Programming the Mountains to Sea Festival in the middle of a pandemic, director Liz Kelly kept it ‘of the moment’
Last year, on March 11, wearing my other hat, I drove Margaret Atwood to Shannon Airport for her onward journey home after our International Women’s Day event at Galway 2020. Whilst there, she had cancelled a number of appearances which she had been due to undertake in the United States. I quietly breathed a sigh of relief that we had — just about – managed to get our special event with her out “under the wire”.
Within a few days, everything had changed. Festivals and the rest were being cancelled all over Ireland —including Mountains to Sea dlr Books Festival, of which I have been programme director since late 2017.
This year’s International Women’s Day was quite a different affair, as everything went online. Yet, as our first event appeared on screen on Monday, messages poured in wishing our team well, audiences engaging with wonderful Maggie O’Farrell discussing one of 2020’s most widely read novels, Hamnet, which at its heart is a book about grief and the means by which people find their way through it. We learned that Maggie undertook the writerly equivalent of method acting, handling kestrels and (almost) living the Shakespeares’ family life whilst putting pen to paper.
With the year we’ve all had, I didn’t have to look much further than the stranger-than-fiction world we all now inhabit for a theme. It has been, in the words of the great Noam Chomsky, one of our guests, “a moment like no other”, with time having slowed down so much that the days drag along, while a whole year zips by in a moment. So while the digital format is new territory for me and the team, our thematic approach remains, with this year’s “Of the Moment” underpinning each of the 16 events scheduled over the weekend of March 27 and 28, across all of the artforms.
Curating the programme, I was dreaming of colour and light. So, for those of us desperately in need of an escape to a Greek isle, Polly Samson will chat about her gorgeous tale, A Theatre for Dreamers, with a song or two by David and Romany Gilmour thrown in. Memorable music and reading events over the past couple of years have been the joint forces of Stephen Rea and Neil Martin, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Sinead Gleeson with Maria Doyle Kennedy, and an Adrian Dunbar directed performance of The Waste Land with Nick Roth.
Reading has provided much solace, and with this in mind, Cathy Rentzenbrink and Kit de Waal will share a joyous exploration of how books can change the course of a life through the lens of Cathy’s delightful Dear Reader. A conversation with Max Porter about his luminous new novella The Death of Francis Bacon will shed light on his fascination with this extraordinary artist. There are dazzling debuts to look forward to, including Danielle McLaughlin’s The Art of Falling, Raven Leilani’s Luster and Louise Kennedy’s much anticipated short story collection.
International voices such as Professor Chomsky, American author and activist Rebecca Solnit, and President Joe Biden’s biographer and New Yorker writer Evan Osnos will join us to share their insights into how the world might fare in the coming few years. We may, in fact, have cause to be
In their first foray into children’s writing, Zadie Smith and Nick Laird tell us all about their brilliant children’s book Weirdo which features a very strong-willed guinea pig called Maud, and poets John McAuliffe, Martina Evans, Paula Meehan and Tishani Doshi will share readings of their new work.
We will all miss the ambience and the fun, the Gutter Bookshop and Books Upstairs selling books on site and the adrenaline rush of physically producing a 60-event festival over four days. I’ve had a few late nights and some great fun in the past couple of years with readers and writers. Strolls on the pier with a stop for a Teddy’s 99, an endless supply of caffeine and the odd nightcap to round off the long days and nights of the festival are all aspects of the “real” Mountains to Sea dlr Book Festival that I shall miss this year.
The online format is not without its challenges. I could not have imagined, back in the ’90s as I hurtled around the byroads of Kerry in a tiny car packed with an exhibition to be hung, that I’d end up trying to figure out how to “pivot” to digital. It requires quickly adapting to cameras, to live and pre-recorded events, understanding in effect how a television programme is produced. Gone are stage and box office staff, even design is dispensed with, replaced by intricate lighting usually seen in TV studios.
But dodgy internet connections, permanently bad hair and the odd invasion by hungry tween notwithstanding, our festival will appear online. We’ve embraced this brave new world of sending links instead of plane tickets to writers and welcoming them on to a screen, hoping that they won’t freeze mid-sentence.
Apart from these, thankfully occasional, glitches, festivals have been on a steep learning curve and have fared well just to survive. It means that at Mountains to Sea, we’ll be able to reach a much wider audience for the first time. There’s a sense too of no going back.
In this moment like no other, we have been consumed by distance, being urged to stay together by staying apart, so many among us, one by one becoming shades.
Yet the words we hear and read, the music we listen to and the art that we see have the power to make us weep — but also to console and redeem us and, despite everything, have never mattered more.
For a full programme and tickets, go to mountainstosea.ie