The Liverpool Irish Festival returns this week with a theme of anniversaries running through the programme for its 21st offering.
The annual festival features 40 events for adults and children across 11 days, from Thursday, October 19, until Sunday, October 29.
The line-up includes an array of Irish artists and contributors from across the worlds of music, theatre, film, spoken word, visual arts and academia.
Festival highlights include well known Dublin singer Lisa Lambe, The London Lasses who are themselves celebrating 25 years and a handful of commemorations and memorial gatherings.
100 years since his birth, Brendan Behan is celebrated in Fat Dan Productions’ Brendan: Son of Dublin. 90-years since the United States District Council ruled Ulysses to be publishable, there will be a celebration of experimental writing with a half-day session with Pascal O’Loughlin, and National Poetry Librarian, Chis McCabe.
Referencing the release of The Yellow Wallpaper, written 130 years ago, Dublin vocalist and composer Sue Rynhart returns to the Festival with her folk and jazz influences in what promises to be a dazzling performance at Sefton Park Palm House.
The festival’s history research group will also be leading some tours of the Irish objects in the Museum of Liverpool. These tours are free and bookable now.
The festival is also looking for artists to work with them, and some citizen research groups to create artworks that respond to the Liverpool Irish Famine Trail.
Liverpool Irish Festival CEO and artistic director Emma Smith told The Irish World: “We’ve definitely focused on anniversaries this year taking the 21st birthday of the festival as our starting point.
“I guess the three main anniversaries that we’re looking at beyond us would be the Good Friday Agreement, 100 years of Home Rule, and 175 years since An Gorta Mór.
“175 years ago 1.3 million people nearly came to or through Liverpool.
“In 2011, after the census was done the Office for National Statistics put the indigenous population’s genetic makeup as still being over 50% Irish.
“It is very likely that the kerbstones of our docks, because Liverpool is built on sandstone, is granite from Ireland.
“The fabric of this city has Irishness as part of it.
“It is in the blood and sweat and tears of Liverpool.
“I think in terms of political position, in terms of not feeling very English- Liverpool probably is more akin to Ireland than other places in England.
“Lisa Lambe talks about the night visiting that happened essentially between An Gorta Mór, towards the end of the famine, and up to the 1950s in rural Ireland.
“So another anniversary is marked through these cultural exchanges and celebrations.”
The Good Friday Agreement’s 25-year anniversary will be marked in an event, hosted in partnership with the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Irish Studies, followed by Green & Blue, Kabosh Theatre’s (Belfast) community developed two-hander about The Troubles (both Thurs 26 Oct).
“Green and Blue, from Kabosh theatre, that’s a piece of work that they’ve developed over in Belfast and came from verbatim interviews they’ve conducted with members of the community.
“Then they’ve taken that and created this incredible theatrical two hander essentially.
“That follows from an event that we’re running with the Institute of Irish studies where we’re talking with artists about the cultural memory of the Good Friday Agreement.
“So those two things marking 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement.”
On the festival’s 21st year, Emma says: “I think we’ve very sadly watched colleagues and peers and organisations go to the wall over these last years of austerity but also through COVID.
“So genuinely I feel very, very fortunate that we’re still in a position to be delivering a really high quality festival for a city that really, really deserves it.
“And not only are we doing the festival but we’ve also taken over the custodianship of the Liverpool Irish Famine Trail and have secured funding to develop that even further than we had done over the last couple of years.
“I feel very proud and I feel like it’s growing with force and importance actually marking these anniversaries, I think is really important, both in terms of recognising the importance of Irish influence in the city, but also laying down memories and creating new markers.
“In four years, we’ll be 25 and we’ll be looking back at the sort of things that we’ve done.
“I feel there’s a level of importance to it this year because of the gravity of those anniversaries but also, I think there’s lots of fun still to be had.”
What leaps out as a special memory of past festivals? “There was a really funny moment when John Maguire, who’s our history research group lead, had just delivered an incredible talk about all of the work that they’ve done on the famine trail, and he came down to see what was happening in the atrium at the Museum of Liverpool.
”It was the family Day, the Armagh Rhymers were on and he was completely blown away by them, but turned to me afterwards and said, ’Have I just taken drugs?’
“Because there were these crazy woven wicker heads, and kids hopping about.
“He just was really taken aback by all of these things.
“Every year there’s something incredible.
“Interviewing Patrick Kielty back in 2020, having worked with the Commission for Victims and Survivors, and speaking with him directly about how his father had been killed- That was a really transforming experience, and having him talk with other victims of the troubles was genuinely remarkable.”
Will the festival be around for 21 more years?
“Yes, it needs to be.
“I think it’s incredibly relevant to Liverpool’s population and to its cultural heritage and identity.
“It complements the Irish services that are in the city, which include Irish Community Care, there’s the Liverpool Irish Centre.
“But what we do is genuinely interesting, we really question identity a lot.
“And thinking about the fact that 25% of people born on the island of Ireland now are mixed race, it becomes more and more important.
“And I think as England has to start looking at itself in a way that it hasn’t before, post- Europe, post-colonialism I think, actually how we investigate Irish identity could be a bit of a model for how English people consider their identity.
“I think 21 years and many more will happen in future.”
Liverpool Irish Festival runs 18- 29 October.
For more information and to book, click here.