It will attract audiences of 200,000 to the City of the Tribes next month and is worth €23.5m to the local economy, but the first Galway Arts Festival was a sparsely funded and somewhat shambolic affair. As it prepares to celebrate its 40th year, JOANNE H
In April 1978, when Galway Mayor Sheila Jordan arrived to open the city’s first-ever arts festival, she was met with a scene of disarray. “She didn’t figure we’d still be hammering nails and putting up the paintings,” says festival-founder Ollie Jennings. “So I got the job of bringing her around the corner to the Genoa Bar — it’s now Tig Cóilí — and I had to entertain her for half an hour over cups of Irel coffee. That was the tenor of the time. It was a different world.”
Over the past four decades, the multidisciplinary festival that Jennings and his friends established has transformed both itself and the cultural landscape of Galway. About to celebrate its 40th anniversary, Galway International Arts Festival (GIAF) is now a two-week fixture on the summer calendar that attracts audiences of over 200,000, is worth €23.5m to the local economy and tours its own productions overseas.
On the surface, the present-day GIAF might seem stratospherically different to its sparsely funded, slightly shambolic forebear, but the creative energy, risk-taking and ambition that have been the keys to the festival’s success were there from the beginning.
The festival grew out of University College Galway (UCG), where, as auditor of the Arts Society, Jennings had brought in artists including the Chieftains and Seamus Heaney. Druid, which also had its roots at UCG, had been established in 1975 as Ireland’s first professional theatre company outside of Dublin. Druid has had a close relationship with the festival; this year its production of Mark O’Rowe’s Crestfall is part of the programme.
“At the time the festival was founded and Druid was founded,” says Garry Hynes, the company’s artistic director, “the perception was that art was only made in the capital city and that all other art was amateur.”
In the mid and late 1970s, parts of Galway city were derelict and other than An Taibhdhearc — the national Irish-language theatre — there was a dearth of cultural activity. Jennings and his friends wanted to change that.
“The first festival would have been very much a co-op or a coalition of people,” he says. “We were bored and we were also anxious to make a bit of a mark.”
They got IR£1,000 from the Arts Council and £100 from Galway City Council. Influenced by the ideals of the Project Arts Centre in Dublin, they opened a “pop-up” arts centre in what is now Sheridans Cheesemongers on the city’s Church Yard Street.
John McGahern did a reading and they screened Bob Quinn’s Poitín, the first feature film to be made entirely in Irish. Tellingly, they also spent £400 on a video installation by James Coleman. “The audio was a baby crying and the picture was the Irish flag fluttering in the breeze,” says Jennings. “And the headline on the front page of the [Galway] Advertiser when the festival started was ‘Child on Potty costs £400’.”
The festival took a good few years to develop, he says. “But it was allowed to do that.”
Accessibility was one of its touchstones. The organisers tried to keep tickets cheap and include street performances. Footsbarn — known for its tent-based adaptations of Shakespeare and Molière — was a regular visitor. In 1985, Els Comediants, a Spanish troupe, did a street show called Devils. Up to that point, street celebration in Ireland had meant the floats and marching bands of a St Patrick’s Day parade.
Els Comediants’s spectacle mesmerised its audience and, along with Footsbarn, inspired Macnas, which was established in 1986 by a group that included Jennings. All of Macnas’s initial parades took place during the festival.
Jennings and his team built an audience by word of mouth and distributing flyers — the “Facebook of the time”. From the mid-1980s they began doing a Dublin launch, leading to an upsurge in publicity. By the time Jennings left to manage the Saw Doctors in 1990, an administrator and an artistic director had been appointed. The Film Fleadh had also been set up. Like Baboró, the children’s festival, Galway Film Fleadh initially ran as part of GIAF but is now a standalone festival.
Baboró was the brainchild of Patricia Forde whose first festival as artistic director in 1991 included a show by Royal de Luxe called The True History of France — a visual extravaganza encompassing several explosions.
“It was a huge risk because the fee for the show was £50,000 and we didn’t really have the money,” says Forde. “And also Royal de Luxe had very clear rules of engagement. The show had to be free to the public... I tried to engage them in talks about health and safety and they didn’t want to know. They said they were anarchists.”
Galway’s cultural infrastructure has improved since the 1990s. In 1996, the Town Hall Theatre opened and 11 years later, GIAF acquired its own big top with a capacity of more than 3,000.
John Crumlish and Paul Fahy have been chief executive and artistic director of GIAF since 2003 and 2005 respectively — though both have been involved with the festival since the late 1980s. Under their watch, GIAF has shifted from being primarily a “receiving” festival that brings in existing work to being one that’s also production-led.