By Dr. Jeanne Colleran
Cairde a chara – Dear friends,
I am delighted to join this august group of columnists to contribute to the conversation about our shared heritage and shared enthusiasm for Irish culture. My sláinte slant (pun intended here) is on Irish arts festivals and on Irish writers. I leave it to my friend, Terry Kenneally, and his voracious reading habits to keep us current on the latest and best Irish fiction and non-fiction.
When John O’Brien and I sat down together, he christened my effort as “Irish Lit,” another pun, of course, for “literature” and my paltry efforts to “enlighten.” I love his suggestion: what, indeed, are the Irish more than fantastically verbal? Like W.B. Yeats’ King Goll, who preferred to “sing and shake his locks,” we revere the storyteller, the art of the seanchaí. Thank you, John, for a great title to this column: Irish Lit.
Galway Arts Festival
Truth be told, another reason I undertake the happy labor of writing about Irish arts festivals is it provides good reason for me to convince my husband that we need to jump the pond. This past summer, we travelled to the Galway International Arts Festival, held in my ancestral city, and now in its 45th year. Taking place every July for two weeks, (the dates vary but can be checked at giaf.ie), the festival events sprawl across the city, attracting some 400,000 visitors.
This year, a magnificent dragon inaugurated the festival, opening up theatrical performances in venues that included a shed on a pier, public art installations, the huge Heineken concert tent, scholarly talks at NUIG, concerts in every pub, and even group “disco” power walks through the pedestrian-only city center.
When the arts festival ends, the Galway races begin, so your plans for a trip next year can straddle the two great Irish loves: art and horses. And the third (Guinness and Jameson) is available everywhere. While it may have started as a small, local festival, today the Galway International Arts Festival is not only (per the Irish Independent) the finest festival in Ireland, but one that is on a par with other international festivals. The convenors describe themselves as “creative collision makers, sparking connections between the arts, between audiences and performers, between Galway and the world.”
The festivalgoer is spoiled for choice, but I suggest exploring the streets of Galway by taking in the free visual arts presentations that are scattered across the city. Along the way, you will encounter an extraordinary range of provocative new artwork.
The signature of this festival is its commitment to an extremely high standard of artistic expression that engages relevant global topics about climate, conflict, refugees, class, and consumerism—and of course Irish history and current society. And there is lots of fun: street spectacles, circus, even a retelling of Ulysses for children (that I would gladly have brought into one of my Irish Lit courses). Illustrations and commentary on the festival events can be seen at www.giaf.ie where they also will announce next year’s dates.
For example, this year the Festival commissioned a new piece from David Mach, a Scottish miner’s son and Turner prize winner renown for large public installations made from materials as common as a coat hanger and as the elite as a Range Rover. In “The Oligarch’s Nightmare,” the One Percenters’ consumerist object of desire is destroyed: it depicts a burning, crashed Range Rover and its ambivalently dejected owner. It was powerful on its own, but what struck me was how Mach’s installation was reached via the passageway to Saint Nicholas Collegiate Church, the 700-year-old Norman church that Cromwell’s troops used as a stable during the Siege of Galway (1652) and who defaced the statues inside. Oligarchs, from 17th century to ours, come in different guises and in service to different gods.
Another artwork was installed in the Galway Arts Centre, formerly the 1840s residence of the Persse family, of whom Lady Augusta Gregory of Coole Park is a member. One can easily imagine elegant Victorian ladies perched on plump chairs drinking from porcelain teacups served by parlor maids in white caps.
If such a tableau still has a haunting presence in the high-ceiling rooms, all the better, for it is here that Galway artist Ruby Wallis has set her multi-media exhibition—visual and auditory — entitled “Whistling in the Dark” ( https://www.galwayartscentre.ie/whats-on/ruby-wallis-whistling-in-the-dark/). Here, Wallis’ eerily beautiful nighttime photos of plants and flowers and of the shadowy outlines of a woman walking lead into a dark room of the recorded sounds of some thirty women whistling in the dark. The sound sculpture and the photos elicit a sense of danger, taboo, and of female threat, a further extension of Wallis’ eco-feminist concerns. There is courage still confronting threat, subverting the usually placid tradition of botanical art
The highlight of the festival was the Druid Theater’s trilogy of Sean O’Casey’s plays. Here’s the exciting news: Druid O’Casey is on its way to the US, with performances in New York City, and in Ann Arbor. In just a short drive or day trip, we can see a world-class caliber production of one of Ireland’s most important playwrights.
In the talk I heard between celebrated Druid director Garry Hynes and Fintan O’Toole, the redoubtable Irish critic, they made the case that O’Casey is the middle literary integer between Synge and Beckett. O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock famously caused a riot at the Abbey Theater in 1926 when the audience objected to the presence of a prostitute on stage. W.B. Yeats chastised them: “You have disgraced yourself again; is this to be the recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius?”
No, Mr. Yeats” the recurring celebration of the Irish genius is taking place when the Druid O’Casey/Dublin Trilogy — Shadow of a Gunman, Plough and the Stars, and Juno and the Paycock—is performed on three consecutive nights and together on one day. The dates for single presentations are Wednesday, October 18; Thursday, October 19; and Friday, October 20.
The single immersion day is Saturday, October 21. More information and tickets are available at https://ums.org/season/2023-24-season/druidocasey/
Together these three plays span the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War, written and presented contemporaneously with the Republic’s founding from 1915 to 1926. Druid O’Casey is the first company to perform all the plays together, and to give viewers the opportunity to see both the unfolding of historical events as well as their last repercussions for Irish society.
As we deal with our own questions of democracy and constitution, of who is privileged and who excluded, the O’Casey plays speak to the long shadow of beginnings, crises, and change. I plan to write more about O’Casey and these plays in my next column, but for now, I would not miss this extraordinary event.
Find this column and others from the September 2023 issue here!