Féile na Bealtaine's wonderful madness

Clare Galvin taking part in the Féile na Bealtaine parade in Dingle on Sunday, at which the theme was ‘Masks of the World’. Photo by Declan Malone
Clare Galvin taking part in the Féile na Bealtaine parade in Dingle on Sunday, at which the theme was ‘Masks of the World’. Photo by Declan Malone

When Dr Micheál Fanning staged the first Féile na Bealtaine 26 years ago, with a gathering of poets in Foxy John's as the main attraction, people wondered if he had lost the run of himself entirely. Much has changed since then. The arts world isn't a foreign place anymore; it doesn't cause a family crisis if a youngster wants to be a poet; and Dingle has gained a reputation as a centre of culture with a vibrant artistic community.

Féile na Bealtaine has been one of the driving forces of this transition and in the process of doing so it has itself grown to become one of the major arts festivals in the country and the largest and by far the most successful arts festival run entirely by volunteers.

Those volunteers wouldn't see themselves as part of the 'wonderful dawling' arty set. Far from it, they're just very energised by doing well for their community, open minded and above all hard-working. That work ethic is what made possible Sunday's stunning Féile parade, a hugely entertaining children's day in the town park, dozens of exhibitions, concerts, literary events, threatre, film, and many others that wouldn't easily fall under any heading.

The weekend's brilliant sunshine helped for sure, but the festival works because of the work that goes into it. That, and the enthusiastic and generous participation of the wider community who have embraced the arts in a way that could hardly have been imagined when the late Mícheál Fanning sat down with a bunch of poets in Foxy's.

The highlights - or one of them - from this year's Féile was local singer Pauline Scanlon's Leonard Cohen tribute concert on Sunday night. The Skellig Hotel conference room was packed to the doors with those lucky enough to get tickets to Pauline's exquisite and deeply personal performance.

Before she left the stage Pauline thanked the organisers of Féile na Bealtaine. "If you go along to the people in Féile na Bealtaine with an idea, no matter how big, or how small, or how crazy, they always say 'yes'," she told the audience. In a few words Pauline caught something of the essence of the festival: driven by a kind of madness of enthusiasm that sees everything as possible and somehow makes it happen.


Little things that mean a lot

Féile na Bealtaine isn't all about the headline events; it's the little things that turn out to be unexpectedly brilliant that make the weekend special.

That's how Féile co-director Peadar Fanning sees the festival and he should know, after spending the weekend racing from one venue to another. He does add, though, that there's also the somewhat dubious pleasure of kicking yourself for missing something that everybody is talking about afterwards.

So, for the benefit of those who like kicking themselves, here's a very limited flavour of just some of the thing that shouldn't have been missed.

Niamh Nic Lochlainn booklaunch in An Café Liteartha.

Niamh returned to the café where she worked in the 1980s to launch her book 'An Bhean Feasa', which explores the role of mná feasa (wise women) as traditional healers in Ireland. Bríd Ní Mhoráin performed the official launch and in doing so gave a brilliant outline of the book, along with her own insights into the role of the 'caileach', who was less of the witch the name suggests and more a healer, wise woman and prophet - sometimes with a useful link to the fairies.

Domhnal Ó Bric art exhibition in Ionad Chaitlíona, Ceann Trá.

The size of the crowd at the launch indicated that people expected this to be good but they were clearly smitten by the brilliance of Domhnall's collection of drawings that tell the story of the mythical Cath Fionntrá in which the Fianna and their allies defeated the King of the World in a ferocious battle. The works sold like the proverbial hotcakes but there'll be a chance to see them again when they're included in a forthcoming bilingual book on Cath Fionntrá.

'Catch of The Day' by the Red Fox Theatre group.

The play is based on the unfortunate incident when John Francis Brosnan threw a sturgeon overboard as Joe Walsh's boat was being unloaded at Dingle pier in 1966, but intertwines this with a brilliantly witty satire on politics, social conventions and the thorny relationship between Ireland and England. John Francis attended the premiere of the play in England last year and was so impressed that he provided accommodation for the cast when they came to Dingle for Féile na Bealtaine. "They did a great job - the whole audience was laughing and enjoying it," John Francis said after the first of several sell-out performances of the play, as he enjoyed the company of the crew in O'Flaherty's bar.