News David McWilliams

Monday 15 September 2014

Kilkenomics attracts top global talent – but joke will be on us if new road ruins the party

David Williams

Published 23/07/2014 | 02:30

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Kilkenny Castle is just one of the attractions that have drawn global economists to the city over the years.
Kilkenny Castle is just one of the attractions that have drawn global economists to the city over the years.

THE other day, I got some good news.

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The Financial Times, the world’s preeminent economics newspaper and the most credible financial publication, which is read by the world’s most influential decision makers, wants to be the global media partner for a small economics festival in Kilkenny.

This means that the eyes of the world will be on Kilkenny. Some of the most influential writers and columnists in the world of business will be writing from the city and the festival in the first week of November. For the festival it is a great development, because we aim to give it global flavour while keeping it in a local setting.

According to the Financial Times, the partnership is not undeserved. In its review of the festival last year, the FT wrote the following:

“All weekend, Kilkenny’s theatres and bars were packed for what is probably the only comedy economics festival on earth. Kilkenomics has been described as ‘Davos with jokes’ and ‘Davos without hookers’. It may be a model for the world.              

Some of the speakers were big-shot American economists. But they came unpaid, and once in Kilkenny, far from global power, everyone shed their guru status. It’s such a small place that almost any pub you stumbled into, however far past midnight, was bulging with famous economists in T-shirts gabbing with ordinary punters. Most tickets to events cost from €5 to €15. This wasn’t a Goldman Sachs investors’ conference.”

The reviewer went on to say:

“I’ve been to lots of festivals and conferences, but Kilkenomics may be the best. More than that: it felt like democracy.”

As you can read from this reviewer, who is a very well-known, international columnist, the city, its bars, theatres, streets and  ambiance are an essential part of the festival’s appeal.

Kilkenomics came about following a conversation that I had with an old friend, Richard Cook. Richard is the founder of the highly regarded Kilkenny Cat Laughs Comedy festival, now in its 20th year. Five years ago, Richard suggested that we try to do a festival that brings economics to the people.

He was frustrated that so much of the discussion about economics – which is essential in everyone’s lives – is pitched and framed by experts, in the language of academia and serves to confuse rather than enlighten. It is as if the economists want to preserve the aura that economics is very difficult and therefore only those with very specialised knowledge can comprehend its complexity. This approach to discussion is a form of protectionism.

Why don’t we break this down? 

This approach tied in with my own view that in economics what is important is rarely complicated and what is complicated is rarely important.

I was hooked and the idea of combining top-notch economists with the best standup comedians was born. The plan was that I’d get the best international economists I could manage to persuade and Richard would do likewise with comedians; then we’d figure out a programme of events and see how things went.

These initial conversations took place in Dublin and I had assumed we’d probably host the festival in Dublin but Richard insisted Kilkenny was the place for this.

“The city has something special, just wait and see” 

And so in 2010, Kilkenomics kicked off.

To be honest, I didn’t know much about Kilkenny other than a distant childhood memory from the 1970s when the old lads in my granny’s bar in Cork reserved particular bile for a fella called Eddie Keher.

However, the moment we started looking at venues in the city, I knew we could be on to something special but we still had a long way to go.

After all we had to convince international economic superstars – used to commanding huge fees - to come to a country they didn’t know much about, to a city they’d never heard of, to be grilled by standup comedians and to do it all for the good of their health!

However, the minute the first major player, the Columbia economist, Jeff Sachs, arrived in Kilkenny, he was enchanted by the city. On a crisp, clear, November morning, I took him for a stroll in the gardens of Kilkenny Castle, then down the hill, up to High Street and on towards St Canice’s Cathedral.  The spires of the various ancient churches gave the city a truly medieval feel, which for an American, used to strip malls, six lane highways and shopping plazas, was beguiling.

We forget this at our peril. Heritage, history and the architectural echo of our past are all priceless. This is what we are selling to visitors.

Of course, Sachs had a blast and told his friends about this bizarre festival in this beautiful small city. They, in turn, told their friends.

All the while, the city of Kilkenny provided the essential backdrop for the festival.    

Over the first five years of Kilkenomics, we have hosted dozens of economists (people who travel a lot) from all over the world. All of them comment on how brilliant it is to be outside a big international metropolis, in an intimate architectural gem, surrounded by Irish history.      

From The Set in Langtons, to Bridies beside it, from the evocative Hole in the Wall and the cozy, almost conspiratorial, back of Cleere’s Pub and the restaurant for an economists’ brunch at the Pembroke Hotel, the venues and the streets and cafes of Kilkenny make Kilkenomics. So too does the welcome all the local traders give to this strange troop of dismal scientists and stand-up comedians.

Seeing the thrilling result of this ephemeral chemistry, part venue, part street, part city, part guest, where the audience and performers hang out together in the city, is why it saddens me to hear that the County Council want to plough a new road through the heart of the old city – the so-called CAS.

There are many more qualified than me to discuss urban planning, but one thing should be clear to all: getting traffic out of - not into - the city, thereby preserving its integrity, is essential. All great cities are walking cities. And all beautiful medieval cities have ancient preserved centres. We preserve them because they are valuable and precious.

Cities are highly sensitive eco-systems, where a change in one area can have unforeseen consequences for other areas, as traffic and commerce shifts. A bit like a rainforest, where cutting down a tree here can affect light over there and cause havoc on the forest life in some other spot.

Kilkenny will be in the global spotlight due to the Financial Time’s involvement with Kilkenomics this November. It would be a terrible shame if a core ingredient, the city itself, were tampered with before properly entertaining the alternatives.

www.kilkenomics.com runs from November 6th to 9th and will feature one of the most important figure in international economics and finance, Paul Mc Culley, the chief economist and strategist of PIMCO, the world’s biggest bond fund.               

Irish Independent

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