Cork Midsummer Festival at St. Luke’s: “A Fabulous Space”

Live at St. Luke’s presents a varied bill of music and discussion next month for Cork Midsummer Festival. Mike McGrath-Bryan takes a look at the programme and speaks with some of the artists involved.

For years, Cork Midsummer Festival has represented the beginning of Cork’s summer festival season. Across ten days, art and performance spanning multiple media and disciplines, occupies dozens of venues around the city in a collaborative effort between the festival and the city’s arts scene. This year’s lineup is arguably the strongest yet, with a mixture of community and international arts groups presenting music and opera, dance, circus, film, spoken-word and visual art.

In this spirit, and off the back of the success of their own first festival in Trabolgan-based weekender It Takes a Village, promoters The Good Room are mucking in on the effort with some high-profile events from the worlds of folk and traditional music, as well as hosting a live taping for the country’s most popular podcast. The Good Room’s Joe Kelly talks about the collaborative process. “For the last few years, we’ve got on well with the Midsummer Festival, and Lorraine (Maye, festival director). We did Fleischmann at the Glen with them last year and obviously for the last few years, we’ve done Crosstown Drift (music trail) with them. We’ve always had a good relationship, and Lorraine is an incredible frontwoman. They’ve got a lot of bang for their buck, because they collaborate. And the end result is we have a much better festival, because they collaborate with people.”

The venue plays host to some of the festival’s flagship musical events this year, but also homes three of the festival’s prominent visual arts events in the former cathedral’s crypt, from the likes of Vicky Langan, Alice Maher and Ailís Ní Riáin. Kelly is enthused about this expansion of the venue’s use. “St. Luke’s sat idle until the last three years, when we started doing stuff in there, and now we’ve seen the Crypt come into use for exhibitions. Being honest, at the moment, we’re existing alongside Midsummer Festival (with both spaces being used for it)… I can’t really say ‘oh, we just booked a few gigs to piggyback along with the festival’, but it’s not like we were sat down tearing our hair out. The most important thing was the double-use of the building, for us, and the City Council, who own it. The Crypt is a fabulous space.”

On Friday June 15th, alternative/folk outfit Little Green Cars open Midsummer proceedings at the venue, continuing their momentum over the past couple of years after their ‘Ephemera’ LP saw them move into a more mature, contemplative space. Amid a busy touring schedule, the band performed this past month at the Together4Yes fundraiser at the Olympia in Dublin, an important fundraiser for a largely grassroots-driven movement. “To be able to contribute to a cause we so strongly believe in was beautiful. It was a powerful night. The sense of togetherness and compassion was really moving. The Repeal movement is so important to us and it’s brought a lot of people together in an exceptional way. There’s been so much devotion, energy and self-sacrifice put into the campaign over the years, it was an honour to be involved in our own small way,” says band co-founder Adam O’Regan.

Ahead of the band’s Midsummer gigging at the Summerhill venue, O’Regan also speaks warmly of the gigging experience. “Live at St. Luke’s is by far one of the most unique venues around, and the atmosphere it generates reflects that. It’s a special gig for us. We love playing in Cork and we are delighted to be back playing in St. Luke’s.”

Fairplé is a movement dedicated to the rebalancing of the Irish folk/trad business along gender lines, joining a larger sea change of movements in different genres and formats towards addressing payment, billing and booking inequities. Leading the charge ahead of a special gig at St. Luke’s on Saturday June 16th is singer Karan Casey. “It came about from conversations backstage between many women and men, about how women were being treated in the trad and folk music worlds. I made a statement at a gig in Dublin about how things needed to change, and I also wrote a Facebook post saying things needed to change radically. We then called a public meeting in Dublin, and it has mushroomed from there really. Twenty people came to the first meeting, and forty to the second, and we now have a website followed by hundreds (at The response has been overwhelmingly positive from both women and men. We’re advocating on behalf of female performers looking for more access, more support, and more respect in our musical workplaces.”

Casey and Pauline Scanlon, accompanied by guests The Whileaways, Kate Ellis, Anna Mieke, Julie Goo, and Niall Vallely among others, round out a heavyweight line-up for the cause. For Fairplé, it’s about setting the tone for future major events. “It’s my own personal view that people and children need to see women on stage more, to know and understand in their bones that women are equal.  The role-modeling is vital to future performers. The average lineup of many of our festivals are 76% male, 24% female, and that’s on a good day. It’s often worse. This is a problem. It needs to be addressed and a radical change needs to happen. St. Luke’s is addressing this problem.”

From releasing prank phone-calls on CD-R while still at school, to touring the world and leading the national conversation on mental health, Limerick comedians/conceptual artists The Rubberbandits have over the years become a beloved institution for unofficial Ireland. Little surprise then, that one-half of the duo helms the country’s most popular podcast, with the Blindboy Podcast averaging 250,000 listeners weekly, topping Irish listenership charts for thirty weeks and counting. Appropriately, then, Blindboy Boatclub’s show on Thursday 21st is about to sell out, as he treads the boards at St. Luke’s to tape an episode of the podcast with support from poet Cormac Lally. Speaking to the Irish Examiner’s Richard Fitzpatrick last month, Blindboy outlined succinctly the appeal of the medium. “The best thing about podcasts is the element of choice… a podcast is never forced on anyone; it’s always sought out. It’s pure democratic. It’s a vernacular medium where mistakes and rough edges are part of the craic.”

Those numbers have allowed for the further opening-up of the media process for Blindboy. Releasing the show for free every Wednesday morning, Blindboy’s main source of funding comes from his listeners, donating via membership platform Patreon. On the topic of crowdfunding, Blindboy is effusive. “My Patreon page is fantastic at the moment. It’s giving me a lovely incentive to deliver on time each week. I also love the philosophy of it – it makes the podcast experience feel reciprocal.”

Having quickly sold out his first show on Friday June 22nd, Corkonian singer-songwriter Mick Flannery has been announced this past week for a second show on Saturday 23rd, as part of the St. Luke’s Midsummer festivities. Off the back of last year’s politically-informed ‘I Own You’ album, Flannery has been pursuing his usual endless touring itinerary, spending the past few weeks touring the Netherlands and Germany in support of the record, and working on new material. “I enjoy travelling and seeing places I’ve never seen. This trip I took was on my own, which gave me more time to work on new songs. When a group of people go on tour, it can be very hard not to head out to bars and stay in said bars and have a good time, but travelling solo makes it easier to stay a bit healthier. The end of the German tour was three gigs with a group of German musicians who were running a kind of musical collective, called Vereinsheim. This was a nice way to end the tour, I got to meet very nice people and hang around with them and play music for four days.”

An excursion to North America, including dates in New York City among other locations, awaits Flannery on the other side of his Midsummer dates. It’s going to be something of a journey of discovery. “I’m looking forward to going to Canada and America. Songwriters and singers from these countries have been the major reason I found myself in this business. I’m still stuck with a slight American twang when I sing, which I find very hard to shake because of early influence. I’m lucky to be heading to some festivals in Canada like Calgary, Winnipeg and Vancouver, I’m looking forward to seeing those places. My youngest brother is going to join me for the month and share some driving. We’ll see how that goes.”

Cork Midsummer: The Collaborative Model

Ahead of ten days of art and culture across dozens of venues around the city, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with Cork Midsummer Festival director Lorraine Maye.

Since its inception in 2008, Cork Midsummer Festival has heralded the onset of summer on Cork’s festival calendar, bringing with it ten days of art and performance that span multiple media and disciplines, across dozens of venues around the city. This year’s lineup is arguably the strongest yet, with a mixture of community and international arts groups collaborating with the festival’s producers across music and opera, dance, circus, film, spoken-word and visual art. Festival director Lorraine Maye is currently in the midst of the chaos leading into the event, and after a long day of meetings in advance of launch, discusses the process of organising in the months leading up to June. “The festival has a unique model in that it is very collaborative. So many events are run or developed in partnership with another programme partner or venue, and we work very closely with them to put together the programme every year. There are also lots of brilliant conversations with artists about projects and possibilities, locally, nationally and internationally. We liaise with our core funders, work with our event sponsors and partners, friends and patrons. As well as a dedicated team and Board, we collaborate with a huge amount of people year round to develop the festival.”

This year’s theatre programme is exceptionally strong, led off by the world premiere of the stage adaptation of the Louise O’Neill novel ‘Asking for It’, an acclaimed work that scrutinises attitudes to sexual assault in rural Ireland. The importance of a landmark story like ‘Asking for It’ making the transition across media on the festival’s watch cannot be underestimated, says Maye. “It couldn’t be more timely to have this story at the heart of the Festival. Asking for It is of course a devastating and brilliant book, which Julie Kelleher of The Everyman and Landmark Productions had the vision of bringing to the stage, in association with The Abbey Theatre. We are so proud it will receive its world premiere at the Festival. It is going to be a game-changer, this show. The book means so much to so many people and the staging of it will undoubtedly drive a vital conversation forward. Everyone should see it.”

Spoken-word is very well-represented this year too, among the standouts of which are a live taping of comedian and social commentator Blindboy Boatclub’s beloved podcast at Live at St. Luke’s, but it’s a really well-rounded programme coming at a time when spoken-word is thriving in the city. Maye is quick to give her take on the likes of poetry nights like O Bhéal and Sling Slang locally, as well as the extended spoken-word offering this year. “We have many exceptional writers and storytellers in Cork, and O Bhéal and Sling Slang provide year-round platforms for that work and those artists. Places for artists to test out new work, and for audiences to have access to that. We are working with Joe Kelly and The Good Room who put together the programme for Crosstown Drift and St. Luke’s this year, including the Blindboy Podcast. We’re thrilled to welcome Doireann Ní Ghriofa as our first festival artist in residence. The really brilliant thing about so many writers is that many of them are working in a cross-disciplinary space at the moment, which means such exciting possibilities for us as a multi-disciplinary Festival.”

The festival’s circus programme is a developing but distinct offering, including Union Black, a football-based dance piece from Far from the Norm. Circus has been another medium that has developed in the city over the years thanks to a grassroots effort, and Maye explains how to build, over a number of years, a unique programme offering that complements the festival, but also allows a medium its own unique voice. “Ultimately, we want extraordinary artists of all artforms, and at all stages in their careers, to recognise the Festival as a place to do a particular thing, as somewhere to do something they couldn’t do at any other time of the year, and to see us as a support year-round in the development of those ideas. We’re also really interested in how we link local and national artists and organisations to others internationally. This involves a lot of conversations with artists, and arts organisations. It also involves thinking a lot about our audiences and our potential audiences. What do they want to see, when and where? What can they only see in the Festival? Union Black is a partnership between organisations in four different countries with participating artists from each. It’s the culmination of years of work and it’s going to be one of the most exciting things you will see in Cork this year.”

The family programme is wonderful this year, combining community celebration with engagement with the city’s landmarks, assisted by established practitioners like legendary DJ Donal Dineen, working to create points of access to art for kids. Capturing young imaginations is at the heart of the festival’s remit. “We have been developing our family programme for a number of years now. This year we are particularly excited to be working with Dublin Fringe Festival and Baboro International Arts Festival for Children to co-commission Tiny Dancer: A DJ Set for Kids with Donal Dineen. The tickets are flying. We’re expecting 15,000 people, mostly family groups, to attend the Picnic in the Park which this year, has many specially themed events to reflect the fact that this year is the 250th anniversary of modern circus. Graffiti Theatre Company are staging the premiere of Ireland’s first opera for babies and small people. Those young audience members and artists are tomorrow’s adult audiences and artists. Ask anyone passionate about the arts, and they will all be able to cite an artistic experience from their childhood that was transformative. It’s also about general well-being and providing opportunities for families to come into the city together and have a great experience at the Festival.”

This year’s festival is nearly upon us now, and Maye’s enthusiasm for the end-result of the year-long process is evident. “This is such an exciting year for the Festival. We’re taking a big leap forward, driven by the momentum of so many great artists, arts organisations and curious audiences. We’re so proud of everything in the Festival this year and I can’t wait to experience the incredible work of so many inspiring creative teams. Is it June yet?”

Painted Bird Theatre: Toil and Trouble

As Painted Bird Theatre gets ready to present ‘Toilers’, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with the company’s Thomas Conway about its muses, and the weight of history.

At the outset of the state’s history, and thus that of the narrative surrounding arts in Ireland, for better or worse, dozens of great female playwrights and novelists proliferated through the halls of native creative endeavour. Working in their communities in numerous roles, they strove to advance feminism, Irish independence, and ultimately, greater social equality. As time went on, and independence was won, however, these voices began to fall silent, in part due to the passing of time, but equally owing to cultural pressure from a Catholic church that seized Irish society in exchange for perceived stability. Among those are Suzanne R. Day, suffragette, pioneering poor-law guardian, and playwright/novelist whose works set a precedent for Ireland’s modern literary greats. Day’s published works are few, but vitally important to Irish theatre and literature.

Painted Bird Theatre seeks to rectify this loss to posterity by creating Toilers, a piece centred around her lost play that speculates and builds a contemporary narrative that ties Day’s spirit to modern struggles, happening as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival throughout the last week of June at the Cork School of Music. Thomas Conway, Painted Bird dramaturge, explains the premise. “Developing this piece, we have worked closely on several of the plays Day co-wrote with Geraldine Cummins, but we’ve chosen to recreate the one play that we have not been able to find. What we present is speculative, based on the brief descriptions of the play that exist. But our speculations are informed by everything that survives of her writing.”

The Painted Bird presentation of Toilers sees the concept of the original play, sourced from existing reviews and documents, presented within a meta-narrative, with three protagonists working to reconstruct it and tease out its relevance to the present. “We are not so much presenting the play’s narrative within a framework. Rather we are telling the story of the play and setting out the stakes for the writer in bringing this play to its original audience, before speculating in what the play itself consisted.”

Day’s creative work and imaginative writing was intricately tied into her identity as a suffragette and poor-law guardian, as well as her work for social reform in Cork. It seems timely to revisit it now, as women still fight for reproductive rights and gender parity in workplaces, over a hundred years since the play debuted. “What we create has its own coherence and integrity, but it also seeks to resonate with the audience and the challenges they confront daily. These challenges oftentimes relate to inequalities, one of the most vexing and persistent being those related to gender. In this respect, what we do needs to take its place alongside those other activities promoting gender equality, the most far-reaching of which is the work #wakingthefeminists are undertaking for gender equality in the theatre.”

As with other female playwrights, Day has been acknowledged as a precursor to more celebrated male playwrights, such as Sean O’Casey and John B. Keane. Conway discusses how the theatrical community can help that generation of women gain their rightful place in the Irish canon alongside their “accepted” male counterparts. “Toilers was said at the time to be the first play set in a slum depicting urban working-class lives. It was also known to be the first to deal with prostitution. Today’s audience would prefer to know about these lost plays, the circumstances of their first performances, the climate of ideas and feelings from which they emerged, just as much as to experience the plays themselves. As theatre-makers, we need to bring together in the same event these several levels, these parallel strands of narrative, and to find a form that gives audiences access to these levels.

The production speaks to the desire of young people to remake the world in ways that they themselves determine, whether it is along gender lines, racial lines, socialist lines, or other means. Young people today can reach for social media, film or music to confront powerful elites and to change societal attitudes; they an also create a theatre piece, just as the protagonists of the play do. How did that premise come about? “The other story we are telling, perhaps the most important, relates to the protagonists – three women in their twenties – and what’s at stake for them personally in the presentation. These stakes relate to their personal investment in Day’s story and in reconstructing her lost play. This is the idea we set out with. If Day’s story cannot chime with these young women, we cannot get Day’s play off the ground, and we’ve been guided by that premise at every step.”

At a time when people are alienated from officialdom, instistutions and authority figures – where the #repeal movement sees many young people try to change things from the bottom up, and relying on personal narratives and creativity as their means – how does Conway see this push for social change being reflected in the Irish arts? “We are a generation of citizen-artists and we bring politics within the scope of our art, not as political issues, but in the implications of the forms we find. We confront ourselves and audiences within the same ethical space and together refine questions about the future than provide answers.”

Toilers will be part of Midsummer Festival this year, and it’s clear that its collaborative nature is fertile ground for exploratory productions such as this. “The programme is committed to collective values that makes us excited to be part of it and to experience the other parts of it. We are hurtling towards a more unstable world, but thiis year’s festival goes to prove that Cork people, for one, are wide awake and eager to celebrate humanist values and wider identities.”

Toilers won’t be the only Cork-centric piece that’ll be emerging from the Painted Bird company this year, as the ensemble prepares to delve further back into history to explore its humanity. “We are working on a brand new work based on Cork peoples’ connection to the 1601 Battle of Kinsale. Our Own Battle will present three statements from three men over three days in Kinsale this coming December.”

Toilers runs at the Stack Theatre at the Cork School of Music as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival. Doors at 6pm (15 – 18 June), 7pm (23 – 25 June) and a matinee showing starts at 2.30pm on 25 June.