As I went down in the river to play
The festival of Abhainn Rí is as much about reinventing the market town of Callan, a market town in Co Kilkenny, as it is about celebrating the arts
King’s river: the box office for the Abhainn Rí festival, which is a curated series of the town’s highlights. Photograph: Brian Cregan
C allan, a market town in Co Kilkenny, is perhaps best known in the minds of most Irish men of a certain age as the birthplace of Edmund Ignatius Rice, founder of the Irish Christian Brothers. The artist Tony O’Malley was also born there, as was the playwright and novelist Thomas Kilroy. And, wouldn’t you know it, Aldi opened its 100th Irish store in the town a few months ago.
But something other than godfearing men wielding leather straps and supermarket discounts is afoot this week in Callan. Now in its fourth year, the Abhainn Rí festival, which is subtitled “Participation and Inclusion”, has plenty for anyone who likes to read between the lines.
“The festival connects into the community’s interests,” says Rosie Lynch, a member of the festival committee. “Callan isn’t a town that is picture perfect. It hasn’t been gentrified. It wouldn’t have prospered hugely during the Celtic Tiger years. It feels like somewhere that can have quite a robust and real conversation about its past and its future.”
Abhainn Rí, says Lynch, is not an arts festival that focuses on attracting as many people into the town in as short a time as possible, but rather a constructed series of curated highlights that place more importance on the town’s heritage and architecture than anything else. Indeed, perhaps more than any other similarly attired festival on the Irish calendar, Abhainn Rí focuses on a significant exploration of the town’s buildings, and how they can be used to engage and interact with the population. And so events take place in spaces that some people might politely regard as in dire need of a lick of paint or a skim of plaster: a temporary amphitheatre in a disused agricultural co-op; an art exhibition housed in a former bar; and so on.
“The town was once busy with a main thoroughfare, Bridge Street, but a section of that street is largely derelict,” says Lynch, who is from the area but who left for somewhat more exciting pastures when she was younger. She returned to Callan a few years ago, eager to apply her visual-arts background to the challenges of civic reinvention. “A core part of the town has also suffered immense dereliction. The architecture strand of Abhainn Rí was initiated in direct response to the buildings, as well as public and private spaces, that were overlooked. Callan is like most small towns in Ireland in which the civic and economic centres are decaying and being forgotten.”
The festival was initiated in 2010 by Patrick Lydon, of Camphill Communities of Ireland, which is part of an international charitable trust that works with people who have intellectual disabilities and other areas of special needs, and that has a community of houses and supported apartments in the town. Inclusion and participation is writ large here, also, and as the festival developed so too did the potential for mixing varying art strands with a pragmatic sense of engagement.