Kilkenny Arts Festival: A journey from Beethoven to The Gloaming

New festival director Eugene Downes gives a sneak preview of this year’s offerings


Eugene Downes knows something about journeys. He has made countless trips in a career built on advancing Irish arts worldwide.

As a former chief executive of Culture Ireland, the State agency for the promotion of Irish arts abroad, he led Imagine Ireland, a year-long festival of Irish culture across the US, in 2011. Before that, he advised the government on international-arts strategy, producing events across Europe, Asia and South America. He has also worked in the Irish foreign service, with a spell as cultural attaché in Russia. It’s been a long road, focused on Irish culture, but its outlook has been international.

Now, Downes is artistic director of Kilkenny Arts Festival, a role he took up in October, and today the festival is announcing some of its highlights for this year. Downes is now more fixed in the Irish arts scene, but his eye is still cast on the wider world.

“One of my hopes is that we will further build the international profile of Kilkenny Arts Festival and also the international nature of the projects,” he says. “I look forward to bringing across those contacts from my previous life.”

Beethoven Quest
Kilkenny Arts Festival has a reputation for its classical-music programming, and Downes says he hopes this year’s selection will take the audience on an imaginative arc. Beethoven’s complete string quartets and complete piano concertos will be staged over 10 days. Downes and his team have invited The Heath Quartet, who make their debut at Carnegie Hall this week, and Barry Douglas and Camerata Ireland to take on a thorough exploration of the composer. The string quartet’s cycle will take place over 10 lunchtime concerts, while Douglas and Camerata will take on the concertos over two nights at St Canice’s Cathedral.

The series, called Beethoven Quest, is a rare opportunity to explore the different aspects of the composer’s imagination.

“We want people to go, with the artists, in search of Beethoven, but there’s also an echo of Beethoven himself,” says Downes. “Of all the great composers, he was one of the most restless. He was always questing, searching, [trying] to break through musical frontiers.”

Downes compares Beethoven’s 19th-century musical quest to that of The Gloaming now. That band – Martin Hayes, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Dennis Cahill and New York pianist and producer Thomas Bartlett – also feature in this year’s programme, with a concert in St Canice’s Cathedral. Each member of the band is well-known in his own right; collectively, they have received rave reviews since the release of their debut album in January.

There is another Irish exclusive as Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre Company returns with a new production of Much Ado About Nothing , which will run for the duration of the festival in the Castle Yard. This will be the company’s third consecutive year in Kilkenny.

“We’ve been struck by the audience response to one of the great companies presenting Shakespeare’s plays in a historic courtyard,” says Downes. “The Castle Yard is a glorious space, the acoustic is special and the experience is extraordinary.”

Is it third-time lucky or likely to become a fixture? “It’s one of the things I’m looking at for future years: the idea of presenting Shakespeare, or classical theatre, in the open-air courtyard. I think it creates something unique,” says Downes, pointing out that Shakespeare’s theatre was written for open, often noisy, spaces. “Shakespeare just sounds and feels different in the open air. It creates a special alchemy.”

Working in reverse

Downes left Culture Ireland in May 2012, shortly after it was announced that it would be incorporated into the Department of Arts. In a way, he is now operating in reverse, bringing international acts into Ireland instead of sending our artists out. He thinks the flow of both is essential.

“It’s so important to bring what you create to the world. Partnerships and collaborations internationally are the lifeblood of art. Most artists don’t think in terms of national or geographic boundaries. One of the most exciting things in Ireland over the past decade is how so many Irish artists have gained a global reputation without losing any of their unique creative signature.”

He sees the opportunity to continue this work in Kilkenny, moving from cultural ambassador to alchemist, setting the space for international artistic relations to ignite and flourish.

“I think festivals play a key role in hosting, shaping and creating those moments: an out-of-the-ordinary, special time where magic can happen and unique collaborations can come together.”

The destination may have changed but the journey continues. There is one big difference, however, and it’s not air miles: “I didn’t have to sell tickets as part of Culture Ireland.”

A full festival programme will be announced in early summer. Tickets on sale at

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