Galway is hot and hopping as the international arts festival returns with a bang

After two years of restricted programmes, there’s a real sense of the festival’s proud presence on the streets

It’s the wobbles that get to you. A moment of uncertainty, a shake. Then pause, compose, and go on. Feeling fear and moving forward anyway.

Dominating Galway city on the glorious Saturday of the middle weekend of Galway International Arts Festival 2022, was LifeLine. The idea was plainly bonkers: 150 people, most of them ordinary members of the community, walking on highwires stretched across the Claddagh basin and the river Corrib over several hours of the afternoon, into evening. Bonkers, but exultingly ambitious, and moving.

Galway Community Circus’s presentation grew out of a Galway 2020 plan that didn’t come to pass (bah, Covid), which ultimately made a striking statement of strength and resilience. All day many thousands of people dropped by or stayed hours, looking up from the Spanish Arch or across the water at the Claddagh, as experienced funambulists, plus tons of inexperienced souls who opted to train, plus members of several European circus schools, made the trek on multiple lines at varying heights and angles. At this waterside spot, responding to suicide in Galway, Lifeline aimed to address wellbeing and mental health through circus, and help turn it from a place of grief to one of creativity and celebration. Literally death-defying.

International professionals, who clearly knew what they were about, did tricksy stuff and we gaped. The pros were impressive, but it was those wobbles that shone. Those who were more like you or me rose to the challenge with skill and grace, pausing on the rope over the water as balance became an issue, using balance bars or moving their feet to steady themselves. Encouragement and support from funambulists on both sides of the water divide. Moments of fear or uncertainty visible on a face. Sometimes another moved out on the wire to meet or help, before finally making it to the other side. As one young high wire walker paused, precarious, and went into a sitting position, another gingerly edged out from the other side; meeting in the middle, they seemed to embrace. All this to a striking soundtrack from musical director Michael Chang, and impressively and safely organised.


It culminated in BassAlto, a gorgeous, poetic circus show on a web of wires over the Claddagh basin: slow deliberate dance acrobatics. Outlined against the sky, their orange costumes matched the nearby hookers’ sails.

The triumph of LifeLine’s community participants was equalled by Galway Community Circus’s vaulting ambition. The madness and challenge of the idea, the beauty and skill of the execution, and the sheer bravery, were literally and figuratively uplifting, an expression of hope, strength, belief, trust and overcoming fear that brought tears to the eyes.

It’s hot and it’s hopping, in all senses. Galway city is thronged with locals and visitors, and after two years of restricted programmes there’s a sense of the festival’s proud presence on the city’s streets (as well as venues and galleries): back with a bang, and a palpable appreciation from audiences for a full-strength, belting programme.

Walking through town you might run into a guy in a pink nylon jumpsuit. That’ll be Guru Duru, and he may be grooving with a motley crew of the public on a silent disco walking tour. Or you may look across the city and spy a low-hanging planet seemingly floating. That’ll be Mars, Luke Jerram’s installation on Nun’s Island. Or you may have your evening peace shattered by a herd of red giraffes and an operatic singer thundering (well, striding gracefully and mooching) down Shop Street, scattering carousers and hen parties and buskers in their track as they head for Spanish Arch. The three-storey tall beasts — French spectacle Compagnie Off’s stiltwalkers in contraptions — were a welcome reminder of the joy of a festival parade, how its possession of streets can transform the familiar.

John Gerrard’s Flare [Oceania] 2022, is outdoors too, a simulated, never-ending gas flare-cum-flag on a 7mx7m LED wall, ever-present as you walk along Galway docks. The first edition of Flare premiered at the Glasgow climate conference. It’s a cri de coeur about environmental impact and the implications of the heating oceans. The image is on a seascape based on photographs by activist/artist Uili Lousi of his heating ancestral ocean near Tonga. This blazing constant, on a block on the dock, seemed even more timely as the temperatures soared.

Muc Rí wasn’t on the streets but outside late-night, in the dark of Fr Burke Park. The always inventive Philip Doherty and Fibin sa Taibhdhearc’s show is described as a cautionary tale with Faustian themes. It’s based on a myth you’ve probably never heard, retold by Lady Gregory. This was likely not what she had in mind at all at all, and good for them shaking it up into a piece of stylish gore with contemporary dance, a rock concert aesthetic and a liberal sprinkling of Frankenstein’s monster. A four-piece band fronted by the wonderful Julie Feeney was to the fore of the stage action, with video behind including live stage close-ups. The plot involves a despotic dodgy surgeon and his son (dancer Eoin McDonncha was excellent) in a dystopian world, much chopping up of bodies and pulverising them, a king with a bodily dilemma, and botched surgery with grotesque results. For all that it sounds gory (it is), it verges on the ridiculous, and for all that the plot sounds convoluted, the material seems almost thin for the spectacular staging. A cautionary tale for whom? Never mind, just go with the flow (of blood).

Middle Bedroom was very much not on the street, and is, rather, a snooper’s dream. The ninth in the Rooms series of immersive theatre installations made by playwright Enda Walsh with GIAF artistic director Paul Fahy encroaches on Richard’s incredibly messy bedroom, cluttered with videotapes, cassettes, grubby clothes, butts of rollies, and electronic recording paraphernalia. His father’s carer, in mind’s eye we see Richard (voiced by Rory Nolan): fat, in a dressing-gown, with an odour of puke and smoke, throwing criticism down on the cul-de-sac below, as his father watches tennis on TV. “The back and forth drivel of him and me.” Theirs is a relationship of abusive sniping, cruelties, and a nasty interdependence. “What happened to your plans”, the father mocks. “You’re my plans.”

The discovery of a lost cat becomes a catalyst, in an absorbing story which becomes darkly disturbing. With both insidious narrative and subtlety of character within the 15-minute experience, Rooms just gets better and better.

Not just indoors but in the dark, dank bowels of an unused building on Fairgreen, is Entanglement, a great opportunity to see the Irish entry in the Venice Architecture Biennale, by Annex, a collaboration of artists, architects and urban researchers. Drawing on the theme of community, it draws a line between campfires and data centres in our connected world. A giant structure of wires and metal and whirring fans and flashing screens and noise and rubber plants, this is not self-evident, and the guide is a necessity to explain (above the racket) its multilayered, intriguing context, and to shine flashlight on the “stones” of Valentia slate with cross-sections of telegraphic cable.

The flagship show, Ana Pacheco’s stunning figures in the (temporary, still) Festival Gallery makes a personal connection, with visitors — 10,000-plus over the weekend alone — interacting with the displays, touching them, even joining the tableaux. Other visual art also touches communication. Ben Geoghegan and Aisling Phelan’s A Remix of Change, at the charming 126 artist-run gallery, explores how versions of ourselves are created by our online engagement, and how our digital and physical selves interact. And communication — masts, phone tech, electromagnetic rays — is one of multiple aspects of Sean Lynch’s video and sculptural ethnographic storytelling, with Gina Moxley, at Galway Arts Centre.

Among the festival’s many touchpoints, theatre ranges from new work, in Sonya Kelly’s sharply-written and deliciously-executed gem, The Last Return from Druid, to Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea adapted for stage by Decadent, to True West, Sam Shepard’s Steppenwolf classic (reviewed already, and right).

There’s a lot of pop-up in the cultural physical infrastructure, as the city inches slowly towards decent provision, leaving it all, still, to the ingenuity and skill of the festival team led by Fahy and chief executive John Crumlish.

Part of this wide-ranging venue make-and-do involved creating an opera space in NUI Galway’s Bailey Allen Hall. It was hot-hot-hot on Monday night for the opening of The First Child (previously reviewed), Donnacha Dennehy and Enda Walsh’s startling opera, mixing comic mundanity with mythic revenge. It’s a testament to cast and musicians, and the audience, that everyone rose above the challenge of aircon malfunction, for a magnificent performance.

There is a real sense throughout: it’s been two long years, but we’re back, and boy will we splash, all over Galway. The Big Top in Fisheries Field is a visual reminder of return, with a full programme of music (and also live-screening Galway and Kerry in Sunday’s All-Ireland). The exultation was epitomised there on Sunday night by The Stunning’s thunderous, joyous gig. Back in the town where the band was born, the audience pleasure was palpable. Steve and Joe Wall wore white (Simon le Bon, they gassed) jackets. Just when you think they couldn’t get any cooler, Steve Wall dedicates a song to local TD Catherine Connolly, to loud approval.

The sound was terrific and the whole band, plus guests Mairtin O’Connor on box with Jimmy Higgins on bodhrán, and Camille O’Sullivan, were in great, rollicking form. They stormed a terrific playlist, from melodic and moving to crashing rock; never mind Romeo, this tent was on fire, with 4,000 people hopping so much the ground beneath throbbed. “It’s been two years”, said Steve Wall on stage. “We’re two years older. Are we two years wiser? Thanks for not getting refunds!” After toppling the cart for a couple of years, the gods are smiling. The Stunning were — the whole, full-strength festival was — worth the wait. They’re back, baby.

— GIAF continues until Sunday, with more shows to open.

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey is a features and arts writer at The Irish Times