, Simon Armitage, Courtney Love, Emma Dabiri, Mary Robinson and Sarah Waters – so it’s fingers and toes crossed she’ll remain attached to the programme come September. 

“Around 70 per cent can make it, and we are working toward replacing what we have lost with something even better,” he says, before admitting “although there are a lot of writers wondering if it will really all be possible.”

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HSE guidelines are a work in progress but will include “scores of hand sanitising stations” and spaces that can safely accommodate social distancing measures, including larger tents and open-sided marquees (“so come armed with coats and hats, just in case”). 

Galway International Arts Festival

Sitting on 650 acres of land, at least the Borris demesne isn’t short of space. Galway City is comparatively high density, which poses a greater challenge for John Crumlish, CEO of the Galway International Arts Festival (GIAF), which runs across multiple venues every summer and has previously seen theatrical world premieres of theatre, pioneering art exhibitions, lively debates and barnstorming live music.

“We were seriously concerned from early March,” says Crumlish, of the festival’s 43rd instalment, “and as restrictions on events were introduced, we knew it was going to be a huge challenge to do what was planned for July. The announcement of the five phase road map meant a festival in July was no longer an option.”

The two-week festival has subsequently been rescheduled for July 2021 – including deferring Heineken Big Top gigs from Sinead O’Connor, The Pixies and The Flaming Lips – meaning the lockdown couldn’t have come at a worse time for 2020’s European City of Culture, which only had the first 2.5 months of this year to celebrate its status before the country shut down.

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Last year, GIAF received a record breaking attendance of nearly 264,000 punters at 200 events across 28 venues, contributing more than €40 million to the local economy. With its European City of Culture accolade, GIAF’s 2020’s outing would surely have exceeded that. Still, there’s plenty to look forward to later in the year, thanks to Crumlish and co. 

“GIAF is all about people coming together and enjoying the arts so we’re designing a programme for the autumn that can accommodate both that and social distancing.” he says. “We’re also working to create the conditions under which those members of our audience deemed to be ‘vulnerable’ can also attend. We’ve a very loyal and supportive audience, and really wanted to do something for them as well as support artists during the crisis.

“Also, we couldn’t let 2020 go without marking Galway’s European Capital of Culture status, which we’re looking forward to being a part of that this autumn.”

Kilkenny Arts Festival

Also grappling with how to keep theatre and concert goers a sneezing distance from one another is Olga Barry, organiser of the 47th Kilkenny Arts Festival (KAF) – which is why she decided to cancel this year’s August 6-16 event altogether, rather than postpone. 

“Kilkenny has a really vibrant and thrilling festival ecology throughout the year, and we didn’t want to add to the bottleneck later in 2020 – and social distancing may be with us for some time,” says Barry. “So, we took the decision to cancel when the roadmap was published.”

Frustrating, she and her team had already spent around a month remodelling the programme to bring to audiences in August. But when the fifth phase of ‘reopening Ireland’ was announced, the dates of which coincided directly with the KIAF weekend, Barry had to pull the plug. 

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“For Kilkenny Arts Festival, we knew that making a wholly online festival wouldn’t honour our core mission – the festival really is the artists and audiences being together in Kilkenny,” she says. “That’s where the energy comes through. There are also some artforms which, for me, are not particularly well served online. For music, theatre and dance I believe fundamentally in the whole sensory experience of being ‘in the room’. That’s the part that moves us most. 

“We remember those experiences because we remember how we felt. So, going forward, we’re taking an approach of looking at different ways to bring the arts to audiences and citizens, online, written, commissioned and live where possible. We’re embracing technology where it serves the artistic work well.”

Against all the odds, how will genre-straddling events attempt to achieve their trademark bonhomie under the shadow of C-19?

While a global catastrophe forcing the hand of any arts organiser is unwelcome, one silver lining could be that this multifarious model, of live and digital, could stand the test of time long beyond subsequent waves of the pandemic. Remote, and flexible, working has proven to be a universal success across many sectors and, also, with carbon footprints remaining high on the agenda, more artists will actively choose virtual rather than physical appearances, while audiences may be more receptive to adopting a multimedia approach.

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Arts events are by their nature about bringing people together, though, literally and figuratively, just as restaurants – soon to be divided by plexiglass and staffed by servers in PPE – are about much more than simply eating. Against all the odds, how will genre-straddling events attempt to achieve their trademark bonhomie under the shadow of C-19? “That is the challenge and while some accommodation can be made in presenting the visual arts, I don’t think we are there yet for the performing arts,” says Crumlish. 

Art must go on

Humans are remarkably adaptable. If we take the principle that the art must go on, those of us to make it, perform it and organise it will find ways to adapt

Of the intimacy of Borris Festival, which welcomes around 2,700 per day, Jellett says: “The thought of trying to achieve that sense of closeness among ‘strangers’, of dispelling the fear of contagion while asking people to be together in a field, is going to be tough, but in many ways, literary gatherings or cultural exchanges don’t involve the frenzy of a live music gig, so the work might be done quite naturally by the audience members,” adding that “the wearing of face masks feels like a particularly invasive aspect in communication between people, so we will watch that space closely.”

Barry is also optimistic in the long term. “Humans are remarkably adaptable. If we take the principle that the art must go on, those of us to make it, perform it and organise it will find ways to adapt without betraying it, and build confidence for attenders that we can do these things incrementally and above all safely, the audience will come back and adjust to how we experience what we love in new ways.”

In person, the talent will never pixelate or freeze, while the electricity among an expectant audience can’t ever be replicated online

But, as she also said, nothing compares to being ‘in the room’ of a live performance. In person, the talent will never pixelate or freeze, while the electricity among an expectant audience can’t ever be replicated online. Among many things, the pandemic has exposed our fundamental and collective need for live performance and culture, which the government has finally recognised and this week announced €25 million of emergency funding to the arts sector.

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Better late than never? Self-employed creatives are among the most underfunded, overlooked workforces in Ireland, despite their huge gifts to the economy, our wellbeing, our entertainment. Ireland’s cultural economy is worth €5bn – making the €25 million aid package a pittance – and yet the sports sector receives far greater sponsorships and media support. The government frequently plunders the country’s artistic heritage for trade and tourism purposes but barely invests in its future. How hopeful are you about the arts in Ireland? 

“I fear that many great people, and a lot of talent, will be forced to leave the sector simply because they cannot afford to wait for things to get better,” says Crumlish. “I think that if long-term damage to our cultural ecosystem is to be avoided, the pandemic unemployment payment may have to remain in place for some time, for artists and arts workers to survive the crisis.”

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Kilkenny Arts Festival today announces with great regret that the 2020 Festival, due to run 6-16 August, will not take place as originally planned this year. On behalf of the Board and team at Kilkenny Arts Festival, Festival Director Olga Barry said: “We are so disappointed to announce that Kilkenny Arts Festival, as we know and love it, will not happen in its 47th year this summer. Kilkenny Arts Festival has always been about the remarkable combination and warmth of artists and audiences coming together in our gorgeous city. While we continue to work with our wonderful artists and partners in devising new ways to bring the arts into all our lives in these challenging times, we are particularly looking forward to the future when we can all be together again, in summertime in the Marble City.” Plans are underway for the Festival to present a number of events this year, in different ways. Details of events will be announced in due course. #KilkennyAwaits #StayHomeStaySafe #HangTough @artscouncilireland @kilkennycoco @discoverireland.ie

A post shared by Kilkenny Arts Festival (@kilkennyartsfestival) on

Lacking ambition

“It’s important to be optimistic, to be resilient, but not naïve,” says Barry. “The arts are a sound investment, the sector returning more in direct taxes than the state investment itself. But regarding the state’s support of the artistic community, I’d have to be honest and say my persistent worry, based on experience, is that it won’t be any more imaginative or realistic than the support before the crisis so far… The public investment before this crisis was amongst the very lowest in Europe, and the response since the crisis had felt similarly defeatist. Generally speaking, for too long it has lacked ambition, long-term thinking, and a sort of abandonment of the idea of excellence. 

“It was particularly frustrating to see country after country in the EU, and a similarly sized country like New Zealand, and much smaller countries like Iceland, publish detailed and robust strategic investment plans for their cultural sectors. After a long-fought campaign across the sector, and the crucial impact of the grass roots National Campaign for the Arts, the government has just announced a €25m Covid response. It is an emergency response, and badly needed. 

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“The bigger problem won’t go away though, and the campaign will continue for a better baseline investment into the Arts Council, Culture Ireland, local authorities, etc. It sometimes really does confound me, we’re so used to the trope about Ireland ‘punching above its weight,’ particularly on the international stage. And that is demonstrably true. There’s a massive disconnection between how we glorify the arts in some cases and refuse to invest in it at the same time.”

I am really very excited about what might happen though, and in my heart I hope we can find our way back to a form of uninhibited celebration

While the debate continues around how far the €25m will stretch across a sector that even minister for culture, Josepha Madigan, said had “suffered more than most in the crisis and will continue to experience difficult and challenging times long after other sectors have returned to work”, we can all look forward to enriching our hearts and minds with adaptations of the original arts festival format as we move through the various phases of ‘reopening Ireland.’

“Festival audiences are an adaptable lot,” says Jellett, who also works on Electric Picnic – postponed fully until 2021 – co-creating several areas and stages, including Trailer Park, Salty Dog, Berlinhaus, Spike Island, Providencia, Terminus and Freetown, with his wife and brother-in-law. “Trying to re-invent the live music experience must be all Festival Republic [who operate Electric Picnic and are part of the Live Nation family] can think about. I am really very excited about what might happen though, and in my heart I hope we can find our way back to a form of uninhibited celebration.”

Hear hear. The show must go on, as they say, which it undoubtedly will. But how, and when, we uninhibitedly celebrate remains to be seen. In the meantime...

Hugo Jellett photographed by James Fennell, John Crumlish photographed by Andrew Downes and Olga Barry photographed by Pat Moore
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The Lockdown Lowdown with Hugo Jellett (Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas ), John Crumlish (CEO of the Galway International Arts Festival) and Olga Barry (organiser of the 47th Kilkenny Arts Festival)

What are you wearing today?
HUGO JELLETT: Shorts, T-shirt, bare feet.

JOHN CRUMLISH: T-shirt and shorts – my good weather lockdown uniform.

OLGA BARRY: A reliable Cos white shirt and linen pants that have the required level of stretchiness.

What are you reading? 

HJ: Bernedine Evaristo, Oisin Fagan, and listening to a lot of writer’s interviews recorded from previous years at Borris – and which we are releasing each week as podcasts.

JC: Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry and also Stepping Stones by Dennis O’Driscoll – it has taken me a while to get to this great book.

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OB: I’m re-reading The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin by Masha Gessen and Commonwealth by Anne Patchett. They’re both brilliant, and I often keep two books on the go.

What have you been watching? 

HJ: McMafia, Unorthodox, Normal People, Ozark and News at Nine.

JC: Westworld, Normal People, Sunderland ‘til I Die.

OB: Like A LOT of us I binged on Normal People. I adored Sally Rooney’s book and was a tad nervous about the adaptation but I loved it, in a different way. I’ve also started  watching The Wire, as I missed it when it was originally on.

What music are you dancing to like no one’s watching because precisely no one is watching? 

HJ: Land of the Giants’ Whatcha Gonna Do?

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JC: There are five of us at home. Ours is a Daft Punk house with a strong dash of classic soul and while I am not exactly the worst dancer in the world, I am the worst dancer in the house and therefore I have to pick my moments or face the sniggers of much cooler people.

OB: I live in a tiny house so it’s all micro-dancing. But I am obsessed with Rhiannon Giddens’ record There is No Other with Francesco Turrisi. It’s stunning. She’s an extraordinary artist.

Best thing you've cooked/baked/created so far during confinement and why?

HJ: I built a pizza oven out of clay and burnt my way to culinary stardom in this household.

JC: I learned how to use a barbecue properly at last. Normally I’m not home during a lot of the better weather because of the festival.  

OB: A lot of roast potatoes, the ultimate comfort food. I never got into the baking thing. I’d pick spuds over just about anything else, crisis or no crisis.

Who was on your last video call and what was it about?

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HJ: Oh, a disastrous five-minute flirtation with House Party. I just could not cope.

JC: The GIAF team planning our autumn programme.

OB: A group of festival directors here in Ireland: dance, theatre and a heap of multi-disciplinary festivals around the island. It’s been a really good regular meeting, no agenda, no minutes, just a solid group of festival-makers sharing what we’re learning as individual organisations and supporting each other through this. The collaborative approach is really important.

Any peculiar rituals or arbitrary routines you’ve developed during this time?

HJ: Sweet tea in the morning to contemplate the length of the day and the lack of urgency; and a frenzied orderliness in the tool shed, which has become something of a hang out for its cold temperature, smell of engine oil and choice of screwdrivers.

JC: Long walks, which I have come to like a lot more than I thought I would.

OB: ‘Sneaking’ chicken to the neighbours’ dogs. (with their humans’ consent of course). They rock up now to the back door full of expectation, and I’m a soft touch. Normally I just wouldn’t be around the house much and I’ve enjoyed having the doggo company a lot.

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Most surprising thing you've learned about yourself during the lockdown so far?

HJ: Driven by trying to keep OCD in check, with idle tendencies. Yet twitchy for stuff to do.

JC: How much I enjoy the quietness and how I could survive without sport.

OB: I suppose resilience. I think we were all putting on our best ‘game face’ early on, trying to egg each other on for the challenge. But ultimately I think we all learned that we’re probably more resilient that we thought. 

At which restaurant, bar, cafe are you most looking forward to celebrating the end of the lockdown and why?

HJ: Bridie’s Bar in Derrynane. Barefoot bar by the beach, boats bobbing, a short walk back to a kitchen table nearby …  

JC: Hard to choose between Dela’s breakfast, a cup of tea and a bun in McCambridges, Massimo’s fish and chips, dinner in Kai and Tigh Neachtain’s pub for the great atmosphere. All of which would fit into my version of “ My Favourite Things”.

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OB: There are literally too many to choose from in Kilkenny. But I have learned that I miss pubs. Not for the alcohol – I’ve tried the lot at home… canned stout, bottled beer, wine, gin…All the things I enjoy a lot usually but none stuck, really, and I realised that I don’t actually enjoy solo drinking and what I actually miss is the easy company of the pub. The spontaneity, the random chats, the context and the democracy of the space, I suppose. Going for a pint in Cleere’s here in Kilkenny or the Corner House in Cork will be a cherished moment for me. It’s not a surprise that both are really good music houses too.


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