Hay at Kells: The weekend begins

The Hay Festival at Kells is a bright new chapter in the life of the Co Meath town


When word began to spread about something called “the Hay festival” – planned for the Co Meath town of Kells this weekend – there were those who thought it was some kind of agricultural celebration. Something to do with the summer solstice, perhaps? Farmers, bales, maybe even a bit of burning?

Not so. The Hay in question is not the straw-like substance beloved of horses, but the small town of Hay-on-Wye in Wales. This tiny place hosts an annual literary festival that, from modest beginnings in 1988, has evolved into one of the best-known events on the UK summer circuit. In recent years, Hay has gone international, hitching its wagon to festivals in places as far-flung as Bogota and Budapest, Mexico and the Maldives. And, this year, Kells.

Why Kells? The answer is a combination of a suitably literary connection in the shape of the Book of Kells, plus a concerted effort by local politicians, businesses and community groups. If this festival graft takes, the potential rewards are eye-popping: the readings, debates, workshops and book launches at Hay-on-Wye attract an estimated 80,000 visitors to the Welsh town every year.

More than that, though, Hay has become a respected brand with a determinedly liberal agenda. Here, as its website makes clear, is no mere mixum-gatherum of pub crawls, face-painting and whatever you’re having yourself. Hay aims high. “The festival,” runs its statement of artistic intent, “is a home for dreaming in public; it is a rigorous examination of truths and probabilities; and it is a party to celebrate the power of the word.”

Appropriately for a party started by a group of secondhand booksellers, the book is still at the centre of the Hay universe. But the celebration of the Welsh language – which, at Kells, translates into a a strong programme of Irish-language events – and a serious assault on the twin peaks of environment and ecodiversity are also paramount. Hay-on-Wye prides itself on stirring a bit of discussion, even disagreement.

Hence the inclusion at the Hay Festival Kells of a series of debates on sustainability, on social media and the laws of libel, and on the trustworthiness or otherwise of officialdom and institutions. All of this runs alongside the usual programme of readings, theatre events, workshops and late-night comedy. Highlights of the latter include Lisa Dwan’s highly-praised performance of Samuel Beckett’s short play Not I, Germaine Greer offering her view on Shakespeare’s boy lovers, plus appearances by Frank McGuinness, John Banville, Gerry Stembridge, John Boyne and DBC Pierre. An ancillary programme covers everything from interactive nursery rhymes for the very old to baking for the recently-retired, as well as animation workshops, album launches and poetry readings.

It must be said that there isn’t much sign of any of this arty activity at noon on the dark (but dry) opening morning of the festival. Kells is, mostly, pursuing its normal Friday activities: collecting the kids from school and getting the weekend shopping organised. There is also, though, the sense of a town gearing up for a new chapter – a new adventure – in the book of its life. Watch this space.

Arminta Wallace will be reporting from the Hay at Kells festival all weekend

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