Galway International Arts Festival, Ireland
On the first evening, I almost miss the concert. I don’t blame myself, though. I blame the Irish and their almost magical ability to make you live in the moment.
I had spent the afternoon exploring the city of Galway and had noticed a couple of nice pubs. I stopped into one of them on my way to the venue. The sun was shining so I sat in an outside area with my Guinness.
It must have only been ten minutes later that a group of locals called me over and invited me to join them. I pulled up a chair and we started talking. One story turned into another; one drink turned into another. One joke led straight to another one; one drink led straight to another one.
Before I knew it, I had lost track of time. It felt like I was catching up with old friends. Perhaps I was… just new old friends.
I’m in town for the Galway International Arts Festival – one of Ireland’s premier cultural events and, in fact, one of Europe’s top arts festivals these days. The focus for my stay is clearly the arts – it’s in the name of the event – but the drinks and conversations with my new old friends are also an important part of the experience.
It’s about the ‘festival’ as much as the ‘arts’ and about ‘Galway’ as much as the ‘festival’. And it’s the people who make Galway what it is.
I do make it to the concert in time – thanks to a casual glance at the clock and a quick panicked exit. This is one of the headline events – Irish band Kodaline (who, interestingly, I saw last year at the Belsonic Festival in Belfast).
They’re the kind of band that can command a stage and embrace a crowd. Here in Galway, though, they seem even more connected than the last time I saw them. I think it has something to do with the venue – a Big Top tent erected in a park by the river. It’s just a short walk from the city centre and creates an atmosphere that transports you into the moment.
Over the days that I explore the festival, this is one of the aspects I enjoy the most – the way the venues take you through the city on a geographical journey but let you focus on the events once you’re inside. And I can see how focus could be a problem because there is always so much going on.
This year, more than 200,000 people will attend the Galway International Arts Festival. There are almost 400 events or exhibitions across the city in 25 venues. For those who live here or come for a long stay during the festival period, there are always new things happening. For me, who is just here for a weekend, there is more than enough to fill a few days.
I’ve come into the event with a motivation (although not a detailed plan) to see a good mix of events and the first afternoon I arrive, I head straight to a comedy show at the popular pub, The Kings Head.
It’s an Irish comedian. Fitting. There’s something so comfortable, so appropriate, about an Irishman telling jokes in a small pub.
Patrick McDonnell is his name and, while he pokes some lighthearted fun at the international guests, the bulk of his routine is about local issues – the church, the recession, the history with the English. It’s almost a conversation rather than a presentation (like some of the best stand up comedy) and a good transition into my Irish surrounds.
Galway is well suited for festivals and it hosts quite a few during the year – celebrating everything from literature to oysters. It embraces a party and so parties embrace it. Galway is known as the city that people from Dublin come to for their hen and stag parties. It does not seem odd to stumble upon a man performing acrobatics on a metallic arc, as I do when I find the Man On The Moon performance.
The population of Galway is around 75,000 but it feels so small in the centre. It’s easy to walk around and even when you think you’re lost, you pop up somewhere you recognise within minutes.
And that’s one of the great things about holding an arts festival here. The 25 venues are all so close together that you can easily get to anything you want. I spend half a day walking around to all the art galleries and appreciate the variety. Different media, different themes, different countries.
There’s the exhibition by Russian artist Varvara Shavrova in an industrial shed that really speaks to me – paintings, drawings and photographs of her travels that evoke feelings and moods more than specific places or times.
There are the video works of French artist Sophie Calle that are about the journey of creation rather than the finished works.
Louise Bourgeois has a series of drawings on display in the Galway City Museum that are a good reason to walk through the museum and see some local exhibitions.
And then there’s my highlight – Australian artist Patricia Piccinini and her sculptures. She creates an unsettlingly beautiful world of humans and creatures that blend the imagination with reality.
The Galway International Arts Festival brings international artists to this part of Europe – but also launches new endeavours by established locals.
One of the flagship events of the festival is a new play called The Match Box by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness (best known for the play ‘The Factory Girls’). One evening I join the audience for the intense performance, which has a solitary actor (Cathy Belton) onstage for more than an hour and a half.
Over the course of the evening, she explains why she is all alone in a house in the countryside and unravels the events that have led to this moment. It’s captivating and an incredible testament to her abilities that she can hold the crowd enthralled for such a long time all by herself.
I think the most defining moment, for me, at the festival is of three women. Let’s call them divas, because that’s what they call themselves – The Giant Divas.
These three women roll through the streets of Galway one evening, high atop enormous dresses of frills that elevate them five metres above everyone else. As they roll along, they sing. It’s no Irish ditty, though. They blast out opera, building to crescendos and stirring the crowds gathered along their path.
It captures the spirit of the Galway International Arts Festival so well. Not only is it a free event that brings the community together, but it is a blend of populist and classical. It is colourful, it is fun and – most importantly – it uses the city as its backdrop. It’s about the ‘festival’ as much as the ‘arts’ and about ‘Galway’ as much as the ‘festival’.
For accommodation, I suggest Hotel Meyrick, right on the main square