Friday, 27 June 2008

Even if we never buy tickets, we're all affected by the Galway Arts Festival!

Recently I was asked what I thought about the Galway Arts Festival. Now that nostalgia ain't what it used to be, I tried my darndest not to allow my memory to turn the past into a Bulmer's cider commercial, where buxom girls wore frilly frocks; the sun shone from a cloudless sky; there was not one miserable fecker pulling a long face in sight; and we had all the time in the world to sit around and laugh and flirt and get pissed on cider.
Trouble is, the first memory my addled brainbox harvests of attending a Galway Arts Festival event looks exactly like a Bulmer's commercial.
Hundreds of happy sweaty young bodies are crammed into the Festival Big Top. There is straw on the floor. To my left, thick-set farmer's sons from Abbeyknockmoy; to my right, brick shithouse trucker's nephews from Tuam. The air is thick with the smell of beer and mud, and up on stage, the Saw Doctors are playing a blinder at home.
To this recently-arrived London boy, that night was a revelation. I was so musically and spiritually far away from the Marquee on Wardour Street, I could have been in Nebraska, or a different universe. But hell, I enjoyed the gig. That night was made possible for me by the inestimable Ollie Jennings, himself a co-founder of the Arts Festival.
Back then, writing a colyoom in this Noble Rag under a nom de plume, I had complained that while the Shams were enjoying worldwide success, they were at risk of neglecting the very roots that had inspired their music and their fanbase.
Months later, an envelope appeared in the newsroom, bearing two tickets to the Sawdoctors' gig in the Festival Big Top.
I've been around the block a few times, and am not easily surprised, but this act of professionalism truly impressed me. Not only did Ollie remember an isolated item in an old colyoom, but he then acted to show me that I was wrong.
Ollie was also on board when Project 06 took on the Arts Festival a couple of years ago, in a successful effort to reclaim the Festival for the people of Galway.
Project 06 focused to a great extent on the participation of local artists, performers and artistic talent, while this colyoom has for many years pleaded that the Arts Festival organisers should work harder to excite and stimulate the local population, through a greater emphasis on small street-based performances, so that we all might feel we live in a Festival City, and not merely a city with a festival.
But far too many column inches have already gone that way, while not enough have extolled the Macnas Parade.
When you live in Galway City, the Arts Festival just happens around you. The source of much revenue to some, to most of the locals it's just something that's happening that makes your life a little more difficult for a couple of weeks. There are well-to-do arty-farty types sitting in traffic jams and outside your pubs, and lots of shows you can't afford, or haven't the time to go to.
To us the Macnas Parade is much more than an event. Galwegians take the parade as a massive 'Thank You', and certainly, all of my favourite memories of the Arts Festival come from parades of the past, splendid and vibrant in their larger-than-life colours and forms. I particularly recall the Noah's Ark parade, with the God figure shooting water out of his gigantic fingertips.
The Macnas Parade brings together all the locals, tourists and arty types and stretches across our collective faces the ecstatic smile of an overexcited five year-old.
This year we have another night time parade, bringing to my mind the night of the first, when 'Cargo de Nuit' were due to make their way to South Park.
I was at that time living in a house that faced right onto the Swamp, so I'd have had the perfect view of all the parade madness and promised spectacular firework display, had it not been for the fact that I was working nights, looking after an elderly gentleman suffering from the later stages of Alzheimer's.
As I made my way to work, I was feeling really jealous of the excited crowds I passed heading whence I came, towards the show.
Later, as I ate an evening meal with my patient (let's call him Peter) and his wife, I thought it best to warn him of the night's proceedings.
"Just wanted to let you know, Peter, that if you hear loud bangs later on, it is only the fireworks from the Festival Parade."
Peter looked at me with completely blank eyes, and a little piece of his apple crumble slid slowly out of his mouth and down his chin.
"Who are you?"
"I am Charlie, Peter!"
Peter smiled warmly.
"Oh yes. Hello, Charlie."
At this point his wife, who was as short-tempered and impatient as her husband was delightful and gentle, turned to have a go at me.
"What's the point in you saying that to him? He cannot even remember your name. He cannot remember my name a lot of the time. How could he possibly remember something that won't happen for hours yet? Don't go trying to confuse him with all this nonsense talk of fireworks. Haven't I enough to think about without you worrying my poor Peter with all this fireworks nonsense."
Somewhat taken aback by the ferocity of her onslaught, I turned once again to look at Peter, sitting placidly and apparently completely unaware of our conversation.
Maybe she was right.
Maybe I had been expecting too much.
Hours later, when the firework display started, I heard Peter emit a little whimper.
Leaping out of my tiny bed to stand beside his, I asked Peter if he was okay.
"Oh yes. It was the loud noise. It woke me up. Who are you?"
"I am Charlie, Peter. "
"Oh yes, Charlie. I know you. Thank you, Charlie."
"My pleasure, Peter. Don't worry about the bangs. They'll stop soon."
"Oh I know. They are the fireworks from the parade."
'Why you sly old dog!' I thought to myself. 'You understood exactly what we were talking about, and simply chose not to engage the wife!'
Even though I rarely attend an event, the Galway Arts Festival is as much a part of my city Summer life as rain and wind.

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