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My Life in Culture: Cairde Arts Festival artistic director Tara McGowan

My Life in Culture: Cairde Arts Festival artistic director Tara McGowan


by Sarah Finnan
22nd Jun 2024

The founder and director of Cairde Sligo Arts Festival, Tara McGowan has worked in the arts for close to 30 years. Working with a small team to curate an exciting schedule of events, this year’s festivities kick off early next month with everything from theatre productions to literary discussions and street performances.

The last thing I saw and loved… Emergency Exit by a French performance company called Adhok. It’s an absolutely beautiful, funny, uplifting theatre promenade featuring seven actors aged between 60 and 80 which explores the meaning of growing old and our perceptions of old age. It was incredibly moving and has a powerful message. 

The book I keep coming back to… is Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now, as I find it to be incredibly grounding and reassuring. I often listen to this on Audible when I am in bed. It’s a lovely wind down.

I find inspiration in… I think inspiration can be found everywhere and can turn up at any time, but for this to happen it’s important to take yourself out of your every day, to give yourself space and time and to be open. 

My favourite film is… that’s a tough one. I tend to love movies which have something to say about the state of the world like The Selfish Giant, Parasite, Dead Man’s Shoes. I loved An Cailín Ciúin (a beautiful rendition of Clare Keegan’s incredible book Foster). I also love Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox or Isle of Dogs. I realise I’m cheating here. 

My career highlight is… I originally studied languages and taught French and German for a couple of years. I was not a natural born teacher and I take my hat off to teachers as this is undoubtedly a vocation. I got into the arts when I moved to Germany in 1996 and I have been working in this industry since then. I have had a range of really interesting jobs but I have to say building Cairde Sligo Arts Festival with a wonderful team has absolutely been my highlight.

The song I listen to get in the zone is… I love and appreciate all kinds of music. When I’m looking for some peace and quiet or meditative time, I love Nils Frahm’s “Spaces”; for an energy boost, it might be some funky disco, a cheesy 80s anthem or banging techno.

The last book I recommended is… Minor Detail by Adania Shibli. This is a brilliantly written and utterly harrowing novel based on a true story which took place in Palestine after the Nakba and explores displacement, war and life under occupation. Adania will be in conversation with Louise Kennedy at this year’s festival. 

I never leave the house without… in reality, I often leave the house without many things – my office keys, my bottle of water, my carefully crafted to-do list! 

The performance I still think about is… I honestly can’t pick one thing here. I am fortunate to have experienced a lot of art across many art forms and many pieces of work which have stayed with me.

My dream role would be… I’m grateful that I can say I have my dream role. I work with a (small) but dream team and together, we have created something really special in Sligo. My dream would be to expand this team and ensure the long-term sustainability of Cairde.

The best advice I’ve ever gotten… I have picked up many pieces of advice along the way but one that stayed with me came at an early point where I decided I really wanted to give the festival a chance to grow. Luisa, a fabulous woman who set up Con Brio, the classical music series in Sligo, told me to stay focused on the vision and to stay true to myself and in this way, I would be able to stay the course. I often think about that conversation. 

The art that means the most to me is… there really is no one performance which means the most to me. Some works will resonate more profoundly or strike a deeper chord with me. If a piece moves me in some way, this is what matters.  

My favourite highlight(s) in this coming festival … this feels like I have to pick out my favourite child – and there are no favourites!  – but I’ll mention a few to give a flavour of what audiences can expect. The Air Between Us; a truly mesmerising aerial duet created and performed by acclaimed dancer and choreographer Chloe Loftus and award-winning Maori dance artist Rodney Bell, who performs in his wheelchair. Ríoghnach Connolly & Honeyfeet will bring their infectious big and bold sounds to our late-night event at The Model on Saturday, July 6th and I’m also excited we can share the performance installation, King | Shrine,  by acclaimed choreographer Emma Martin, with dancer Mufutau Yusuf. 

The most challenging thing about being an arts festival director is … I think it has to be the multi-tasking element of the work. Even though we have a team and we are growing this team (and they are amazing!), I work over many areas besides programming such as fundraising, grant writing, budgeting, relationship management, production schedules, artist liaison and a lot besides. I have a tendency to over stretch myself. It’s always a challenge to make sure I switch off and spend time with my (now adult) children, partner, family and friends.

After a festival performance/event…  I tend to run to the next festival event! During Cairde, I run from one festival event to the next as I want to see that everything is going well and I love to watch how the audience interacts with the programme. After the final performance/event, I go to the closing party with the team and have a good ‘ol knees up.

If I wasn’t a festival director, I would be… I’m not sure, but I like to think I would be working with a great bunch of people to make interesting things happen. I also DJ and considering I don’t have much of a pension plan, I sometimes think it would be fun to consider a future career as DJ Granny. That would be a really interesting hook I imagine! I can just see me now in Ibiza…

The magic of the arts to me is… connecting people for transformative experiences.

Imagery courtesy of Cairde Arts Festival

From July 6 – 13, Cairde Sligo Arts Festival will transform Sligo town and county into a vibrant hub of colourful and exciting activity, featuring events across music, theatre, dance, literary, family-friendly shows and more. Acts include Malian music by Boubacar Traore, Adania Shibli in conversation with Louise Kennedy, immersive performance-installation work by United Fall’s KING | SHRINE, award-winning Catalan street theatre performer, Joan Catalá and mesmerising aerial by Chloe Loftus Dance. Events will take place in a range of venues – on the street, in a forest, on the beach. You can find out more information here