Crowds converge at Hay Festival Kells to talk books and ideas

Welsh literary festival in Co Meath deemed an ‘amazing success’ as thousands turn up

 Author DBC Pierre meets Michael Tobin (left) and Thomas Mc Cabe from Moynalty, Co Meath during the Hay Festival  Kells on Saturday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Author DBC Pierre meets Michael Tobin (left) and Thomas Mc Cabe from Moynalty, Co Meath during the Hay Festival Kells on Saturday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


What a difference two days make. On the opening afternoon of the Hay Festival Kells on Friday, nerves were slightly frayed. Having pulled off the coup of bringing the prestigious Welsh literary festival to Co Meath, the townspeople, who have been working on this project for several determined years, now had to make it all work.

It worked – in spades. Kells may not be as cute as the festival’s Welsh hometown of Hay-on-Wye, but what the Irish midlands town might lack in picturesque medieval architecture, it more than makes up for in community spirit.

A band of volunteers known as the Local Heroes did everything from painting rundown kerbside houses to working with local schools on the “Kells Type Trail”, which inscribed the word “inspire” on the town’s walls and open spaces in everything from Meccano to Morse code.

Streets thronged
By Saturday afternoon, the streets were thronged with visitors wandering happily around, checking out the second-hand bookshops that had popped up – a clever and suitably literary way of giving temporary life to unused or derelict premises.

Father and son woodturners Conor and Fionn Ferguson found an appreciative audience for their bowls made from oak, ash and other locally sourced woods. Having decided at the last minute to open a pop-up shop on New Market Street, they admitted to surprise and delight at the number of customers who came and left with a bowl in a bag.

Kells became a magnet for the weekend, drawing visitors from all over Ireland and beyond. One woman had driven from Cavan to see John Banville in action. Her son drove from Dublin. There were people from Sligo and Belfast and Connemara. There was a man from Sydney whose wife was attending a medical conference in Dublin. “How lucky am I,” he said. “I just googled to see what was on in Ireland, and found one of the world’s top literary festivals. And here I am.”

All about books
Despite its agricultural-sounding name, the Hay Festival is very much an indoors event. It’s all about books, ideas, debate, discussion. You’d think it would be a middle-aged sort of business. But Germaine Greer generated a great buzz among the town’s young folk by illustrating her talk on Shakespeare’s lovers with pictures of Justin Bieber.

And DBC Pierre, author of the ultimate disaffected teenager novel, Vernon God Little, held an audience of all ages spellbound with his extraordinary boom-to-bust life story. A festival for all the family, then – and people came in droves.

“Ten thousand, near as like,” reported Lyndy Cooke from Hay Festivals. “And that’s just what we can count, in the form of ticket sales. It doesn’t really include all the people who have come to see the art exhibitions or the stalls . . . For a first festival, it has been an amazing success.”

Geraldine Gaughran, who heads up the Hay Festival Kells Committee, agreed. “It sparked something magical,” she said.