Macnas: the show goes on, despite a Galway no-show

Change is ‘difficult and necessary’ at Macnas, as budget issues meant no arts festival parade

No sky fell, no earth quaked, time did not stand still. Although thunderstorms were forecast, there were few clouds over Galway as its annual arts-festival fortnight passed without the Macnas parade.

If the gods were upset, Prometheus was on the side of artistic director Paul Fahy. He might not have been able to take credit for sunshine and soaring temperatures, but the antics of soaring aerialists such as Les Pepones and Catalan trampolinist Max Calaf Seve provided a seamless series of free spectacles between Eyre Square and Spanish Arch.

For the many on low budgets, Claire Keegan's Fringe Festival, also in its second year, had an ambitious programme of eclectic and affordable events.

Macnas artistic director Noeline Kavanagh had imagined it would be thus. The company was off the Galway Arts Festival (GAF) schedule for the first time in over a quarter-century, and both partners were upset, she acknowledged, speaking to this newspaper a week before the festival opening.


“But isn’t it brilliant that Paul Fahy has programmed so many international street performers, and that we are committed to a parade in Galway at Halloween?” she said. “So in every way, the citizen wins .”

Yet there were citizens who lost, if posts on Macnas’s Facebook page marking parade night were anything to go by.

“Quite sad not to be running down the main street making an eejit of myself tonight,”said Eilís Nic Dhonnchna, while “Danny Deepo” chided the festival organisers.

“No matter how small their budget, Macnas should be the first ones to get booked,” he wrote. “It was one of the only parts of the GAF that had huge community involvement; it brought people in Galway together as volunteers and spectators, and made us feel a part of the festival.”

True, for residents across several generations, the arts festival was synonymous with Macnas and months of artistic effort, drawing in students and community groups from across the city and beyond. As midsummer passed, the ritualistic beat of drums would roll across the skyline on the still evening air, as fabulous fantastical creatures were designed and assembled, masks created and painted, costumes made and then altered with feverish speed.

Military precision
The audience couldn't relax either, for acquiring the best parade viewing spot required much strategic planning, even military discipline, to hold one's position, and yet even more patience – the reward being a pirouette with a monster or a kiss from a clown or relentless water-gun soakings by pagan creatures seeking sacrificial targets.

Kavanagh, who speaks in big pictures replete with literary allusions and eats optimism for breakfast, is looking forward to exposing audiences at the Kilkenny Arts Festival. Macnas returns to Kilkenny after a 10-year break and is also planning for its fourth Fringe in the captial. "Yes, the GAF parade has been one big social event," she agrees, and that "accessibility of art to heart, putting wildness on the street" involves the commitment of several hundred people.

GAF gave Macnas an unrivalled platform, one with an audience of up to 80,000 people, but the 27-year-old street theatre troupe, child of Els Comediants and Footsbarn, provided the festival with one, too. And Macnas has had a very good year, she points out, with artists and performers travelling to China, Russia and Australia.

A busy schedule of "boutique street shows" this season involves not only Kilkenny and Dublin. The Drogheda Arts Festival; Terryglass, Co Tipperary; Foynes, Co Limerick; and the Féile Iorrais in Belmullet, Co Mayo, have also been on the itinerary.

Guerilla energy
"There's a guerilla energy to these trailer-park shows," Kavanagh says, explaining that there are four separate themes drawn from the four parades she has directed in Galway.

So Rumpus the hare from her first parade, Orfeo (2009); that young Boy Explorer from The Wild Hunt (2010); the Cockroach and the Inventor from This Fierce Beauty (2011); and Chaosmos, with a dragonfly on a penny farthing, from This Thunderous Heart (2012) all form part of a "carney that has to fit into a Hiace van".

The company is also involved in a segment on the BA degree in drama and theatre studies at NUI Galway, and it will continue to run a young ensemble of 15- to 19-year-olds, which, Kavanagh says, “keeps us grounded”. School students meet on a Thursday evening down in Fisheries Field; for many it has been a life-changing experience. It was as a teenage volunteer that she was attracted to Macnas, and she became the first woman and youngest director of the parade back in 1998.

Love, hurt, vulnerability and transformation were the four themes she identified when she returned to the post in 2008, after a decade away with Rough Magic, the Abbey Theatre, as an artist-in-residence in Dublin's Fatima Mansions and with one of Britain's leading art companies, Welfare State International. At the time, the company had hit a low point.

Now, she and general manager Sharon O’Grady face another type of “transformation”, with both acknowledging that change is “difficult and necessary”.

“It takes €145,000 to stage a parade on the arts-festival scale, and I think a lot of Galway businesses thought it just happened like magic. We have secured €10,000 from the city council for Halloween, and we have applied for a city arts grant, but we won’t know about that till September,” says O’Grady.

“The Latin Quarter businesses have committed to €15,000, and we have several wonderful, quiet supporters, but we need more business support if we are to have something sustainable,” O’Grady says. Just a few days ago, Galway Clinic was secured as the first of four key sponsors required for October.

Dramatic developments
Drama of another kind is also on Kavanagh's mind. Macnas has produced theatre before, substituting it for a parade during festival years in Galway. "There was the Táin, Sweeney and Balor under Padraic Breathnach, Mikel Murfi's The Last Days of Ollie Deasy, his co-production entitled Mysteries, and Granuaile,"she recalls

And so Melodica is the working title of a script she is devising with Darach Mac Con Iomaire, former artistic director of An Taibhdhearc theatre. It will be pitched to various theatre festivals, and to Limerick City of Culture, but the company would like to preview it in Galway. "And whatever happens, we will be be hooring and touring our shows."

Then there’s an animation involving the Boy Explorer, and a per cent for art project in Athenry, Co Galway, in November. “I came across a festival in Shropshire where they had created a sculpture out of pallets and then burned it, as in burning the demons,” Kavanagh says.

Might there be a risk of a few bridges being tossed on to that pyre? “Not at all,” Kavanagh says, for a long-term relationship should be stronger than that. As Sharon O’Grady emphasises, the company is open to discussion on a parade at GAF next year.