Festivals bring out the best of us on this site. Many people will preview an event for you these days… but, in 2016, how easy is it to find out what’s going on? We prefer to take the temperature of those who make the decisions after the tickets have been torn, the stages packed down and the money counted. #LiverpoolLessOrdinary has already chatted with the brains behind Africa Oyé and the Liverpool International Music Festival – now it’s the turn of the lead of the Liverpool Irish Festival. By Alan O’Hare.
Without visiting the archives, it’s fair to say that many subjects of our #LiverpoolLessOrdinary stories have arrived in Liverpool to work or study at an impressionable point in their lives and simply never left. We’re grateful. These creative thinkers help widen the scope, source and success of our extra-curricular endeavours and ensure the city continues to punch above its weight.
Hang on, though. Should festivals, fayres, feasts and fun be seen as extra-curricular? “The essence of what we do is based on treating arts and culture as a right and not a luxury,” declares Emma Smith, Liverpool Irish Festival (LIF) leader. “I want to help to create, support and platform work that challenges and provokes greater social change and tolerance and that works in egalitarian ways to help people find and use expression.” Anyone who attended one of the myriad of recent LIF events – be it musical, theatrical or just plain cultural – will attest to the spirit that Smith has brought with her to the job.
She hasn’t been in said job long, though: “I’ve only been in post for 15 weeks,” she laughs. “In that time, we delivered almost sixty events, while commissioning and working with over eighty artists and performers, so there’s a been a fair bit to get involved with… ” No kidding. Did you attend any of LIF this year? If not, you missed out and need to make a note on your phone now to guarantee you are involved in 2017. Why? We’ll let Emma explain: “The Liverpool Irish Festival board and I are working hard to consider what we want to achieve long term,” she reveals. “We’re thinking in terms of thirty year plans in order to really push our aspirations and ambitions. I think there are a lot of very tricky subject areas we might like to consider and thinking of ways of working with the diaspora also feels as though it could be important as European and international politics progress.”
The time feels right to move LIF forward. As a member of COoL (Creative Organisations of Liverpool), the festival has built its audience each year and aims to become one of the world’s leading arts and music festivals. Sure, with audience numbers reaching upwards of around 20,000 across the board, there is a long way to go. But, chatting with Smith, you get the feeling LIF may now be in the right hands and ready to utilise all the experience and expertise it has always had to call on, alongside the fresh and progressive impetus the new lead could be a catalyst for. The latest #LiverpoolLessOrdinary, then, is all about actualising a bright future for one of the city’s favourite institutions…
As we said, you’ve not been in the post long… a daunting start?
There was certainly a lot to get through! When I began, there were a couple of anchor events in with The Music Room at the Philharmonic, some events at St Michael’s and some regular social events… but the programme wasn’t pinned down, so there was a push on getting it all finalised. That said, we also had a re-brand to complete, too, and a website to develop, build and populate and I needed to try and get round all of the partners, stakeholders and venues to get to know people!
You did well then from the moment of opening your first email…
Liverpool Irish Festival’s board are very committed and there was a lot of support from the off, particularly from the Chair, John Chandler. There’s a lot of warmth for the festival and a lot of people who want to be involved – so on day one I had a lot of emails to get through and a lot of people to make contact with. Laura Brown – who undertakes the festival’s PR – was an enormous help and her knowledge of the Irish community in the city and understanding of previous years really helped me in determining the shape of this year’s programme.
Exactly! That’s the great thing about the scene here: if you’re in it long enough, you get to know a lot of people and reputations precede you. Of course, there’s still people I need to meet and relationships I need to build, but overall, my feeling is that LIF holds huge potential and I am primed to help it reach some of it… at the very least!
Right, let’s get down to that potential. Talk to us about plans and schemes…
I am very keen that the Liverpool Irish Festival is not restricted to Liverpool. I know this sounds peculiar, but in the same way that Ireland has had a huge influence on Liverpool, I believe Liverpool has had a huge influence on the island and I would like to explore these connections in future. The hope is that it would generate more artist exchanges between the city and the island – along with opening up opportunities for exploring international connections.
What about closer to home?
It’s important to support the Irish community within the city, so we’re very keen to do all we can to support St Michael’s Irish Centre, for example, and all Liverpool-Irish artists, performers, makers, producers and venues.
That’s good to hear. Was it an interest in this type of grassroots culture that led you to the role?
The impact of Irish influence on this city has always been of interest to me. Liverpool feels so different to other mainland cities and the opportunity of exploring and finding out more about what this difference is driven by, whilst contributing to the city’s cultural offer, was more than I could resist.
I hear that! Tell us a little bit about your own background…
I came to Liverpool in 1997 to study… and I never really left! The city took hold of me and continues to be a friend I call on a lot. After university, I found myself acting as front-of-house manager at Bluecoat, before working at the University of Liverpool, and then I became a freelance arts consultant in 2009. Peculiarly, this took me back to Bluecoat, where I worked to become head of creative enterprise, managing the creative community there. From here I became the executive director of LOOK, the organisation behind the Liverpool International Photography Festival, delivering LOOK/15 to over 550,000 people.
That’s impressive. The credentials and results are there, then. But what made LIF grab you?
‘Irishness’, as a concept, is a truly striking one and is an important conversation to be had in Britain, as we roll towards ‘Brexit’. Where will the political and geographic conclusions of the invoking of Article 50 eventually bring us to? There are four million people on the Island of Ireland and 44 million Irish diaspora… so how do they share culture, history and art? How do they combine to create ‘Irishness’? With more people than ever claiming ‘Irishness’ in order to remain a part of Europe, how will traditional Irish values alter to adapt to the contemporary world? And how will this affect Liverpool… who voted to remain, has closer ties with Ireland than it does with Manchester and believes itself to be a European city and not a British one?
Well, there’s going to be plenty of debates in and around all that and LIF in the immediate future…
There are… and I want to be part of it. I also want the Irish communities living in the city – perhaps something in the region of 75% of Liverpudlians – to feel supported and represented. It’s the right role at the right time and here I am!
The festival wrapped up at the end of October. What were your immediate thoughts?
I was impressed by how much music was made, celebrated and enjoyed! I really liked it when music fused with something else, for instance as the live soundtrack to Scadán, and the way we raised the materials library at the Everyman’s street café with the social seisiúns… they were among my favourite events within the festival and allowed me to meet musicians, see them working with one another, sharing their talents and also introduce them to new audiences. This wasn’t only a privilege for me, but a challenge for the musicians – breaking their regular habits and giving them access to new people, ideas and styles.
Now, there’s a question! I desperately want to say ‘yes’… however, it’s still early in our evaluation and I am a cautious soul. My understanding is it was good and we’re moving in the right direction. We’ve received a lot of very positive feedback from audiences, artists and partners. The festival is still learning, we’re fourteen years old, but there are some principles we think we’re getting right and want to develop.
The writing strand of our work came on leaps and bounds this year and our partnerships with universities and cultural venues really marks the Liverpool Irish Festival as different from other Irish festivals on the mainland. We know of a few things we’d like to polish for next year and have some exciting plans in the pipeline… which I don’t think is half bad for fifteen weeks in the job for me!
We agree! Where do you think LIF could improve for 2017?
Well, my late start meant that we didn’t have a real visual arts showpiece this year. I would love us to build something as impressive with our partners as the ‘Irish Sea Sessions’, which sadly ended when Simon Glinn moved on from the Phil.
They were great nights on Hope Street. Any other areas for improvement?
We grew our social media channels by over 5% in fourteen weeks, that was huge for us. The website also received over 20% more visits than last year and page views were up – which demonstrates just how savvy audiences are becoming. But we really needed to move with this and the fact our social media feeds were rarely quiet throughout the festival – at some points there were over one thousand people chatting about LIF – shows how far we’ve come.
Fantasy time: money’s no object. Scheduling conflicts don’t matter. What’s the dream event for LIF?
Off the cuff, but based on this year, I’d quite like to make a supergroup out of the musicians we had play – imagine Damien Dempsey, Lisa Hannigan and Neil Hannon in the front line, with Lynched (now named Lankum), We Banjo 3 and The Logues in rotation, too. I love mixing expertise and arriving at something new and unexpected. If there were no reality limits, personally, I’d love some script readings with dead authors! Beckett and Wilde spring instantly to mind, but I think this is beyond the fantasy invited here!
We can’t work miracles, but like your style! Can we have a final word on your leadership style?
In time, I would like to use my position to enable artists with positions on social injustices to find their voice. I want to help people – artists and audiences – take risks with their work and their thoughts to develop tolerance, improve life quality and open up difficult topics for debate and reconsideration.
Liverpool Irish Festival
October 19-27 2017
Pic by Casey Orr