All is Well

August 25, 2014

Wrap-up overview of the Festival from guest blogger Dylan Haskins

Photo: Ross Costigan

Well, the 41st Kilkenny Arts Festival is in the rear view mirror; Pentalum has been deflated and packed off to its next destination and you’re 90% less likely to stumble across Sam Amidon singing in a historic garden around the city - so here’s a few parting thoughts.

I didn’t write anything yet about the series of talks across the Festival – topics ranged from the plight of the Irish demesne to Irish foreign affairs to medieval stone carving. It was an eclectic selection. Without doubt, the most colourful speaker was Lady Antonia Fraser who spoke with Roy Foster about the art of the historical biography. When Foster preceded a question with “As a woman of the left and a feminist…”, Fraser sharply retorted “What are all these labels being put on me, am I a supermarket?”.

Unsurprisingly, given the Pakenhams' political pedigree, the conversation veered into politics. Fraser asserted that a good politician requires the right balance of idealism and ambition; without idealism you shouldn’t be in politics and without ambition you won’t get there. Too often people have one without the other. The Diplomatic Coffee Club with Seán Ó hUiginn at the 16th century Hole in the Wall on the final morning of the Festival offered further political insights. Ó hUiginn is now retired from a forty-year career in the Irish Foreign Service, having served as Ambassador to the United States, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia and Denmark and played a central role in the evolution of the peach process. As a former Foreign Affairs civil servant himself, Festival Director Eugene Downes was well versed in what questions to ask and tactful enough to ‘disremember’ certain privileged information when questioned from the floor. The insight to that early phase of the peace process was fascinating, and somewhat prescient with the subsequent attention it has received in recent days following the death of former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds. Ó hUiginn told of how John Major had complained about his involvement to the then Taoiseach indirectly. Major then sent an envoy to meet Reynolds to personally convey his dissatisfaction with Ó hUiginn. Reynolds' ingenious and amusing response was to have Ó hUiginn as the note taker in that meeting, which must surely have made the British envoy’s task terribly uncomfortable. A question from the floor asked what advice Ó hUiginn would give about the conflict between Palestine and Israel: the universal maxim that the powerful are never entirely powerful, and the weak are never entirely weak.

Throughout the Festival I heard many longtime attenders remark that the Festival had returned to its musical roots, particularly with regard to classical music. There was a palpable sense of endurance and triumph as The Heath Quartet rose to their feet at the conclusion of the final Beethoven quartet in their ten-day concert series at St John’s church. On Thursday night they had also joined seventeen other resident Festival musicians on stage at St Canice’s for s t a r g a z e’s performance of Terry Riley: ‘In C’, which demonstrated the pinnacle of musicianship.

The Festival Finale on Sunday night featured combined members of The Gloaming, This is How We FlyGhost Trio and Laghdú with Bill Frisell, Doug Wieselman, Kate Ellis, Sam Amidon and poet Billy Collins. Martin Hayes, who co-curated the Marble City Sessions, was Fear an Tí for the night. At the outset he described the musicians present as "an extended web of friendship and mutual respect". Indeed, this captured what for me was the most important and unique characteristic of the Festival. Since the great Dionysia, festivals have been about creating a rare shared experience in a limited time and space. Too often artists are shipped in and out of a place in little over 24 hours. By accommodating as many artists in residence as possible over the ten days, Kilkenny rose above most festivals and offered an opportunity for collaborations and spontaneity that was clearly as exciting for the artists as it was for audiences. With the emergence and debut of several new musical projects, it became clear that, as Hayes says, something is afoot. Appropriate then, that the Festival concluded to Amidon’s ‘All is Well’.

-Dylan Haskins

Photo: Ross Costigan