There is a memory of a morning coffee meeting in the Brasserie Restaurant in Middle St. At the table were three other people, Fred Johnston, Ronnie O'Gorman and, although the memory is vague here, I believe the fourth person was Dick O'Donoghue. In the course of that meeting, Fred Johnston floated the idea of a Poetry Festival based loosely on the style of the Bardic Poetry Festivals held in Medieval Ireland. This was my first experience of the idea which developed into the now internationally renowned Cúirt Festival and which takes place every April in Galway.
Initially a modest affair, the festival grew in stature and was devoted to poetry only. From a simple two-day affair it grew in leaps and bounds until it became the six-day literary extravaganza it is now. One of the more significant elements of the festival was that young poets, in some instants not yet published, shared a platform with well established poets and even on occasion a Nobel laureate. A highlight of those earlier festivals was the Cúirt Debate which attracted national attention and left the poetic fraternity talking for months.
In order to sustain Arts Council funding the festival expanded its priorities and began to include prose writers in the programme. Thus undoubtedly greatly compromised the poetic ethos of Cúirt but did allow it to develop and introduce exciting and ground-breaking international writers to the Galway and, increasingly, tourist audience.
The Cúirt Festival now entered into something of a Golden Era, each festival reaching new heights, begging the question at the end of each one "How can they better that next year?" And, thanks to the hard work of its various committees and capable and dedicated directors, better it they did until the festival earned itself an international reputation second to few.
However, as the festival reached the end of its first generation and the enthusiasms and energies of its earlier organizers began naturally to wane, there was a fear that it may slip into a recognised pattern and lose its excitement and ethos. Would the festival become a platform for the same old faces and gradually develop into a club for writers, and indeed an audience, of a certain age? Although the origins of Cúirt were largely forgotten, could the fond (and increasingly fonder) memories of these early glory years negate any new direction the festival might take, or any new energies that may have the ability to lead it there?
There were signs emerging that perhaps the festival was becoming stale and had reached the end of the road. The programme began to have a sameness about it, familiar faces were appearing at shortening intervals. The festival was beginning to establish its own hierarchy.
Opening the programme of the twenty third Cúirt festival, due to take place from the 22nd to the 27th of this month, immediately dispels any such fears. The ethos and energy of the festival is succinctly described by Galway Arts Centre Director, Páraic Breathnach. In the introduction when he writes:
Le linn na Cúirte, glacann an scríbhneoireacht colainn dhaonna, trína bheith á léamh ag an údar. Le Cúirt, is féidir leis an bpobal teagmháil agus caidreamh a dhéanamh le sárscríbhneoirí na linne i gcathair ina bhfuil spás fós fagtha don chomhrá!
If the programme is anything to go by, this Cuirt Festival promises to be as exciting and enjoyable as any that have preceded it. From the curtain raiser on Tuesday night, which includes readings by Jennifer Johnston and Sebastian Barry, and productions by the Galway Arts Centre and Decadent Theatre and the Galway Youth Theatre, to the last hurrah, which is the Anne Kennedy Memorial Lecture given by Breyten Breytenbach, the Director of the Gore Institute in Senegal, on Sunday night, there is a fascinating and intriguing line up of readings, performances, exhibitions, launches, unveilings, debates, interviews, lectures and films. There is even a garden party.
This programme was not put together overnight and is a monument to the energy, dedication, commitment and sheer hard work of the organising committees and panels. They have done Galway a tremendous service and deserve the city's gratitude. The best way to grant them that is to give the festival our fullest support by putting bums on seats. Believe you me, you will not go away disappointed.
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