A Tradition of Art and Education

Clifden Arts Festival

By Breandan O’Scanaill  |  Photography courtesy of Clifden Arts Festival

Crowd watches firework show at the Clifden Arts Festival

As the scope of the festival has expanded over the years, so has its attendance and value to the local economy. More and more visitors from around Ireland and abroad return each year and have the chance to speak with the artists and others involved in the events. The relatively small and intimate setting is one of the special features of the Clifden Arts Festival, and although it has grown over the decades, the ethos and guiding principles behind it have remained the same. Along with good-quality art, music, theatre, comedy, and literature in a relaxed setting, it is the involvement of the local schools which helps define the festival. The participation of dozens of local volunteers and the dedication of the Clifden Arts Festival committee and its director, Brendan Flynn, ensure that quality always takes centre stage.

As we look forward to the 2016 Clifden Arts Festival, it seems a good time to step back and look at its origins and the changes over the years.

It was in 1977 that Flynn proposed the idea of encouraging the arts in the newly opened Clifden Community School. He has always had a passion for incorporating the arts in the school curriculum, and with the support of the principal and teachers, the first Arts Week took place with a number of readings, lectures, and workshops for the school’s students. The programme for this week fitted onto one page.

Right from the start, a great relationship grew between the school and a host of wonderful artists and writers, such as John Behan, Seamus Heaney, Christy Moore, and President Michael D. Higgins, to name but a few. As the Arts Week began to grow, the wider Clifden community became involved in the school-based festival, and the event moved into the town and surroundings. It was at this stage that the true Clifden Arts Festival was born.

From these humble beginnings, a great educational and cultural event developed, and Clifden Arts Festival’s local, national, and international reputation for diversity and quality has grown year on year.

The festival is spread throughout town at a variety of venues, which range from the intimate Station House Theatre, the acoustically brilliant Christ Church, and the atmospheric Saint Joseph’s Church, to the functional and ideal venues of the Clifden Town Hall and the West Connemara Leisure Centre. Pubs and cafes add to this mix, and music can be heard on the street throughout the week. Visitors may meet the poets and writers during the festival, and one can drop into a shop, pub, or even the bookies and find great literature. The Clifden Library also acts as a host for exhibitions, readings, and concerts.

One of the biggest successes over the festival’s thirty-nine years has been the development of the Arts Trail, which uses shop windows as exhibition spaces for paintings, photographs, and sculpture, transforming the whole town into an art gallery. It is lovely to watch people going from window to window and commenting on the works on display. On top of that, galleries pop up in shops, old buildings, and hotels. You can find art in the most surprising places!

As the Clifden Arts Festival has grown, bodies such as the Arts Council and the Irish Museum of Modern Art have allowed art exhibitions to travel to it, and the event has also been selected by corporate and private collectors as an ideal choice to show their collections. This has ensured that top-notch works of art are available to a wider audience in the far west of Ireland.

The emphasis on each year’s poster and programme has also increased over the years. The posters are works of art in themselves and attract a lot of attention from locals and visitors alike. The posters and programmes are eagerly awaited each year, and one of the joys of getting your hands on the programme is marking off all the things you would like to attend over the ten-day event. There is normally a clash of interests, but whatever you choose to see, you are sure to enjoy it. Sometimes those exhibits or events you were not sure about turn out to be the most interesting!

The educational aspect of the Clifden Arts Festival has always been central, originating with the Clifden Community School and then the Scoil Mhuire National School coming on board. Now fourteen schools from the area take part in various aspects of the event, including hosting visiting poets, musicians, or theatre troupes. Other activities include lantern making, stilt walking, drumming, and dance workshops, all in preparation for an amazing parade held on the final Saturday evening. The Grand Parade takes place around the town of Clifden and is brilliantly choreographed by LUXe Processional Spectacle and Landscape Theatre and the wonderful Fidget Feet Aerial Dance Theatre. Both groups arrive in Connemara in advance of the festival and begin training the students for various roles they will play in the parade. They have built up a body of students who take part year and after year. Those who have finished school often return to volunteer with the many men and women from the area who help push, pull, or carry various parts of the parade.

The whole event is a bit like Rio meets Clifden—lights, music, flares, colourful floats, kids and adults in crazy costumes, and, above them all, the talented Fidget Feet dangling from a crane and performing ballet in the air. Then, just as you think the spectacle has ended, the skies are lit up with a fireworks display that will take your breath away. The festival’s energy is infectious; it gets into your blood and always becomes the talk of the town.

Here’s to this year’s festival: to all the committee working behind the scenes, the marvellous funders who are often overlooked, the artists, and the performers. But most of all, here’s to the people of Clifden and Connemara, who have taken the tradition of this event to heart and who are the true ambassadors for the Clifden Arts Festival.