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Returning to Liverpool

Liverpool Comhaltas

Liverpool Irish Festival returns for their 20th festival this week, with ten days of 40+ Irish arts and culture events celebrating the connections between Liverpool and Ireland from Thursday 20 October.

The programme includes an array of Irish artists and contributors from across the worlds of music, theatre, film, spoken word, visual arts and academia, such as Stephen Travers (The Miami Showband), Lorraine Maher (#IAmIrish) and Ruairi Glasheen (internationally acclaimed bodhrán player).

The theme for this year’s festival is ‘hunger’.

Artistic Director and CEO of the festival Emma Smith told The Irish World: “Part of that theming is that hunger to get back, that hunger to be connected and with other people and that hunger to see outside and learn new things as well as thinking about it as a connection with the work that we’re doing.

“The Liverpool Irish famine Trail has connections with hunger obviously, but we’re looking at that theme much more as how hunger drove people, how it drove migration, how it drove the politics of the time to create that set of circumstances.

“So it really is a theme that runs through all of our work and brings all of it together and thinking about Irishness as a hunger, or how actually being a really progressive country drove Irishness as a hunger.

“I think there are all sorts of interesting things to look at and consider within that lens.”

The Irish World has seen the different interpretations of this theme in our Liverpool Irish Festival interview subjects.

We spoke to two writers who have explored hunger in different ways.

We spoke to artist-in- residence Carrie Barrett who always resisted an urge to pursue her ambition to write and found herself unfulfilled, with a space to fill, hungry for something.

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We also spoke to Jaki McCarrick about her play Belfast Girls which looks at the lives of some of those shipped out of Ireland during the famine and almost forgotten from history.

Just last week Caelainn Hogan told us about her book Republic of Shame which looks at the horrors of the mother and baby homes and Magdalene Laundries, a ‘hunger for justice’ is the reason we discuss this shameful period of Irish history.

Emma says: “Carrie was driven by a kind of innate hunger in her that there was something missing, ‘I need to find this, I need to locate that. And I need to rectify that there’s something missing in me, I need that creative expression. And I need to learn how to find the confidence to make that happen’.”

Jaki McCarrick will speak about the play when Cherry Smyth performs her deep poetry inspired by the famine.

“Jaki’s hunger to represent those voices is really interesting and it’s echoed by Cherry Smyth as well. Both Jaki and Cherry have understood that after the famine, a bit like after the World Wars, what it was punctuated by was silence.

“They have been hungry to identify what the voices of that silence meant, to give a voice to that silence, to understand what that was made up of, and what needed to be said and what we need to hear now to learn about it.

“Because, as they have said, and identified, this silence is a gap where hundreds of thousands if not millions of people were only heard by their absence or their death.

“They were not heard in their voice, they have not been documented by their experience.

“Belfast Girls shows five female voices, we often don’t hear those from history and she has an intersectionalism in there, which she recognizes has always been present. It’s just that we have new language for it now and a greater tolerance for it now.

“So that hunger, to look at those spaces and give voice to it, I think is really impressive and other reason why the festival exists like it does is to give that platform.

(Caelainn Hogan is motivated by a) Hunger for justice and pulling those voices out of the silence, bringing them into the light because without that, how can we begin to understand them?

“And how can we begin to understand what collective trauma looks like? How it’s informed future generations? The dispossessed generations?

“I mean, there’s so much of that with the release of the mother and baby home report.

“All of that, that hunger to pursue those voices, to give people their time in the light- Not the limelight- This isn’t to glorify what’s happened to them, or exotify their trauma. This is about ensuring that it’s enshrined in history so that it is recognized in future.”

Speaking of hunger for justice, we have to speak about Steve Travers who will present The Miami Showband Massacre Story.

Steve survived the massacre and continues to fight for justice for his bandmates who perished and to uncover the alleged collusion in the massacre.

Emma says: “Having been bombed, you have to be hungry to continue to put yourself through that trauma because you need it to change something so I think there is real bravery.

“I mean, that’s true of all these awful stories, harrowing stories that we’re hearing. It takes a huge amount of bravery but the reason for doing it is a hunger for something to happen as a result. It’s not just legacy. Why do you want legacy? Well, because you hope that the legacy of it is change of some description like, ‘That must never happen again’.

“So we feel like this is very apt, and a very timely theme.

“Next year, we’re looking at anniversary because we’ll be 21, Irish in Britain will be 50, we’re still in the seven year spread of the seven years of the Irish famine so that would be the 175 year anniversary point.

“We’re still in the decade of centenaries so there’s an awful lot of things, I think, to mark next year.”

How does it feel for the festival to be celebrating 20 years? “I think post- COVID it’s something genuinely to champion.

“We have watched an awful lot of arts organizations and people go to the wall and being 20 is remarkable.

“And yet at the same time, I think why are we not 120 or 220 in a city like Liverpool where the Irishness courses through the fabric of the city?

“It feels like an achievement on one hand and an oddity on the other because it feels like it should always have been there really.”

Another theme to be found throughout the programme is the celebration and acknowledgement of mixed race relationships. This can be seen in Maria Paul’s play Sweet Mother.

“Liverpool has a really interesting history of mixed Irish heritage because we have Chinese Irish. We have black Irish.

“We tried to bring all of these stories to the fore, to break some of the assumptions around Irishness had been really important to us.

“And that’s true across the festival, but we’re very mindful of the fact that the trail itself reflects on 175 year ago Ireland but in that there are still multiple racial stories Belfast Girls unpicked to some degree.

“So anything that we can do to ensure that people recognize that that history is accessible by everyone, for everyone, and that it isn’t it isn’t just an all white Irish history is really important to us.

“Look at the progress that Ireland has made just with the diaspora policy, gay marriage, and bodily autonomy.

“We think this is quite a progressive Ireland and there’s an awful lot to be learned there so we’re sort of trying to embody those values.”

Armagh Rhymers

The festival was completely online in 2020 due to the pandemic.

“We had a great festival because the people that were there really, really wanted to be there so there were some really deep engagements.

“And we learned things worked online and held online space really well.

“Actually where we found the really good benefits were literature and conversation with artists because there is a kind of democratization of the screen so everybody’s equal.

“If you go and sit in a bookshop with a very gentle author and a big character walks into the audience, it can pull focus whereas actually online it didn’t happen.

“So we found we had some really interesting learning points.

“Where we really noticed the difference was that those moments where you walk to the bar or you walk with your friend to the bus stop, or while you’re in the taxi, those kinds of liminal moments are where you embed an awful lot of your learning and where you sort of really look back and reflect on events.

The Miami Showband.

“What we realised in 2020 was that that didn’t happen so much and so in 2021, when we did events, we really tried to build that back in to both the in person things: Bars were open after we tried to make sure that people were encouraged to stay behind and ask questions and talk to staff and all of those sorts of things, just to really try and bring that back and also that all of the online events that we do run still have like a little space at the end where people can just stay for a bit and sort of decompress together if they want.

“So there’s big learnings that we took away from that.

“But because we are that ten days in a year we felt we really had to come back into the in person space a lot more.

“And also there are things like films that we’re keeping in that online space so people who aren’t local to Liverpool but really are interested in those Liverpool- Irish stories have access to articles and films and other content that isn’t just event based content.

“The festival now is not only a set of events, there are online access points, the newspaper, all sorts of things.

“The pandemic has taught us quite a lot, and it means that we behave a bit differently now still.”

In 2021, Liverpool Irish Festival began revitalising the Liverpool Irish Famine Trail, originally established in the 1990s.

Now they have released a book, Liverpool Irish Famine Trail: Revive.

Illustrating 15 sites of historical importance, it highlight’s Liverpool’s unparalleled connection with Ireland.

You can meet the research group on the family day when they will discuss their 850+ hours of research.

The programme also includes theatre performances including Carol Maginn’s dark comedy The Fifth Guest and Nwoko Arts’s Sweet Mother, a play exploring stories of white women who fell in love and married Black men, especially in Liverpool’s L8 Area.

Alongside this multidisciplinary arts strand, there is a variety of visual art exhibitions from artists including Fion Gunn (University of Liverpool’s artist-in-residence at The Institute of Irish Studies), Kieran Murray’s online exhibition of abandoned buildings in rural Ireland and Pamela Sullivan’s The Forgotten; a series of miniature works dotted throughout the city.

Film screenings, poetry and spoken word events also shape the programme, with opportunity for audiences to listen, discuss and respond to topics including Shakespeare on Ireland, Irishness in England Post-Brexit, Frederick Douglass’ relationship with Ireland.

There will also be a tribute to much-missed Irish language specialist and local, Tony Birtill.

“Tony Birtill had been on the board with the festival for a very long time. And before that, he’d been on the Great Hunger Commemoration Committee.

“He was a real thread through the Irish community.

“He was a wonderful man in so many ways and his imprint has been left all over the city.

“We found out that he passed away on the day of our launch last year and didn’t have an opportunity to prepare very much other than to mention him at opening speeches and where we could across the festival.

“But what we’ve tried to do this year is partner up as a community to provide a decent memorial both as an event but also as a memorial package.

“So we’ve teamed up together to put things into his library and to welcome his family into the memorial.

“There’s a scholarship that has been created in his honour, we’re really trying to look at him as somebody that was looked up to within the community and to just honour that for a time.”

Liverpool Irish Festival runs 20- 30 October.

For more information, click here.

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