'It's important we have a space to rest, and think and be inspired'
Former schoolmaster Brendan Flynn has been the creative drive behind the Clifden Arts Festival for 42 years. He tells Hilary A White he sees himself as a 'messenger boy', and about the joy he gets from seeing children react to artists
In 1974, the road from Galway to Clifden wouldn't have been as broad and accommodating as it is today. Even now, as you make the journey out west to a point beyond, you twist and undulate with mountain walls to your right and endless boggy lakelands to your left.
It's almost 45 years to the day since a worldly young teacher named Brendan Flynn made that long pilgrimage to take up a job as vice principal in the Franciscan monastery just outside the town. The Ballinasloe native had returned from five years in Spain where he'd been teaching English in the University of Valladolid and sating his cultural appetites. Before that, he had taught in pre-Troubles Belfast and befriended Seamus Heaney. And before that again, Flynn was stationed in Nigeria, a journey that, in the 1960s, must have made Galway to Clifden seem like a doddle.
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"I was anxious to get back to Ireland," Flynn recalls. "But Spain has always been a very influential part of my life, the inspiration of people like Lorca. Or Goya - that line of his: 'Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the source of wonders.' Iberia and Connemara have so many links - not just flora, fauna and music, but also the same pathos and lack of vocabulary."
The story goes that a bottle of Rioja was sheepishly popped open with headmaster and classicist Brother Killian Kearney the night of his arrival. A bond was formed between these two men of learning and letters that would go on to transform the western enclave. "I was so lucky to meet him," Flynn says. "I felt at home. There was a sense of encouragement from this new mentor I'd found."
The completion in 1977 of a new community school saw the resources of the Franciscans and the local Sisters of Mercy pooled and secondary education finally come to the town. Flynn and a core of fresh-thinking fellow teachers had made a habit of inviting local writers and poets to read and run workshops. With a more substantial building now open, the idea of a modest arts festival to broaden young horizons was now feasible. Neil Jordan, Desmond Hogan and John Behan featured at that first ever "Arts Week".
Forty two years on, Clifden Arts Festival stands as the longest-running community arts festival in the country, its footprint now spread across the townland and playing host down the years to the likes of Mary Robinson, Seamus Heaney, John McGahern, Edna O'Brien, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood, Christy Moore, Maeve Binchy and Glen Hansard. All answered the call from the erudite local schoolmaster seeking to pass on the enriching effect cultural luminaries had on him.
What hasn't changed, he explains, is the educational bent that now sees 14 local schools involved. Indeed, the festival's programme launch each September would come to provide a lift as the back-to-school bells rang. ("It was something to look forward to just as the term was starting and, as a pupil, you knew you had access to it all," one local says).
Flynn is roundly regarded as the meat in the festival sandwich, though he'd never admit it. Regularly during our chat, he will scurry away from a question about his impact into a quote by Theo Dorgan, John Moriarty, or Heaney. He admits to "getting a bit romantic and carried away", but is also at pains to highlight the contribution of the organising committee, the team of volunteers and the local businesses, schools and supporters. The founder and artistic director of the whole thing is coming good on his reputation for being notoriously self-effacing.
It hasn't gone unnoticed, however. In 2016, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by NUIG for his work in arts and education. President Michael D Higgins, a long-time friend, said that under Flynn's guidance, this once unassuming event had become "a unique and outstanding experience" and "a 'meitheal' between artists and audience, forged on a profound respect for community and belonging". Fiddle maestro Martin Hayes, meanwhile, recalled how a musician friend described feeling "morally obliged" to come to Clifden after getting "the call". "That's the power of Brendan Flynn, and that power comes from the integrity of his purpose."
"I'm just the messenger boy," Flynn says, swatting away such notions. "I've enjoyed every year seeing the enthusiasm of the children reacting to these artists. One decade leads on to another and hopefully the same soil keeps being retilled and resown and regenerated. That's what it's all about. One continuous on-going circle."
After retiring as principal in 1996, Flynn was invited to sit on the Arts Council in 1998, where he used his position to push for more arts programming in the educational sector ("In Clifden, we've always believed in that"). With so many mental health problems facing young people today, can the arts be a salve?
"Oh yes," he says quietly. "'The mind altering alters all,' as John Moriarty put it. Besides the cultural heritage available to us, it's our ability within ourselves to listen, to have not only the voice, but also the ear. It's so important - to listen, to thank, to forgive and to love. We can't allow the imagination to be swamped by the data and technology we now encounter everywhere. It's important we have a space for listening, for people to rest and think and enjoy and be inspired."
Flynn won't reveal his exact age ("we're progressing between the 70s and the 80s"), but says he is mulling over his daughters' wishes he write a memoir. The story is not over just yet, though, and with hotels booked out and another weighty bill (Lisa Hannigan, Seamus Mallon, Paul Noonan, Colum McCann, et al) en route, the reminiscing is on hold.
"Ah sure, I'll always be hanging around," says the linchpin who threatens to retire every year, before finding another literary diversion to escape into. "When I do go, it'll be like that lovely line by Heaney about the Clonmacnoise monks releasing the ship, and the boatman 'climbing back out of the marvellous as he'd known it'. And I've seen the marvellous in many, many ways."
The 42nd Clifden Arts Festival runs September 18-29. Visit Clifdenartsfestival.ie.