I love a good festival and I suspect that the use of the word to describe this undertaking was very deliberate on the part of Turtle Bunbury, the event’s organiser. Over the past weekend at Lisnavagh House in Co Carlow, over 200 people (my guesstimate – there were probably even more) gathered over what was a glorious weekend to indulge in their love of Irish history at the First Annual History Festival of Ireland. The weather, which looked ominous leading up to the weekend, cooperated majestically and we were blessed with some wonderful sun, warm temperatures and splendid surroundings. The two day festival featured panel talks, one-person shows, debates, discussions, and informal engagement throughout, all loosely surrounding some contentious and thought provoking topics. The list of speakers was extensive, and diverse all of whom showed great inspired dedication and delivered some wonderful and extremely creative presentations. I tweeted throughout the weekend and shared some pictures so I note the hashtag above which captures these.
The venue had concurrent sessions taking place in the stunning library inside the house and also in a marquee in the garden. There were a number of additional stalls offering a full bar, scrum my pies from the Pieminister (I love that), books from the Blessington Bookstore, Tea and biscuits from the family Bunbury and the ticket booth ably and stalwartly managed by Natasha Martin and Louise Kennedy who I have the pleasure of knowing from the MA in Digital Humanities at An Foras Feasa.
The full programme and speaker list is available at the History Festival website noted above. I would however cite the great ignite-type presentations first on the virtuous villains (none seemingly virtuous other than Lord Castlereagh who clearly earned the audience’s admiration) and the unsung heroines series which were a particular treat – all speakers to be highly commended. I attended the bulk of the talks in the house and found the banter between Micheál O’Siochrú and Patrick Geoghan and Kevin Myers around the British Empire quite entertaining. All speakers separately reminding us that the other was not answering the question asked (Could the British Empire Have Existed Without the Irish?) and then each repeatedly deciding to answer their own question. This of course made for a wide ranging, entertaining, and thoughtful debate. The bottom-line that I took away was that of course the empire (for Micheal – which Empire?) – in this all agreed, but that the presence of the Irish throughout the empire probably and certainly contributed heartily to its downfall.
The championing of various villains worked very well and the decision to employ a Roman-style thumbs up thumbs down voting mechanism following each was great audience participation. On a go forward basis, I think the format really suited and if the speakers were all told they were the champion and to dig deep to find the virtues, the competitive area could be quite engaging. This format really suits something such as a ‘festival’ where we are able to make light of history and shed some of the pedantic aspects that sometimes can overtake stodgy conferences. This was a remark that was overheard much this weekend and bodes well. The festival note really struck a good chord ;-)
My first day ended with Paddy Cullivan‘s highly entertaining and hugely appreciated ‘Alternative History of Ireland’ in which he presented a rich multimedia tapestry of images, song and discussion that took a scathing and self-deprecating look at the foibles of a nation over the ages. What a treat!
We managed to get back to Lisnavagh for the second day and the kick-off panel ‘This weeks’ Eucharistic Congress is a sell out – but what has the Catholic Church actually done for us?’ promised to be a rather raucous session. It appeared a little lopsided with Ruth Dudley Edwards and Kevin Myers featured as the main con versants. As it was the self-declared religion friendly atheists were balanced very ably by Maurice Walsh. The first two suspects reprised their roles for a later discussion exploring the fates of members of the Irish Army that left Ireland to fight for the British during the Second World War.
The following stand-up for the Unsung Heroines of Ireland was a sell out and the audience was treated to a lovely vignetted series of talks on a diverse group of fascinating lifestories.
I was able to jump back and forth between the library sessions mentioned above and the events in the marquee. The entire weekend was a wonderful success and I hope that the organisers found it so as well and that we can enjoy a Second Annual History Festival of Ireland next year. After the challenging presentation on the role of the catholic church in Ireland I was very much struck that ‘Father Ted’ has become rather embedded in discourse and it would be fun to explore ‘What Father Ted did for the practice of Catholicism in ireland’.