Street Feast: Dust off the bunting and barbecues, it’s outdoor party season with the neighbours

Some 100,000 people are expected to attend 1,200 Street Feasts around the country this weekend

Having helped to organise several street parties in our own cul-de-sac over the years, I know how sitting together with neighbours and breaking bread can dissolve tensions which arose from misunderstandings, personality clashes or minor spats. When people relax together outdoors in a shared space, they quickly realise they have more in common than they may have originally thought.

The simple idea of sharing a meal outdoors with your neighbours is at the heart of Ireland’s annual Street Feast which will take place on streets, in squares and green spaces in housing estates, in villages, towns and cities across Ireland this Sunday, with 100,000 people expected to attend around 1,200 individual events.

Wicklow-based architect Sam Bishop first had the idea to set aside a specific date and provide packs of bunting, posters, invites, food labels, name tags and guidance for running a street party back in 2010. He started in his hometown of Newtownmountkennedy, and grew the event nationwide on a voluntary basis until President Michael D Higgins became a patron in 2016 and gave it legs. Now, the Department of Rural and Community Development and local authorities support the initiative (streetfeast.ie).

While Covid lockdowns gave some people the opportunity to speak to their neighbours like never before, others remained isolated and coming out of the pandemic, the need to bring people together in more normal circumstances seems more important than ever. Bishop says, “after two years of restrictions and lockdowns, our notion of community has altered immeasurably. This year Street Feast wants to create a space for people to re-engage safely with their neighbours.

“It’s not the same as a gathering with friends or going to a festival. It’s a community of place as opposed to a community of interest. There is no agenda. You can’t pay for anything. People value that informality. It’s where conversations happen.”

Adrienne Mannix is a veteran street feast organiser in her hometown of Shannon, Co Clare. She is looking forward to the street feast at St Aidan’s Park this year, after a three year gap due to Covid.

“We started in 2014 with about 30 to 40 people. The next year, we got the community Gardaí to come and flash the lights and give the children a ride in the squad car, and the year after that we had a fire engine. We have food, drink, street chalk, giant Jenga, Tug-of-War competitions and an ice-cream van. It has just grown bigger and bigger over the years. We’re having a magician and a gaming van this year,” explains Mannix, who grew up in the housing estate and then returned to rear her family there years later.

She sees the informal gathering as an ideal way for people to get to know their neighbours a little bit better. “I’ve met people I didn’t know lived in the park. It’s great for the older people to get to know the younger people who’ve moved here. The chat just flows,” she says.

In a survey of Street Feast participants after the 2019 event, 96 per cent said their sense of belonging to the neighbourhood increased after that feast, and 97 per cent said their neighbourhood was friendlier. Eight in 10 participants had made plans for more community projects since their feast.

While the official Street Feast day is tomorrow — June 26th — some communities choose to have their street feast earlier to suit people’s holiday plans, while others hold it the first Saturday or Sunday in July when all the children are off school.

Iseult Coffey is one of the organisers of the street feast on Oscar Square in the Tenters in Dublin 8. “The first year everyone brought picnic blankets and we stayed outside for ages. There is very little organising to it. We have a WhatsApp group. Someone brings a barbecue and we have burgers, hot dogs, salads, bread and cheese,” she explains.

Although there is already a strong neighbourhood spirit in this part of Dublin with Halloween and Christmas carol singing organised every year, the street feast attracts a broader mix of people, Coffey says. “It can be quite hard to meet new people in your neighbourhood. Younger people without children and some older people come to the street feast who wouldn’t come to the other events.”

Coffey advises anyone considering hosting a street feast for the first time to keep it simple. “It doesn’t have to be fancy or too elaborate. If there are enough people involved, it takes very little effort. That way there is also shared ownership, which makes everyone feel more connected to it.”

The Oscar Square street feast is held on a Sunday afternoon. “Usually there is some beer and wine, but it’s all very civilised. Nobody goes crazy because the next day is a work day. It’s all over by 8pm at the latest and the clean-up is done,” she says.

Olivia Fox Gill is the chairperson of the Shandon Residents Association in Phibsboro in Dublin 7 where the annual street party is a long-standing tradition, halted in 2020 by Covid. “We’re looking forward to having it again this year. It will be a chance for us to meet and chat to each other again. People make their dinner and bring it outside and some people make bread and cakes to share around. Nothing is expected of you. It’s more about getting together,” she says.

Her husband is part of the European folk music and dance group Balfolk, which will perform and encourage people to dance together. The local community garda helps to put up a few temporary road barriers and pops in during the party to meet the locals. “It’s a good opportunity for people to meet the community Gardaí. We’ll also project a movie at the end of the street for the children,” she adds.

In new housing estates, the street feast can be the first time that neighbours get a proper chance to sit down and chat to each other. Sunil Shegunasi and his wife Rosy were among the first people to move into the Glenheron Estate in Greystones. He helped organise the first street feast there in 2019 before many of the houses were occupied. Another event in 2021 saw more people arrive and now in 2022, Shegunasi hopes the street feast will bring together residents from India, Thailand, Vietnam, Poland, America, the UK and Ireland.

“I’ll bring along traditional Indian snacks like samosas and onion bhajis and I hope people will bring food from their nationality. Food is a big part of identity, and the street feast will give us a chance to share our experiences — the highs and lows of life.”

Wumni Excel is hoping the Irish weather will be kind to her as she prepares for a street feast in the Parnell Estate in Mulhuddart, Dublin 15. As the project co-ordinator of Children4WorldChildren, an organisation for young people from ethnic minorities in Mulhuddart, she knows many of the young people from India, Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Cameroon and Eastern European countries living in the area. “Many of the families here are really struggling, so it will give them a chance to connect with their neighbours and build a good community spirit. I’ll cook some jollof rice, which the children love, and we’ll have games and dress up,” she explains.

Sarah Cunningham from Montenotte in Cork City has decided to host a street feast in her neighbourhood for the first time this summer. “My husband and a neighbour got talking about how during Covid, everybody started chatting to each other. And now that Covid is over, it would be an opportunity to bring people together,” she explains.

There is an older generation that has lived in Montenotte for a long time, and quite a few younger people who have moved into the area in recent years. “Usually, you just know the people either side of you but during Covid, we got to know people further up and down the street,” she says.

Because there is no green space in the area, Cunningham got permission from the local GAA club to use the green space outside their clubhouse. “It’s an enclosed area which is safe for young children and it’s only a five-minute walk from our neighbourhood. We have a core group of organisers and we’ve asked everyone to bring whatever they can. We don’t want to micromanage it,” she explains.

The Montenotte street feast will also be one of 200 that will receive a free play box from the Street Feast organisers this year. Funded by the Lego Foundation’s Build a World of Play initiative, it will include skipping ropes, cones for races, bubbles, street chalk and stencils. “My biggest concern in the beginning was that no one would turn up,” Cunningham says. “Now, word has spread, it’s not knowing whether too many people will turn up, but it will be grand.”

How to throw a street party this summer

1 Get a few like-minded people together who are enthusiastic about bringing neighbours together to share a meal in a communal area. Consider setting up a WhatsApp group for local residents to keep them informed about your plans and garner further offers of help. The whole idea is to keep costs to a minimum and make sure no one person has all the responsibility for buying or cooking food for everyone.

2 Don’t expect too much for your first street party. Make sure a few people are committed to showing up and let it grow year by year. It’s really just about sitting down to a meal together with your nearest neighbours on a green in a housing estate, on a city or village square or in a cul de sac rather than hosting a big street party. And while you would need permission from your local authority to officially close off your street, you may be able to arrange a temporary road closure for a few hours with community Gardaí.

3 Ask everyone to contribute something — food or drink, a barbecue on wheels that can be brought outdoors easily, trellis or garden tables, chairs, a music system, a gazebo or small marquee. “When people bring things, it gives them a feeling of ownership of the event,” says Sam Bishop, the founder of Street Feasts.

4 Host the party in the afternoon rather than evening, Bishop recommends. Technically speaking, it’s illegal to drink alcohol in public spaces but if consumption is moderate and doesn’t lead to any loud or unruly behaviour, the gardaí usually don’t get involved.

5 Consider insurance. The Street Feast organisers offer a discounted insurance rate for registered street feasts. Another alternative is to piggyback on the annual insurance policy of your local residents association.

6 Involve the children in the neighbourhood. Children love preparing for parties so ask them to drop off invites to neighbours, make posters or help put up bunting the day before. And organise some simple street games with chalk, skipping ropes and cones. “Children bring extra colour, life and movement to street feasts and allow people to relax a little more,” says Bishop.

7 Have a backup option in case it is lashing rain on the day. If it’s just a shower or two, you can start the street feast a bit later or shelter under a gazebo or bring a few large umbrellas. But, if the weather forecast is bad, consider having an alternative venue lined up — maybe someone’s garage or the local community hall, or postponing it until the following weekend.