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

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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