What are community festivals for?

We have closed the offices in KLP for a two-week holiday shutdown in the last week in July and this first week in August. As sort of a ‘busman’s holiday’ I attended a couple of local Kilkenny festivals over the bank holiday weekend. In passing, I must say how increasingly strange that traditional title for our public holidays seems in this turbulent time for those institutions! There were a number of other community festivals, field days and similar events on in Kilkenny last weekend and accordingly a bit of competition between them for the public. Anyway, the Graiguenamanagh Regatta Festival and Callan’s Abhainn Rí Festival are good examples of what a community festival offers both the residents and visitors to an area. They are also at either end of the longevity scale; Graigue’s regatta has run continuously on this date for well over 100 years and is reputed to be the oldest surviving inland regatta, while Callan’s Abhainn Rí is in its first year. Coincidentally Callan also uses the ‘rivery’ theme as the title is the Irish for Kings River, the waterway that flows through the town.

What is of deeper interest is how they both set about retaining their community participation core while reaching out to visitors in a strategic way. The Regatta’s focus has traditionally been a sort of water-based sports day for the local community and features swimming races, cot (traditional boat) races, climbing the ‘rope-across-the-water’, etc. Ted Duff and the other stalwarts of the regatta committee admirably want to retain the great community support for the traditional Sunday events but recognise the potential there is to expand the programme to help the local economy. And largely through the efforts of Brian Roberts of the Waterside Restaurant and the local rowing club, this year it has managed to attract one hundred people to take part in conventional rowing and sculling races on the Monday. Apparently that’s a race every 8 minutes from 10 am to 4 pm! Not bad at all but will it be possible to integrate the local and visitor events in years to come and build a visitor attraction on the traditional events without ruining it. Local development companies such as KLP and tourism agencies want to support the former but we recognise the fragility of the latter, so is there sustainable development model out there?

Callan’s Abhainn Rí experience may provide some steers. Here the organising committee decided to aim for the optimum in local participation while not confining their ambition for spectacle and breath of artistic expression, the community has developed a festival programme that ranges right across the cultural spectrum. From juvenile hurling to avant-garde art exhibits, to renewable energy demos, to a series of lectures on a family of medieval stone masons, to national food events – it’s all there. While some may query the lack of focus others will celebrate the passion that gave rise to it and the professionalism (in the best sense) that the community used to carry it off.

While Abhainn Rí is Callan’s first festival in this format some on the committee already had some experience of organising events, such as the KCATS Art & Study Centres K10 last year and the Camphill Community’s now famous ‘Big River’ parade contribution to the official Kilkenny Arts Festival some years ago. This spectacle (part-funded by LEADER) was mentored by former members of the Macnas Performing Group from Galway went from a fringe event to the flagship street spectacle of the festival itself. In addition to Kilkenny, it had outings at the Galway Arts festival but it owed everything to its Macnas and Camphill’s commitment to community participation and the best of the parade’s outings was the one which processed through Callan. It is still remembered fondly in the county. The resonance of the Big River experience obviously remains in Callan’s parade last Sunday evening and in everything that it has initiated. KLP through its support of the Rural Community Festival Network is interested in seeing if the lessons can be transferred to other communities.

But will it attract visitors? And should it bother us in KLP if it doesn’t? The larger festivals such as the Arts Festival, The Cat Laughs and the Rhythm and Roots are almost exclusively based in the city and are very successful. But despite attempts from KLP in the past it is evident that they see their role as remaining within the ring-road. So KLP believes that there is both a need and an opportunity for rural festivals and events to provide a counterbalance in terms of rural tourism support. Contrarily there’s a strong case that says that part of our brief for rural development should be simply to help rural communities to realise their cultural potential and assume that there will be either direct or indirect spin-off benefits. But, of course, because of the time, effort and money involved, we’d like it both ways- with cultural enhancement and tourism economic dividend. Is this unrealistic? Is it achievable in the short-term? The Barrow Navigation’s 2011 Anniversary Festival is likely to offer a chance to see those questions answered. As stated in previous blogs KLP hopes to facilitate and support a series that will link both community development and rural tourism goals. We’ll see if that works in due course.

Declan Rice
Kilkenny LEADER Partnership, CEO

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