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Galway International Arts Festival 2023: 12 moments we’ll remember

Including The Pulse, Colm Meaney’s Galway tribute, David Mach’s exploding installation, Luke Murphy’s explosive dance, and the epic DruidO’Casey

It’s a wrap: after clocking up what it estimates was 400,000-plus attendances for the first time, Galway International Arts Festival finished at the weekend. The stellar line-up ranged from big international productions to ambitious Irish work, particularly some outstanding made-in-Galway presentations. Here are the moments that have stuck in our mind the most.

1. For The Pulse, the show must go on even after it’s over. Audiences responded rapturously to Gravity & Other Myths’ acrobatic-dance-choral show which features singing by the stunning 30-strong Cor de Noies de l’Orfeó Català. After the second performance, in the dressingroom, the choir could hear the audience still cheering as they left the auditorium – so they went outside and sang again.

2. There was more singing and even more choirs, plus violins, recorders, cornetti, sackbuts, chamber organ, violone, harp and theorbo, creating glorious baroque music for Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers. The Galway-based Resurgam choir was joined by the English Cornett and Sackbut Ensemble, plus Cois Cladaigh; Collegium, the chamber choir of St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church’s Schola Cantorum; and an ensemble of children. The result of this coming together was magnificent and exulting as early music filled the medieval St Nicholas’ Church. Though fully lit for the liturgy of evening prayer the setting was perfect. (They weren’t entirely 17th-century moments: some movements brought to mind David Buckley’s theme for the TV series The Good Fight.)

3. Pádraic Ó Conaire is not forgotten. The writer still sits on his wall (now safely in Galway City Museum), but Star Trek’s Miles O’Brien remembers him. Colm Meaney and his daughter Brenda Meaney, fresh off stage from Enda Walsh’s Bedbound, opened the festival with a nice double act at a packed Galmont Hotel. Meaney said, “I remember my father lecturing me about Pádraic Ó Conaire. I remember the Taibhdhearc, which gave us the great Siobhán McKenna. Galway has been giving us great culture for so long. And it’s very encouraging to see artists being so supported and provided with a platform to showcase their work to a huge and appreciative audience. What a great impact the festival has been on Galway, Ireland and the international stage.”


4. A pack of threatening wolves was no match for strong-willed Little Daughter. The masked pack was one incarnation of the ensemble in Galway Youth Theatre’s strong production of Meat and Salt, Marina Carr’s 2003 play, directed by Andrew Flynn. Scrupulously honest Little Daughter tells tyrannical, petty, petulant Big Daddy she loves him as meat loves salt, and she’s banished. There the riff on King Lear swerves to focus on Little Daughter’s wilderness experiences and ultimate redemption. This necessitates the approval of another narcissistic male, but that’s the patriarchy, folks.

5. Quite the moment to have Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh back on a podium at the University of Galway. The emeritus professor of history took part in a discussion with his fellow historians Anne Dolan and Diarmaid Ferriter of what we learned from the Decade of Centenaries. Their chat, in Catriona Crowe’s excellent First Thought talks, included how much we have learned about ordinary lives during the period. In the week Galway’s festival and university announced a new five-year partnership, his former students there were reminded of Ó Tuathaigh’s familiar sharpness, erudition and attention to detail.

6. The behind-the-scenes team deserve their bow. At the opening of his startling, explosive installation The Oligarch’s Nightmare, David Mach brought his production manager, Adam Fitzsimons, and the full team that created the car crash out for a turn in the spotlight. There in the festival gallery – which is still only temporary. Why? Get a move on, An Post and Galway City Council – the ground “erupted” for the Scottish sculptor’s gas-guzzling Range Rover, which blew up in a plume of flame and smoke: a sort of 3D frozen pop-art image. Mach praised the team who “hit ground running, and needed to work well quickly” because of the nature of the materials.

7. How much dirt can one man’s pores hold? Plenty to judge by the dust and grime that fell from his every item of clothing, including socks, as Raymond Keane’s hard-working Irish navvy disrobed in Brú Theatre’s evocative, poignant Not a Word.

8. What must the French have made of us mad yokes in the rain? A miserable, wet Friday night, and a Dragon unleashed on the streets. The timing was unfortunate for Planète Vapeur’s debut, but crowds defied the weather to watch – and follow – the fabulous contraption, with acrobats on its nose and swinging from its mouth, as it lashed. An oddly Galwegian street-spectacle experience.

9. James Joyce returned in two notable Ulysses 2.2 iterations: Branar’s delightful You’ll See…, condensed and pocket-sized for children, and Grafton Architects’ Wordspace installation on the prom in Salthill. “Watch it flow past from here,” the signage proclaimed (without further explanation) above a bench, as Olwen Fouéré’s earthy voice intoned the Proteus episode, that tricky bit that’s been the undoing of many attempting Ulysses. Sandymount Strand here was played by the less expansive Blackrock beach.

10. Volcano earned a welcome reprise. Luke Murphy’s stunning four-part dance-theatre-thriller-serial got its moment to shine for more substantial audiences than the handful of people allowed to attend during the lockdown-affected festival of 2021.

11. And DruidO’Casey made an outstanding debut. As the solid-wood “curtain” of Francis O’Connor’s set went up on the Town Hall Theatre stage for the first full performance of DruidO’Casey, the full company faced the audience in a line. They paused before breaking to unfurl the tumultuous events of Seán O’Casey’s trio of plays set during the nation’s formation. From that opening moment of Garry Hynes’s production it was clear this would be special. And so it turned out. The ensemble moved in and out of multiple roles as the set progressively lost solidity, echoing the disintegration onstage. As afternoon turned to evening there was a sense of pilgrimage, of actors and audience together willing it forward. It was magnificent.

12. All in all, ’twas verra Galway. Walking along the towpath at night, with the rain steadily “lashing, splish-splashing, down the town in a Galway fashion”, the sound of the Saw Doctors belting N17, with a chorus of thousands, carried over the new pedestrian bridge at the Salmon Weir. Inside the Big Top, past some unnecessarily unpleasant security people, the audience was wild. “Baling, baling,” Leo Moran sang. “Hay, hay,” the crowd bellowed. Hay Wrap meandered and incorporated all sorts, from bits of Fisherman’s Blues and Moran’s health-and-safety announcement (don’t climb on bales) via “I think we can go a bit faster” to the National Anthem. (And then they broke the rules and continued playing after the anthem.)