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It's a kind of magic: The fans (still) spellbound by Harry Potter

As a Galway student society celebrates 23 years of JK Rowling's schoolboy wizard with its annual festival, Tanya Sweeney asks members about their healthy obsession


Kevin McLoughlin, Auditor of NUIG’s Harry Potter Appreciation Society, says it’s important to have a tribe of fans to discuss all things Hogwarts. Photo: Andrew Downes

Kevin McLoughlin, Auditor of NUIG’s Harry Potter Appreciation Society, says it’s important to have a tribe of fans to discuss all things Hogwarts. Photo: Andrew Downes

Andrew Downes Xposure

Kevin McLoughlin, Auditor of NUIG’s Harry Potter Appreciation Society, says it’s important to have a tribe of fans to discuss all things Hogwarts. Photo: Andrew Downes

In the 23 years since JK Rowling released her first book, the Harry Potter franchise has swollen into a €25b empire. Five hundred million books have been sold, making it the bestselling series in history. Suffice to say, the legion of fans spans the globe and, by now, straddles generations.

Devotees will descend on Galway next weekend for Potterfest 2020: Phoenixfest - two days of Potter-related sorcery and wizardry at NUI Galway. Attendees of all ages plan to experience the magic of the wizarding world, as well as a variety of events, including Potter-themed games, cosplay (dressing up as a character) competitions, panels, classes, role-playing workshops and guest speakers. Visitors will have the opportunity to be sorted into their perfect Hogwarts House, and an array of Harry Potter merchandise will be available for purchase in the Trade Hall.

The event has been organised by NUI Galway's Harry Potter Appreciation Society, an-award winning society of some 3,000 members.

When Kevin McLoughlin arrived to study at NUIG, he was somewhat dismayed to find that the Potter society he had heard of had already disbanded.

"I was so excited to join it - NUI Galway is a terrific school, but the society was part of my reason for choosing to go there," he explains. "On the very first day, I was told the society had shut down, so I went straight to the society office and started a petition to refound the society." He immediately amassed 300 signatures.

The society now meets for around six to 10 hours a week to enjoy quizzes, themed nights and film events.


Society members Ruadh Kelly-Harrington and Kevin McLoughlin. Photo: Andrew Downes

Society members Ruadh Kelly-Harrington and Kevin McLoughlin. Photo: Andrew Downes

Andrew Downes Xposure

For superfan Kevin, it was important to have a tribe of fellow Potter fans to discuss all things Hogwarts. At the age of seven, he happened upon his brother's copy of Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone and was immediately hooked.

"It completely captured my imagination, perhaps for personal reasons," he explains. "I'm autistic, although I didn't know that at the time, and found it hard to make friends and fit it. In the book, there was this magical place where people were a little different, but went and had amazing magical adventures. I guess it's something I hoped for myself."

Having read the entire series eight or nine times by now, he has amassed a huge amount of merchandise. A few years ago, he wrote a 48,000-word piece of fan fiction, detailing a speculative romance between two characters that still lives online today. "I don't think I've gone a Christmas for 10 years without getting Harry Potter presents," he smiles.

His friend, psychology student Ruadh Kelly-Harrington, a vice-auditor in NUI Galway's Harry Potter Appreciation Society, says much the same thing. "I have a Harry Potter version of everything you can think of, although I never buy myself anything."

With an older brother who loved Harry Potter books so much he regularly queued outside bookshops at midnight to get his hands on a copy, Ruadh was initially passed on the tomes.

"He was a divil - he'd say stuff like, 'you know Harry Potter dies at the end of this one'," she laughs. "Even now, our family would watch all eight of the Harry Potter films every year for Christmas."

On her love of the books, she adds: "Nothing transports you the same way Harry Potter does. It's amazing in that it's a book aimed at children, but deals with such complex issues like racism, power, corruption and good versus evil."

Kevin notes that the books' central message is particularly potent for their generation: "If you break Harry Potter down, it's the story of a group of intolerant people who want to enforce their beliefs on everyone, and a group of others who don't want that to happen. That speaks largely to our generation; the generation that someone like Greta Thunberg is from. It's the underdog refusing to get beaten down."

Adds Ruadh: "You can certainly see with an issue like climate change, it sometimes feels like younger people against older generations. In Ireland for instance, we know that the Government isn't doing enough for climate action. There's definitely a sort of correlation there."

Mololuwa Awgboro, an English and French student at NUI Galway, also found her Potter-loving tribe through the society.

"I read the books when I was about eight," she recalls, "I think it was something to do with the characters being 11 or so and part of this fantastic world of possibilities.

"They were going to secondary school and showing that fun, other side of that world, which is fascinating when you're still in primary school.

"Even though the books are set in England, there's a sense that once you get into the wizarding world, it could be anywhere," she adds. "Harry Potter is the chosen one, and this excitement could happen to anyone, and that really ignites the imagination of young readers, as well as a sense of nostalgia for everyone else."

Mololuwa spends time discussing the franchise in several fan groups online. "You really have to find your niche online," she explains. "Some people like to just talk about the books and the characters, some create fan fiction and others like to critique the books. Personally, I like the latter, being an English student. Just finding people into the same things as you is a huge boost."

Kevin notes that it takes a while to find one's Potter niche on the web, which is why meeting like-minded appreciators in real life is of such importance to superfans.

"You still have the big Tumblr tribes, and then people who run blogs and enjoy the cosplay side of things, but one of the things I find with the community overall is that it's much less toxic than so many others," he reveals.

"If you're dealing with some anime or Dungeons & Dragons people, it can sometimes become their whole personality. The people who love Harry Potter want new people to get into it. That's why, with this event, there's a family day where you can bring your kids.

"Harry Potter is so important to us that we want the next generation to enjoy it as much as we did."

Ruadh notes that her fandom of Harry Potter is likely to last for years to come.

"One hundred per cent, my children will be raised on Harry Potter books," she smiles. "Whether or not JK Rowling decides to make more content doesn't matter. For me, [my love for the books] is not going away any time soon."

Potterfest 2020: Phoenixfest is on February 8/9 at NUI Galway. For more information, see cons.ie/event/potterfest-2020-phoenixfest/

Irish Independent