Festival Fit: Where chess, backgammon and Powergrid have the monopoly

It’s lashing outside in West Cork – time to get cosy and roll the dice at the Clonakilty Board Games Festival


Signposts informing buffeted and bumped wayfarers that they’re enjoying the Wild Atlantic Way are still standing, but only just. You wouldn’t put Tom Crean out in this weather. The prospect of festivalling along our south-western seaboard is enough to make Grylls gulp and reach for galoshes, gaiters and Gore-Tex. Checking the tide timetable isn’t usually on the checklist when heading off for a session on the mainland, but when it’s happening in Clonakilty, the home of black pudding and biblical floods, sandbags and bilge-pumps are a consideration.

Chronic floods in the town prompted a bunch of decent daoine to bump up the feelgood factor by starting the Random Acts of Kindness Festival in 2012. The event celebrates the community spirit displayed when the townsfolk of Clon rallied to bail each other out, and it brought a much needed shot of human sunshine to dry up any remaining puddles. Clatters of Clonakilters roamed the streets raining kindness down on unsuspecting passers-by. I’d only just pulled up the handbrake in Wanderly Wagon when a chap by the name of Chris handed me an envelope. “What’s this?” I asked, thinking he’d mistaken me for a politician. “It’s a car-wash voucher,” he informed me. “Happy Random Acts of Kindness Festival. ” I could’ve swore he hopped down the road like a fella with a streak of Easter Bunny in him.

The Clona-clan are it again, this time hitting upon a low-key shindig that promotes wholesome, wholehearted hoots. Pubs, cafes, restaurants and hotels in the town cleared their tables for the inaugural Clonakilty Board Games Festival. Extreme weather wariness blew over very quickly once installed by the fireside of a cosy local pub with a few friendly folk, throwing dice and moving pieces, hands wrapped around a warm glass that emitted lemon, clove, brown sugar and John Jameson-infused steam.

Board meeting
The busy backgammon session afoot in Mick Finn’s pointed towards this festival having a thread of genius running through it. Vic told me that chess had been his favourite game before discovering backgammon: “Chess requires your full concentration. With backgammon you can enjoy a pint and a chat while you’re playing. It’s a bit more social.” That explained the reasons for the formation of Clon’s backgammon club by Phil Newton, the dude also responsible for this festival. The members meet up once a week to rattle their dice and chew the fat. Once the boards are folded away, they hit Debarra’s for tunes at the weekly session. They’ve got their game/life balance sussed in West Cork.

Úna O Boyle must be the exception to Vic’s theory; we had a right chat over a chessboard in O’Donovan’s. Not only has Úna been an Irish Chess Olympian, PR officer for the Irish Chess Union, a Woman Candidate Master in chess and author of Ficheall (a guide to chess in Irish that she launched at a chess tournament in Las Vegas), she was the lead singer with 1990s ambient/
trance/dance outfit Hyper[Borea]. Úna told me about a recent European Chess Union rule stating women may open no more than the top two buttons of their blouses during games. An effort to stop back-rank weakness among the male woodpushers.

The gamers having the most fun were upstairs in Debarra’s, gathered round boards with a bit more edge. Fionn and his mates were playing Powergrid, a German game where players buy power plants, supplying electricity to cities and homes. “It’s all about efficiency, economics and strategy,” Fionn told me. “It’s much more fun than it sounds,” the lads laughed. The pints helped, no doubt.

The lads introduced me to my new favourite game in the world – ever! Cards Against Humanity favours the cruel and the horrible; it felt like I’d found a vocation. After winning a round by playing a card with “bleached arsehole” embossed upon it, I felt right at home. Board games aren’t just for Christmas, ya know.

Safe travels, don’t die.


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