Monday 27 January 2020

Kilkenny: A cultural blank canvas

As the annual arts festival hits the medieval city, our reporter previews the events and artists set to preform at this Euro-focused instalment

Rebel rebel: Counting Sheep
Rebel rebel: Counting Sheep
Great escape: Albesila by Architects of Air
Hi! Fashion exhibition at Kilkenny Arts Festival

Katy Hayes

The medieval city of Kilkenny is like a cultural Petri dish. It has groomed various creative institutions, including the Kilkenny Design Centre, the Cat Laughs Festival, the Kilkenomics festival and Cartoon Saloon's Academy Award-winning animation studio.

And late each summer, the city gives us the annual Kilkenny Arts Festival. Festival director Eugene Downes is putting finishing touches together. "Our year-round staff is three people, including me," he says, "but at this time, we have 20 or more staff and several hundred volunteers... everyone from 15-year-olds to people in their 80s, some of whom have been volunteering for 40 years or more."

Downes stresses the importance of creating an atmosphere in the city "where the artists are having as much fun as the audience. They are meeting each other, not just in the venue or at the performance, but on the streets or in the bars, in the gardens and the park".

This year, the festival programme has a special emphasis on Europe. "We have gathered different voices into a shared conversation, getting the perspective of artists alongside politicians, diplomats and decision makers," says Downes. "It is like a fusion of a summer school with an arts festival.

"Ireland and the European Union as an entity are at a very particular juncture this year because there is so much uncertainty related to Brexit, the new regime in America and also the relationship at the other side of Europe, with Russia. This instability raises questions for us as Irish citizens regarding what kind of a future European Union we want to co-create with our fellow Europeans. That's a very political question for us as citizens, but it's also a cultural question."

The Kilkenny Arts Festival may not give a clear answer to that question, but provides a multi-disciplinary canvas for engaging with it.


Best for Families

Albesila (luminarium)

Architects of Air have created a new luminarium this year; a light-filled labyrinth with a central dome filled with stars, bold primary colours and ever changing light effects.

Kilkenny Castle, Aug 12-20, open daily.

Secret Garden Music

This series of free concerts, dotted in gardens around the city, features Irish and international artists present for the festival. The performers are not announced in advance. It draws a wide audience, including the core classical music devotees, but it's easy to peel off if the kids get tired.

Venues include Castle Yard, Butler House Garden and more. Aug 12-20, 3pm and 4pm.

Hi! Fashion

Hi! Fashion exhibition at Kilkenny Arts Festival

Garments and accessories from Japan are presented side by side with Irish designs, exploring visual correlations and contrasts between designers from the two island nations (left). Curated by Gemma A Williams, featured Irish designers include Sybil Connolly and John Rocha; Japanese designers include Kansai Yamamoto and Issey Miyake. There are parallel craft workshops for adults, children and teens.

National Craft Gallery, Castle Yard. Aug 12 - Nov 12, open daily.

Artists at work

Festival Portrait 2017

Mick O'Dea is in the third year of his residency, creating portraits of the artists at the festival. Thus far, 25 have been completed, and the public can visit him and his sitter at work. The exhibition grows each day as more portraits are completed.

Mick O'Dea's Studio, Home Rule Club. Aug 12-20, 2.30pm-4pm.

Exhibition, Old Dore Factory, Abbey Street, Aug 12-20, open daily.

Paula Meehan: Poet In Residence

Meehan, one of Ireland's foremost living poets, has just completed her term as Ireland Professor of Poetry. Her residency in Kilkenny includes a workshop for poets (participation by application, places limited) and a presentation of her own work.

Poet In Residence, Parade Tower, Aug 17, 6pm.

Workshop, Heritage Council. Aug 18, 11am.

Best for politicos and Europhiles

The Hubert Butler Annual Lecture:

Eva Hoffman

Hoffman was born in Poland, moved to Canada as a teenager, was educated and developed her career in America, and now lives in the UK. Her Jewish parents survived the Nazi occupation by hiding in a bunker in a Ukrainian forest. A journalist, novelist and academic, she has written books about her Polish heritage and the Holocaust. She is an expert on the tangle-rooted cultures of Eastern Europe. Introduced by Olivia O'Leary.

St Canice's Cathedral. Aug 12, 6pm.

Counting Sheep

The festival's headline show is a blend of theatre, dance, music and song and gives a personal account of the popular uprising that toppled the Ukrainian government in 2014. Created by Mark and Marichka Marczyk and the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, this immersive, interactive show seeks to recreate the energy of protest and draw the audience inside the revolution. Suitable for aged 14+.

The Hub, Cillín Hill. Aug 13-19, 8pm; Aug 19, 3pm.

Ireland & Europe: Creative Visions

A series of discussions and engagements on the future of Europe over the course of the festival. Events include:

* Chartering A Revolution - Olivia O'Leary in conversation with Alexander Vondra, the former Czech Minister for Europe and adviser to President Vaclav Havel. Rothe House. Aug 13, 11am.

* Here and There - Sheila O'Donnell and John Tuomey, Irish architects and recipients of the Royal Gold Medal in 2015, discuss European projects underway in their architectural practice.

Parade Tower. Aug 15, 6pm.

Best for music lovers

Favourite Lieder: Ailish Tynan and Iain Burnside

Schubert is the featured composer this year and several sessions are dedicated to his work. This lunchtime series of concerts explores his collection of Lieder. Thursday's episode brings popular Irish soprano Ailish Tynan together with leading UK pianist Iain Burnside, treating the audience to some of Schubert's best-loved songs, including 'Swan Song' and 'Night and Dreams'.

St John's Priory, Aug 17, 1pm.

Alfred Brendel Lecture: The Last Piano Sonatas

Austrian Alfred Brendel, one of the world's most renowned pianists, retired from concert performance 10 years ago. This lecture focuses on his lifetime engagement with Schubert's piano sonatas, works whose reputation Brendal did a lot to revive.

St Canice's Cathedral, Aug 18, 5pm.

Marble City Sessions: Crash Ensemble with Sam Amidon & Friends

Ireland's new music orchestra Crash Ensemble teams up with progressive folk artist Sam Amidon & Friends for a diverse concert, including concert premieres of work by Nico Muhly and Jennifer Walshe. Americana with a 21st century twist.

St Canice's Cathedral, Aug 17, 8pm.

The festival runs from August 11-20. For more information, visit

Irish Independent

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