Mallow Arts Festival: Bringing the Arts Home

Mallow Arts Festival is currently underway, reprising the town’s original summer arts programme for a new generation. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with festival curator Tadhg Curtis.

Established with the stated goal of establishing the arts as a part of life in the North Cork town, Mallow Arts Festival kicked off last night with a performance from John Spillane in the inaugural performance of the current incarnation of the festival. Over the course of the next few days, a number of acts will appear around Mallow, from Louisiana’s Sweet Olive String Band and the Shandrum Céilí Band, to Shandon Guesthouse improvisers The Quiet Club and upcoming acts, like Saint Caoilian, Ealadha and Outsider Y.P., in addition to the town’s first major visual arts exhibition in two decades, film showings curated by Cork film-maker Ger Browne, one-man theatre from veteran performer Dominic Moore, and other local arts attractions.

Various efforts have been made over the years to kickstart the arts in Mallow, succeeding to varying degrees. Mallow Arts Collective co-founder Tadhg Curtis explains some of the history behind contemporary arts in the town. “The first Mallow Arts Festivals were held back in the 1970s, when a group I was part of at that stage, while I was in my twenties, called the Mallow Arts Collective, a group established by Danny McCarthy, held a number of festivals. We managed to attract national names such as Clannad, Freddie White and Paul Brady to play Mallow. We also hosted national touring exhibitions, and equally, with cinema, we had late-night showings of Fellini films. That led onto the formation of the Mallow Arts Alliance in the ‘80s, where we teamed up with the then-Arts Club and the Pilgrim Players theatre group. Mallow Arts Alliance had a number of festivals again through the 1980s, up to the early ‘90s, at the stage then, it disappeared off the radar, and there hasn’t been an arts festival in Mallow for quite a number of years.”

The collective was assembled from local individuals with track records in the arts with the intention of bringing their experience to a submission process for a major announcement in the town. “There’s an umbrella grouping in Mallow called the Mallow Development Partnership, a grouping of state agencies, community bodies and the Chamber of Commerce. Mallow last year heard the announcement that the County Council were looking to establish an arts centre in the old Town Hall. MDP decided it should make a submission in regard to the use of the Town Hall, and what ideally they’d like to see. They asked me to do it, but I decided I wouldn’t do it on my own, I’d approach people that had been active over the years in the arts. I approached six or seven people who all came onboard, they joined in making the initial submission, and then forming Mallow Arts Collective.”

Twelve months ago last week, Mallow Arts Collective assembled a pair of arts events, the Living Space weekenders. A kite-flying exercise for the viability of arts in the area, their purpose was laying the groundwork for the longer-term goal. “After we made the submission, we took a look and said ‘is this arts centre going to be successful?’. We looked at a number of arts centres around the country which had become white elephants, because there wasn’t a community group based around them. We decided that if Mallow was to have a successful arts centre, that there needed to be a more vibrant arts scene. We agreed that we would promote and co-ordinate arts activities in the region, to help make that happen.”

The first year of a flagship arts festival in any town is always a matter of convincing people nearby of the viability of the endeavour. And while not every venue has been responsive, a number of high-profile establishments in town have lent their weight to events happening throughout the weekend. “In the case of (the Hibernian Hotel and adjacent venues, run by local entrepreneur Darren Owens), absolutely no challenge, totally welcoming, totally positive, right from the very beginning. Anything we’ve asked for in relation to that complex, be it Ocana’s, the Hi-B or Keppler’s, full, 100% co-operation. Regarding some other publicans, our initial idea was to try and have something in every single pub in Mallow. That hasn’t proved possible up to now, maybe ‘twas overambitious for a start. Think we mentioned it to about four other publicans, and three have responded. We’ve jazz in Jim Keeffe’s, who’d normally have country-Irish on a Friday night. We now have the likes of Ringo: Music Bingo in Maureen’s, a pub that would have very little entertainment, etc., and again, in Albert Lynch’s, we have a pub with an entertainment history, it has embraced the concept of having a bluegrass band, a folk band, and a post-rock band as well. All of that is very positive.”

Programming arts in a town that hasn’t had much exposure to the arts in the bones of a generation presented challenges in terms of creative direction, in terms of a balance to be struck between what might play well locally and taking risks. “We have to say to the community that as a new group, we can provide a little of what you want, or what you’d be interested in. That was the idea between being conservative enough in the main attractions, like John Spillane, who we anticipate would have a general appeal anyway. The Shandrum Céilí Band are dual All-Ireland champions, and that may be another safe bet to some extent. Beyond that, we’ve experimented with everything else. Bluegrass, jazz, ambient, electronica, hip-hop, we’ve brought in a number of different sessions that’ll all be strange to Mallow. We’re saying to people in Mallow, ‘we can do what you want, but we’ll also open your eyes to what else is out there’.”

The multidisciplinary line-up for the festival has been announced locally over the past couple of weeks via its website and social media, culminating in last week’s brochure. Curtis gets into how the lineup has been received and what the feedback has been. “It’s been positive, I must say. People were deprived of any sort of a festival, really, and they’re looking at the brochure and I imagine there’s a few raised eyebrows. But the message is that the vast majority of the acts and artists are free. Come along and find out what it’s all about. If you get involved, state what you like and sample what’s new, you can have a part to play in ensuring the future of the festival.”

With a full bill of arts and music ready to go, asking Curtis to choose his own highlights results in a moment of something between enthusiasm and indecision. “Everything. (laughs) Practically all of the music, like the all-dayer in St. James’ Church on Saturday, very experimental. I’m a fan of bluegrass, so I’m looking forward to the Sweet Olive String Band at Albert Lynch’s. Finally then, we have the best guitarist in Cork, Robbie Barron, in his blues band Bate to Debt on Sunday night at Keppler’s. At that stage we’ll be over the worries, and I’ll be enjoying it.”

This year’s festival is in readiness, and surely thoughts turn to the next step for the Mallow Arts Collective. “The whole idea is to try and stimulate and invigorate an arts scene in Mallow in preparation for the Arts Centre in Mallow. It’ll be two or three years before that comes on stream so what we need to do is keep having events, having festivals, try to keep having people motivated and mobilised, so that at the end of the day, when the centre comes, people will be dying to get into this, they’ll know what they want from it and have a variety of activities they’ll want to be part of.”

Mallow Arts Festival is ongoing, until this Sunday. More information on times and venues at mallowartsfestival.com, and on their Facebook & Twitter.

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