Wednesday 25 April 2018

A city steeped in culture leads the way in Ireland and Europe

This year's Galway International Arts Festival broadens the horizons for the city, writes Celine Naughton

Marwa al-Sabouni from Syria gives a talk today
Marwa al-Sabouni from Syria gives a talk today

Celine Naughton

When it comes to the world of arts and culture, killer robots, Donald Trump's great wall of Mexico and the grim history of the Magdalene laundries are not subjects that naturally spring to mind.

But all have a place at this year's Galway International Arts Festival (GIAF) in a series of panel discussions that have become a hallmark of the event.

A bit like Ted Talks for culture vultures, at first sight the topics listed for this year's 'First Thought Talks' might seem more appropriate to news and current affairs than arts and culture - or in the case of those killer robots, an Arnold Schwarzenegger retrospective.

However, according to GIAF chief executive John Crumlish, they are being included in this year's programme precisely because arts need to be at the heart of discussions about current affairs.

"Our aim is to create a debate," he says. "By doing so we can reimagine important issues that affect us all, such as the conflict in Syria, the militarisation of artificial intelligence, and the power of borders."

Like all the best ideas, the initial concept was simple - provide a discussion platform for some of the country's leading figures in arts and culture to exchange views about creativity. Having started out as informal after-show discussions, over the past five years 'First Thought Talks' have evolved to become one of the festival's main attractions.

"There was such an appetite for these talks that we decided in 2012 to launch them as a series in their own right, with a common theme, which this year is power," says Mr Crumlish. "When we were at the planning stage last September, we didn't envisage the seismic global events to come that would make that topic so pertinent right now."

With most of the talks taking place today and tomorrow, mostly in NUIG, and others on July 28-29, this year's line-up features an eclectic mix of thought-provoking speakers and subjects.

Creative Makers Galway craft collective, which opened a pop up shop for the duration of the festival
Creative Makers Galway craft collective, which opened a pop up shop for the duration of the festival

Today at 11.30am in the Bailey Allen Hall NUIG, Marwa al-Sabouni, a 35-year-old architect from Syria, discusses the 'Power of Home'. Having lived with her husband and two children through some of the fiercest fighting in Homs during the recent war, she will explore how the architecture of a place is connected with the character of its community, and why it's as important for people in the aftermath of war to rebuild their sense of identity as it is to rebuild a city. Tomorrow at 10am in the O'Donoghue Theatre, Professor Noel Sharkey, of the University of Sheffield and spokesperson for the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots, will explain why he believes the world needs a charter to stop the militarisation of artificial intelligence sooner rather than later. At 1pm a discussion on 'The Power of Borders' (O'Donoghue Theatre) will no doubt resonate with many in the light of Brexit, the refugee crisis and Mr Trump's wall with Mexico.

At 2.30pm in 'A Powerful Effect' (Bailey Allen Hall), RTÉ Washington correspondent Caitríona Perry - she of the "nice smile," according to Mr Trump - and author Colm Tóibín reflect on what power does to people, and the effects it has on others. On July 29, there will be a rehearsed reading and post-show talk called 'The Power of Words' (O'Donoghue Theatre, 2.30pm and 6pm), based on Patricia Burke-Brogan's play 'Eclipsed', the story of women in a Magdalene laundry.

With over 200,000 people attending the GIAF, it is one of Ireland's most important arts events, but the city's cultural clout doesn't end there. As a Unesco City of Film, Galway's reputation gained further recognition last year when it was named European Capital of Culture 2020. A collaboration that included renowned stalwarts Macnas, the Druid Theatre, Branar, GIAF, Galway Film Fleadh and many others, the process of putting together the successful bid was a distinct advantage when it came to developing a cultural strategy under the Creative Ireland umbrella.

"We're ahead of the game in having had that experience already," says the city's Creative Ireland co-ordinator Gary McMahon. "It's a process of building and development, valuing what you've got and strengthening it, and very importantly, being inclusive. Arts and culture are for everybody and, to paraphrase John Lennon, not just those who can rattle their jewellery to the beat."

For a city steeped in culture and arts, will its Creative Ireland team share that knowledge and experience with other counties that might be playing catch-up?

"We wouldn't presume to tell anyone what they should be doing," says Mr McMahon.

"However, there is a network of local Creative Ireland teams across the country who meet and share information, and in that environment, we're very happy to say, 'This worked for us,' or 'This definitely didn't, so you might want to avoid that.' There is a great sense of partnership about the whole Creative Ireland initiative, and even when it comes to things like the European Capital of Culture, it's seen as a designation for Ireland, not just for Galway."

Launching later this year, 'Architecture Is... On the Edge' is a festival inviting people to come and see buildings in Galway that aren't usually open to the public, with free talks, tours and exhibitions exploring the theme of housing and how buildings can shape the way we live. One building opened to the public as part of last year's centenary commemorations was Ionad Cultúrtha an Phiarsaigh, a visitor centre adjoining Padraig Pearse's holiday cottage in Rosmuc where the 1916 leader is reputed to have written many of his orations.

The modern building contains an interactive exhibition about Pearse, along with a gallery space and café. From there, visitors can stroll to the original cottage, preserved just as it was when he left it for the last time in 1915. From Pearse's orations penned over a century ago amid the wild landscape of Connemara to today's 'First Thought Talks' delivered in the City of Tribes, Galway's track record for inspiring creativity looks set to continue for generations to come.

Irish Independent

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