MacGill organiser reverses decision to step down

Bruised but defiant: After 38 years, Mulholland wonders if he still has a line on society

MacGill Summer School director Joe Mulholland with Simon Coveney at the 2017 MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal. Photograph: North West Newspix

MacGill Summer School director Joe Mulholland with Simon Coveney at the 2017 MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal. Photograph: North West Newspix


When Joe Mulholland arrived in Glenties last Sunday to open the 38th MacGill Summer School, he was planning to announce it was to be his last.

It’s been a tough few months for Mulholland (77), a former RTÉ auditor and director. Getting the programme together for this year’s event was difficult, made more difficult by his recent diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. He estimates the school takes about six months planning “between one thing and the other.”

Then the line-up for this years event was announced. Of the more than 70 speakers, only 12 were women; a derisory number by any standards but especially in the wake of the #metoo movement and in the year the Eighth Amendment was repealed.

The nearly-all-male to female ratio was broadly similar to previous years but in the age of social media and its associated call-out culture, it wasn’t going to fly anymore.

The backlash was immediate and it wasn’t made any better by Mulholland saying there were so few women because he had trouble finding speakers with the “right aptitude”, a comment for which he later apologised.

His contrition appeared genuine and the line-up was radically changed. In the end MacGill, was probably one of the most gender balanced events to take place this year. Of the 78 moderators and panel members, 37 were women (47 per cent).

All last week in Glenties, people made a point of defending Mulholland, especially his record on gender equality. As a news editor he was known for hiring women and promoting women’s stories, several colleagues recalled.

It was that support which made him change his mind about walking away from MacGill.

“I’ve talked about stopping before but this time I was serious,” he said. “I came and there was such warmth with regard to myself and the school. People said you cannot let this go. You must continue.’

“I was just very moved by their support. It’s not vanity. When people express appreciation in this way it’s hard to walk away.”


The controversy did lead to some self-doubt. He wondered if the original unrepresentative line-up showed he was out of touch with modern society.

“I felt certainly on the women’s thing, particularly with younger women, I was not plugged in. I knew that. I knew it before the thing happened and I know it better now.”

Mulholland, a Donegal native, was asked to take over the reigns of the summer school in 1981. Back then it was a small country festival featuring attractions like bonny baby shows, and dance competitions, he recalls. It was set up to commemorate the memory of Glenties poet and writer Patrick MacGill, who only found fame after his death in 1963.

Mulholland had researched MacGill’s life and was asked to give a talk at the festival. “Patrick MacGill’s niece Mary Clare approached me and invited me to come and help the school. I said I would on condition I could change it into something different. So I changed it into a summer school.”

Its fortunes ebbed and flowed over the years. In the early 1980s, Mulholland would be relieved when a few dozen people would show up.

During the 1990s it became the marquee event for serious political, economic and social discourse in the country. It was scheduled for just after the Dáil finished every year, meaning politicians would still be around and the media would be hungry for stories at the start of the silly season.

It also became one of the only forums to host prominent unionist figures in the South, including from the DUP. This was helped by Glenties’ location near the Border and the fact that the other prominent attendees meant the school “had excellent security provisions”, Mulholland says.

As it grew, he grew more ambitious. One year he invited the entire Gate Theatre troupe up to perform a Beckett play.

“Hardly anyone turned up. There was no market for Beckett in the Glenties. So I was left with a large bill. I had no money. No one else was coming forward with money. I so I had to go begging.”

After the Gate episode, Mulholland quit the school for five or six years. This coincided with him being appointed as managing director of the national broadcaster.

In 2000 he retired from RTÉ. “One of the members of the MacGill committee came to me when I left RTÉ and said ‘Joe, you have to come back, otherwise it’s just going to die.’ So I did.”

This was the started of MacGill’s most vital period. Mulholland’s contacts built up during his time in television meant it was easy to get the big names up. Some years most of the Cabinet would attend, accompanied by a Supreme Court judge or two.

Asked about his standout memory, Mulholland recalls 2009 when then minister for justice Brian Lenihan uttering the now infamous phrase “we all partied” to a hall packed with 500 people. “We were breaking every fire rule in the book.”


Looking at this year’s schedule, one would be forgiven for thinking the school has lost some of its lustre. Just one Cabinet member – Tánaiste Simon Coveney – attended.

“This year I was very disappointed that some of the Cabinet just couldn’t be here. I think people felt the need to go and take a holiday perhaps before events overtook them,” he said referring to Brexit. He was most disappointed that Minister for Finance Paschal Donohue – “who is made for an event like this” – couldn’t attend.

But at the same time, he is against inviting politicians just for the sake of it. “I want politicians that have something to say. I make no bones about that.”

What about the well-worn accusation that MacGill is where middle Ireland comes to talk to itself?

“I suppose they do have a point,” Mulholland says. “I’m very aware there is another Ireland that is not being reached at all. It’s not just MacGill’s problem. It’s politics’s problem.

“Unfortunately we have created a whole disenfranchised minority in this country. And okay, we don’t deal enough with inequality. We do from time to time. We’ve had Fr Peter McVerry on many occasions. But maybe we are not doing it systemically enough. But others in politics need to be doing it too.”

Despite these insights, Mulholland was taken aback with the level of criticism MacGill faced this year. One of accusations which annoyed him most was that he is no longer able to shoulder the burden of running the school.

“I think there is a lot of ageism around now. Okay, there is sexism but I think ageism is just as harmful.”

He complains about a recent article by a journalist he knows well which said he shouldn’t be running the school at all. “That was hurtful. And it was wrong. Luckily I have almost as much energy as I had before.”

As for the future, Mulholland intends to return to Dublin, consult with some friends and “come up with a way that will lessen the burden on myself.”

He is considering hiring an assistant to take on the bulk of the work and inject some new ideas into the event.

“We’ll see what comes of that. I recognise that whatever its defects, and every endeavour has defects, MacGill is one of the most serious forums you can find and it shouldn’t come to an end.”