Cúirt literary festival goes virtual with line-up of free online events

Audiences can tune in to watch Anne Enright, Kevin Barry, Sara Baume and more

Anne Enright, author of Actress, one of the authors featured. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

In the spirit of the show must go on, Cúirt International Festival of Literature, in Galway, is going online for this year’s event, which begins tomorrow and runs until Saturday. Its new director, Sasha de Buyl, and the Cúirt team have salvaged a good proportion of her debut line-up, and are firing ahead with a virtual version of the 35-year-old festival during the coronavirus lockdown.

Events that have been reshaped into digital formats include Jan Carson and Kevin Barry in conversation with Peggy Hughes; Eimear McBride with Edel Coffey; Sara Baume in conversation with Sinéad Gleeson; Elaine Feeney in conversation with Lisa McInerney; Roisín Kelly and Michael Gorman, Mary Costello and Alan McMonagle. Other events include the authors Anne Enright, Owudinni Mustapha and Carolyn Forché. The festival will be broadcast on the Cúirt YouTube channel.

The original programme was unveiled just three days before the coronavirus outbreak shut Ireland down, on March 12th. That was Cúirt’s last physical shindig for the moment, but what the festival will lose in physical interaction and atmosphere, it will gain in increased capacity, and global access, for a great line-up of free streamed events and a reinvigorated spirit of solidarity.

Cúirt: Sasha de Buyl at the launch of this year’s festival programme, in March

De Buyl says: “Our first responsibility is to our authors, who will be facing difficult times and a loss of income, and our audiences, who will be finding new ways to connect with art and literature in a lockdown, and we wanted to find a way to support both. The Arts Council made clear their priority is to continue to support artists, and we used this as a starting point.”


As many authors as possible from the original programme have been included in the new line-up of 11 virtual events, and every artist contracted for Cúirt this year, whether the digital or original physical festival, will get a fee. “What we didn’t expect was the outpouring of support and goodwill from writers. It’s been hugely encouraging to see how keen writers have been to take part, even those who would normally shy away from digital platforms.”

Financially, the festival made savings (in accommodation and venue hire) but had new costs (for livestreaming, audio and video engineering, marketing), and had to look at what it could afford. But "I'm glad we took the decision to make the events free," says de Buyl. "We're living through unprecedented times and trying something totally new, so it seems only fair as we experiment with this new format. Having said that, audiences can choose to donate if they wish, paying what they can when signing up for an event, or donating via our website." All donations go towards authors' fees for the digital festival.

Cúirt plans to reschedule some headline events later in the year and says that, once this crisis has passed, audiences will be able to attend readings, workshops and interviews in person at the Town Hall Theatre, Nun’s Island, Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop and other Galway venues.

What does literature mean to Cúirt writers?

Cúirt asked authors taking part in this year's digital festival what literature means to them

Sara Baume "What literature is to me at this time of overwhelming global uncertainty, it's an experience, a universe that I can miniaturise and control."

Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin "It's about the power of language, the power to liberate us, to let us feel the lives of other people and finally, I hope, to see how words can enable us to tell the truth."

Lisa McInerney "There is a beautiful arrogance to literature. The idea that we can shape things, that we can make order out of chaos."

Aoibheann McCann "It means escape. Whether I'm writing or reading I'm in a completely different world."

Alan McMonagle "For me literature is a way into the world. It's my way to be other people, visit other places, do unlikely things. It's my way to make sense of everything."

Ifor ap Glyn "Literature is a unique window on our world."

Deirdre Falvey

Deirdre Falvey

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