As its 46th edition kicks off on August 8th, Olga Barry, Festival Director of Kilkenny Arts Festival, writes for Culture about an event that celebrates 'darkness and light, in some cases literally, but more truly in the emotional sense'.

Ireland loves festivals. We're weak for them. Kilkenny Arts Festival is Ireland’s oldest multi-disciplinary festival and presents its 46th edition this August. As the Festival Director, I feel a profound sense of the history of the festival and a very real sense of being just a temporary custodian of something with extraordinary longevity and cultural depth in the Irish summer. I love the ebb and flow of arts festivals throughout the year and Kilkenny has occupied this very special emotional space each August for the past 45 years.

What fascinates me is the ownership people have of festivals, their own memories, their own highlights, and their own connections that are made through the arts. I’ve had time in recent years to fully look back at the programmes in Kilkenny over the years beginning in 1974, and I find others’ memories of those occasions to be as diverse as the programmes themselves.

Olga Barry

In its very first year, the Festival presented seven lunchtime and seven evening concerts of classical music. These concerts took place in the glorious acoustics of the Black Abbey and St. Canice’s Cathedral. Even in its first edition it also presented a programme of literature, craft and visual arts and by 1976 it had a full 'fringe’ programme of visual arts. People remember things in different ways because these occasions have the capacity to be deeply personal while simultaneously being rooted in the very idea of shared experiences. I received a lovely letter from someone this morning in which they fondly remembered their first visit in 1976 to hear Seamus Heaney. I adore hearing the variety of memories shaped by the Kilkenny Arts Festival.

I started coming to Kilkenny Arts Festival as a teenager and since I've worked with it, each year I see the most extraordinary, often unintended encounters between artists, audiences and citizens.

Recently I sat on a panel and a fellow panelist told me about his experience in Kilkenny. He told me about his children who all played music, some ‘classical’ and some ‘traditional’. He told me that his son who was just starting to stretch into the traditional style of playing the fiddle was busking during the festival several years ago and Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill came across him, and Martin complimented him on how he ‘turned’ the tune and sat down and joined him for a couple of tunes. This man said of his son, ‘he started walking tall that day, and he hasn’t stopped since’. It’s completely random that I happened to meet this man and hear this story.

Last year I ended up hanging out for a while with two volunteers and they told me they met almost 20 years ago at the festival and since then they’ve come to Kilkenny to volunteer each year as their annual get-together as dear friends. Sam Amidon said to me a few years ago that being at Kilkenny is like the difference between having a passing greeting and having a full conversation. There are hundreds of these anecdotes and they each tell a different story while also telling us something universal, that the arts have the capacity to fundamentally change the story.

Ciaran Hinds is coming to Kilkenny this year (Pic: Rory Lewis)

I'm as weak for festivals as the next woman and I find myself each year buzzed up by the other great arts festivals we have on this island. I’m attending concerts, theatre and shows all the time but festivals have a special edginess, a special kind of energy. And I feel as much ‘ownership’ there as I do here.

Conductor Nathalie Stutzmann - Kilkenny bound (Pic: Simon Fowler)

I started coming to Kilkenny Arts Festival as a teenager and since I’ve worked with it, each year I see the most extraordinary, often unintended encounters between artists, audiences and citizens. Over the years it has grown and expanded and has taken on a variety of different guises. For a multi-disciplinary arts festival, I think this is so crucial, for it to change and mutate through different artistic visions at different times, while the stunning city of Kilkenny itself offers a sense of permanency and familiarity with its medieval cityscape and extraordinary spaces. This year we’re celebrating darkness and light, in some cases literally, but more truly in the emotional sense. Through various art forms we aim to excite and provoke in equal measure and hope that, in the best sense, we’ll mean something different for everyone who experiences the festival and they’ll make their own memories with us this August.

The 46th Kilkenny Arts Festival runs from August 8th-18th 2019 - find out more here.