Interview: Karen Walshe Artistic Director, St Patrick’s Festival

Posted 9 months ago in More

“I am proud that the Festival can support these new projects that will move on to travel the world.” – Karen Walshe Artistic Director, St Patrick’s Festival


What is your remit as artistic director of the St Patrick’s Festival?

Over the past four years my role has been to develop vision and potential for the programme and relationships of the Festival with artists, collaborators and organisations on a national and international level, and to enhance and develop the festival strategically.

Behind the scenes, backstage as it were, the role is about leading the artistic and project management department of the festival. My team and I would have a very close relationship with both Marketing and Production departments, we work together on budgeting, marketing, publicity, and the operational management of the programme.


The festival has undergone another re-brand – what was the decision behind this and what are you hoping to achieve and convey with its new identity?

Aileen Galvin, our new Marketing and Communications Director, re-positioned the look, feel and tone of voice of the Festival to reflect the direction that the programme has taken. She brought in designers Aiden Grennelle, who worked with her on the re-launch of the National Gallery, and Pete Reddy, and set them the task of reclaiming the cultural tropes that we’ve lost over the years – the snake, the shamrock, etc – icons that are embraced internationally and always will be, but that aren’t necessarily ones that we are always comfortable with at home. She wanted the look to be contemporary and proud but also fun and dynamic. Aiden and Pete have brought those ideas to life and the response has been fantastic. The Marketing team also worked with Post Studio to develop a brand-new website, and the result is a window for the world that presents contemporary Irish culture, while at the same time proudly showcasing our traditions. The overall aim, for audiences at home and abroad, is to drive the message that St. Patrick’s Festival is a world-class cultural celebration, a large scale five-day and five-night festival that brings together the very best of our contemporary culture and our incredible traditions.


Which decisions informed the direction of your programming for this year?

This is my fourth year programming the Festival, and in this time I’ve been fine tuning the events in response to the growing demands and appetites for a diverse and innovative programme. It has been a steady growth since I started, and as each year passes, I am more confident in what we can deliver for our audiences. My vision and hope for the role has always been to present a Festival that really reflects what is happening in the Irish landscape today, while exploring the questions of identity and perception that surround our national holiday. While we will always reflect on the past, we want to produce a programme which also conveys who we are today and what we’re capable of.  It is imperative that the events are inclusive, respectful, explorative and creative.

This year you’ll see a line-up of diverse artists and events from Soulé, Denise Chaila and Mango X Mathman to Colm Mac Con Iomaire, Lisa Hannigan and This Is How We Fly with Iarla Ó Lionáird. Mount Alaska, Dublin Gospel Choir and theatre creators ThisIsPopBaby sit alongside a who’s who of sean-nós singers, traditional musicians and storytellers from our exciting Abair programme. Add to the mix exhibitions at Hen’s Teeth, Atelier Maser with their all-female show Assemble featuring Helen Steele, Leah Hewson, Lola Donoghue and more, balladeers, mummers, rappers, slam poets and so much more, all side by side for the 2020 offering. With my previous experience working on festivals like DEAF and the Festival of World Cultures, I have always known the caliber of artists we have in this country, and my aim has always been to bring these to the fore and invite them to join us on this unique national platform. What other festival is wrapped around one of the largest parades in the world, with over one million viewers across the globe?


The festival has strived to broaden local perceptions of it regarding its cultural and multi-cultural offerings. How important is it to shift the old, embedded, perception that it is more than ‘a parade and piss-up’? What measures have you taken to increase local engagement?

The experience has most certainly changed in the city. While it is busy and people are enjoying themselves, the five days and nights, including Parade Day, are extremely well managed by ourselves, An Garda Siochana and Dublin City Council, providing a safe and enjoyable experience for all. Through a contemporary programme with artists like Mango X Mathman, events like the electronic series Standing Sitting Lying Down with Robbie Kitt, Sorca McGrath amongst others, the provocative Where We Live programme of plays, live art and debate around the realities of living in Dublin and Ireland today, to the historic walking tour of queer Dublin with Tonie Walsh, to the curated show with Annie Mac, Kojaque, Soule, Denise Chaila at Guinness Storehouse, spoken word events with Felispeaks, talks with Marian Richardson and Deirdre O’Kane, each presented in our stunning landmark spaces, it’s all about offering a rich, rounded and considered programme in terms of artists, locations, pricing, partners and design. Our new marketing strategy is to create a tone that is contemporary, fun and welcoming for all ages, interests and cultures. It’s a Festival for the Irish people, and that is what I want people to feel about St. Patrick’s Festival, not to feel they should go away on holidays for the weekend, but to stay in Dublin and experience all of these offerings on their doorstep over five days and nights.


Tell a bit more about one event you are most proud of creating for the festival this year?

It’s hard, as you can imagine, to choose one over another but three shows I’ll be up the front at are This is How we Fly who will collaborate on a new show with Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionáird at Liberty Hall Theatre. I saw their first show 10 years ago at the Fringe and have been in awe of this show ever since. Part traditional, part contemporary music, fused together with percussive dance and the distinctive sean-nos voice of Iarla, you’ll be dancing inside as you experience this rare performance.

One of my favourite Irish musicians, and I’d say one of Ireland’s greatest contemporary fiddle players, is Colm Mac Con Iomaire. He performs his latest album The River Holds Its Breath / Tost Ar An Abhainn in Vicar St on March 16 with his full band plus collaborators from the album, ConTempo Quartet. If you have never witnessed Colm on stage, I’d advise you to check out his show, his performance is unmistakably his own and his music bears distinctive creative hallmarks which have as much to do with his personality and character as with his impressive technical mastery, musical authority and exquisitely expressive playing. When Colm performs there is a divine feeling in the room, and I believe you’re that little bit closer to heaven!

Finally, composers Matthew Nolan and Adrian Crowley have carefully re-imagined James Joyce’s last book of poetry Pomes Penyeach, into a musical show with Lisa Hannigan, Cora Venus Lunny and Cheyenne Mize, at the National Concert Hall on Mon 16th March. I am proud that the Festival can support these new projects that will move on to travel the world.

St Patrick’s Festival runs from Friday March 13 to Tuesday March 17***

***In line with the wider actions being taken in response to the constantly changing nature of the global health crisis, the organisers of the St Patrick’s Festival have cancelled the indoor programme of cultural events. Further details here.


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