C allan, a market town in Co Kilkenny, is perhaps best known in the minds of most Irish men of a certain age as the birthplace of Edmund Ignatius Rice, founder of the Irish Christian Brothers. The artist Tony O'Malley was also born there, as was the playwright and novelist Thomas Kilroy. And, wouldn't you know it, Aldi opened its 100th Irish store in the town a few months ago.
But something other than godfearing men wielding leather straps and supermarket discounts is afoot this week in Callan. Now in its fourth year, the Abhainn Rí festival, which is subtitled “Participation and Inclusion”, has plenty for anyone who likes to read between the lines.
“The festival connects into the community’s interests,” says Rosie Lynch, a member of the festival committee. “Callan isn’t a town that is picture perfect. It hasn’t been gentrified. It wouldn’t have prospered hugely during the Celtic Tiger years. It feels like somewhere that can have quite a robust and real conversation about its past and its future.”
Abhainn Rí, says Lynch, is not an arts festival that focuses on attracting as many people into the town in as short a time as possible, but rather a constructed series of curated highlights that place more importance on the town’s heritage and architecture than anything else. Indeed, perhaps more than any other similarly attired festival on the Irish calendar, Abhainn Rí focuses on a significant exploration of the town’s buildings, and how they can be used to engage and interact with the population. And so events take place in spaces that some people might politely regard as in dire need of a lick of paint or a skim of plaster: a temporary amphitheatre in a disused agricultural co-op; an art exhibition housed in a former bar; and so on.
“The town was once busy with a main thoroughfare, Bridge Street, but a section of that street is largely derelict,” says Lynch, who is from the area but who left for somewhat more exciting pastures when she was younger. She returned to Callan a few years ago, eager to apply her visual-arts background to the challenges of civic reinvention. “A core part of the town has also suffered immense dereliction. The architecture strand of Abhainn Rí was initiated in direct response to the buildings, as well as public and private spaces, that were overlooked. Callan is like most small towns in Ireland in which the civic and economic centres are decaying and being forgotten.”
The festival was initiated in 2010 by Patrick Lydon, of Camphill Communities of Ireland, which is part of an international charitable trust that works with people who have intellectual disabilities and other areas of special needs, and that has a community of houses and supported apartments in the town. Inclusion and participation is writ large here, also, and as the festival developed so too did the potential for mixing varying art strands with a pragmatic sense of engagement.
Celebrating community is key, says Lynch. The town's acclaimed KCAT (Kilkenny Collective for Arts Talent) Equinox Theatre was set up as a studio and learning environment for artists and people with a disability. In 2006, two KCAT artists, Andrew Pike and Sinead Fahy, were commissioned by Macnas to design that year's Galway Arts Festival parade (The Big River). Pike and Fahy developed the historical story of Callan's own "abhainn rí" (the King's River), delivered the message nationwide, and then came back to Callan and staged it again, swirling their way through the town's streets in a riot of colour and pride.
“That had a big impact on people’s imaginations,” says Lynch, who highlights KCAT’s 10th birthday event in 2009 –“a spectacle in the Abbey meadow” – as another pivotal point in the birth of the Abhainn Rí festival. It was such a community celebration, she recalls, that a sense of a festival by the people for the people was made possible. It also proved that any future events in the town wouldn’t just be passive entities.
Which brings us back once more to the bywords of inclusion and participation.
“The idea of participation in conversations and creativity is essential; the idea that it’s not just a passive consumption of culture and art, but rather there are activities that people can be involved with in the making and conception. If that takes a yearor a day for some things, then fine.
“We’re all really interested in what kind of impact a festival such as this can have on the town, so there’s a good balance of inviting artists of a high standard to perform, and to be able to provide technical proficiency and the hospitality that goes with an event such as this.”
To this end, the festival, which benefits from strong support from local businesses, manages to fuse in situ events such as Equinox Theatre's world premiere of Memory Box; a visual-art exhibition The Tropics of Callan; lunchtime walking talks and the Workhouse Assembly with visitors such as music acts We Cut Corners and Come On Live Long.
It is crucial, Lynch emphasises, that the festival makes a lasting impression. “We don’t aim for something that arrives for a few days and then leaves. The residual effects from it should be felt throughout the year.”
The Abhainn Rí festival ends tomorrow. abhainnrifestival.com