Galway Film Fleadh: reeling in a quarter century
Miriam Allen reflects on 25 years of the Fleadh and we check out this year’s programme
Miriam Allen, managing director of Galway Film Fleadh. Photograph: Andrew Downes
Missy Keating, Matthew Dillon and Padhraig Parkinson in ‘The Sea’
Pat Shortt, Fionnula Flanagan and Kelly Thornton in ‘Life’s a Breeze’
It hardly seems possible that the Galway Film Fleadh is only now celebrating its 25th anniversary. Conceived as a spin-off from the Galway Arts Festival, it almost immediately became a prominent staple of the summer calendar. Innovations rapidly took on the quality of ancient traditions – drinks in the Boat Club, Irish premieres in mid-summer sun, heated debate on the steps of the Town Hall Theatre – and the Fleadh grew into a key hub for industry chatter. Peter O’Toole, Pierce Brosnan, Jeremy Irons and Sir Richard Attenborough have all attended.
The Fleadh’s managing director, Miriam Allen, has been on board since the beginning. “I even gave birth to one of my children during the Fleadh,” she says. “I drove myself from a hotel. That was in 1995 and he’s now going to be 18. I thought I had indigestion. There was I in the hospital and the likes of Arthur Penn coming down to visit.”
The festival was conceived following the premiere of Joe Comerford’s Reefer and the Model at the Galway Arts Festival in 1988. The response was sufficiently energetic for Allen and her colleagues to begin planning an event, largely focusing on “alternative cinema”, during the (theoretically) balmy summer months. Right from the beginning, the Fleadh paid particular attention to new Irish cinema. Mind you, there wasn’t always a lot of it about.
“Indeed. You’re right there. There were very few films at one stage,” Allen says. “Even now, there are films that have gone through the usual route via the Irish Film Board. Then there are films that have gone through the grassroots route. People who have got off their arse and just done it.”
Nobody should get too blasé about the state of Irish film. But you encounter a great many more new features at the Fleadh than you did in the early 1990s. This year, lucky punters can catch a glimpse of Lance Daly’s Life’s a Breeze, a fine recession comedy featuring Pat Shortt; Mister John, the latest piece from experimentalists Christine Molloy and Joe Lawlor; and Stephen Brown’s take on John Banville’s The Sea. In the Fleadh’s first few seasons, before the Irish Film Board’s reconstitution in 1993, much of the focus was, of necessity, on archive material.
“That was how we fleshed it out,” Allen says. “But that was also about giving a context for Irish film. What I always notice with the younger generation is that, when they have made a film, they think they’re the first person ever to manage that. It was about gently reminding people that there were film-makers before them. Even without the Film Board there were people getting on with it.”
Just as there was less money for film-making back then there was less money for film-related events. Starting up a festival in the years before the boom demonstrated real chutzpah. Allen remembers a fair bit of hustling. “You were dealing with long conversations on landlines back then,” she says. “We used to tell the most outrageous lies. I remember when we had Paolo Taviani over. God Almighty, may I be struck down, but I told him the Papal Nuncio was coming. You said whatever you needed to say to make it work.”
How did the Italian director respond when the Vatican’s representative failed to turn up?
“I don’t think he cared then. He was in Ireland by then. Ha, ha.”
The Fleadh quickly managed something that always puts a smile on the faces of marketing wonks: it established an identity. As well as offering a platform for new Irish cinema, the event became the main place to set up future projects and to flog films that were already in the can. The Dublin Film Festival (as it then was) leant a little more towards red-carpet events. The venerable Cork Film Festival continued its investigations into the shorter forms. Galway was, almost from the start, abuzz with industry.