Summer’s over. But festival season isn’t
‘Shoulder season festivals’ are coming into bloom, bringing colour, vibrancy and some much-needed cash to towns across Ireland
Spirits of Meath Halloween Festival, which includes more than 37 spooky events and family fun from October 16th to November 1st. Photograph: Barry Cronin
Jenny Eclair will appear at Belfast Comedy Festival, which runs from September 28th to October 2nd
Summer may be over, but a whole series of festivals are just coming into bloom, bringing colour, vibrancy and a much-needed economic boost to towns across Ireland. Here, six organisers of “shoulder season” festivals explain why they prefer to operate outside the main tourist season.
Ray Blackwell, Clonakilty International Guitar Festival
“This is the 12th year of the festival, and the reason we have it in September is that the tourist season is over and we want to bring people to Clonakilty at a time when things are starting to die down. Clonakilty is a working town throughout the year, and we wanted to try to integrate that into it.
“We didn’t want to be setting up a festival marquee that would be separate from the town; we wanted people to come to the town and engage with the town. Buy an ice cream in the local shop, buy a pair of shoes in the shoe shop or whatever. By eliminating the ticket price we felt these businesses would get the benefit directly. We do have some ticketed events; the festival has to be sustainable, so that’s to keep things going for the future.
“I’m the third generation of my family to run De Barra’s pub, and I grew up with the Clonakilty Busking Festival, which had a huge influence on everybody in the town. I want the guitar festival to create the same kind of musical spectacle for young people that I had when I was growing up.”
Deirdre Murtagh, Spirits of Meath
“People think of Halloween as an American import, but it really isn’t. Halloween began in the Boyne Valley about 3,000 years ago, and this festival was started specifically to get that message out.
“Spirits of Meath puts together all the events which were happening around Samhain anyhow – and it’s getting bigger all the time. At Causey Farm myself and my brother have been doing things at Halloween since 2005. Nowadays we do two events, one in the afternoon for children, which is all very sweet and wholesome, and one in the evening called Farmophobia, which is absolutely massive – over 20,000 people come to that.
“But it’s not just Causey. Up the road from us there’s a farm where they grow the pumpkins which supply the Irish market. And there are all sorts of activities in the area: craft, barmbrack-making, home bakeries, you name it.
“Three thousand years ago, at this time of year, people would dress up to avoid being taken over by a wandering spirit. Animal heads were scraped out and used as masks. These days we bring them in from China. But to think that we’re still doing these same things, in this same place, is really magical.”
Peter O’Neill, Belfast Comedy Festival
“We’re positioned between Culture Night and the Belfast International Festival at Queen’s. This is our fifth year, and we’ve expanded to a 12-day programme. Last year we had 5,000 audience members, of whom half came from outside Belfast and a quarter from outside Northern Ireland – so we do think we have quite a pull for tourists coming to the city.
“We’re an independent festival, and that allows us to take more risks, be a bit quirkier and have a more diverse array of performers than you’d normally find at a comedy festival. Also, we try and target a wide cross section of the community: curious visitors; people who come to Belfast for a range of cultural pursuits.
“I do a walking tour, which is very popular with tourists, because I talk about the history of entertainment in the city, so we incorporate a bit of heritage. We’re keen to promote local talent, so we programme local acts, and we organise seminars and workshops for people who want to try their hand at a bit of comedy.
“Performers like coming to Belfast. They find a very dark, sardonic type of humour here, and they feel our audiences are very appreciative of comedy in general.”
Hilda Carroll, Clare Island Singles Adventure Weekend
“We do this festival twice a year, in June and September, so we kind of bookend the season. Clare Island Adventures is a co-operative of three operators working together to promote the island: the hostel on Clare Island, Clare Island Ferry Company and Adventure West. The hostel closes in the off-season, except for private visitors, so we start and finish the year with the singles festival.
“At the end of September there are a few people besides islanders still around, there’s live music in the bar and so on, so there’s a bit of craic and energy around the place. The island is quieter for the rest of the year. About 30 people come for the festival. It’s not like other singles events, in that we’re not trying to matchmake; we’re just trying to bring single people together and provide activities that naturally bond people. But we do try to balance the gender numbers, to make it a good experience for everybody. The people who come wouldn’t necessarily be adrenaline junkies, but they like being outdoors and won’t be put off by a bit of rain.”
Connie Tantrum, New Ross Piano Festival
“We knew when we started the piano festival, in 2006, that the end of September was a really good time to have it. If you go into October you’ve got the Wexford Festival Opera, and then it’s cold. In May you’ve got the Aims Choral Festival, and then it’s summer. These days were obvious to us from the very start, and it’s building the footfall in the shoulder season.
“Taken together the Ros Tapestry, the Dunbrody Famine Ship, the new library garden and the piano festival have really given New Ross a lift, enhanced the town enormously and put us on the tourist map. And so it should, because we’re the centre of Ireland’s Ancient East – in fact, the Ros Tapestry should be the starting point for that, because it mentions all the Norman trails, the abbeys and all of that.
“Our project to commission new works from Irish composers based on the tapestry has created an amazing amount of interest and a definite increase in visitors to the tapestry.
“The people at the Dunbrody cafe also say that having a piano there for the duration of the festival, and the scheduled jazz events, brings more people in during the afternoon lull. St Mary’s Church holds up to 300 people for each concert. So everyone is just generally pleased that we’ve got extra people coming into town.”
Chris O’Neill, Burren Food Fayre
“We’ve been trying to extend the tourist season here in north Clare for as long as I’ve existed. Burren Beo, the food fair and the Winterage festival all help. We usually have about 600 people coming to Lisdoonvarna on the Sunday of the Food Fayre. They would include a lot of local followers – but people do drive from Dublin, from Waterford and from all over Ireland.
“I’ve lived here for nearly 50 years, have run the Burren Painting Centre for 40 years, and for the past five years I’ve been helping to run the food fair as part of the Burren Ecotourism Network, which has all types of small businesses in the area, many of them specifically around food.
“Alongside the stalls and workshops we have a foraging walk and a pop-up cafe. We’ve developed competitions as well. For our adult and junior Masterchef we invite local people to come in with dishes, and we get them judged by chefs. Burren Culinaire offers student chefs the chance to show their skill on the day. We try to cover all aspects of food.”