Galway International Arts Festival Chief Executive John Crumlish writes for Culture about the festival's Autumn Edition, created in response to the ongoing Covid-19 restrictions, inorporating both live arts and an enhanced digital component, and runs through October - more details here.

The 43rd Galway International Arts Festival should have taken place over two weeks in July. It was to be our biggest festival ever.

We had been building towards it since 2016 when Galway was awarded the European Capital of Culture 2020 designation. We were co-producing two major theatre shows with our partner Landmark Productions, we were presenting work from some of our favourite Irish and international theatre companies, we had our biggest music programme to date and had an amazing visual arts programme that included our Capital of Culture project Mirror Pavilion, a major installation from artist John Gerrard. 

In all, there would have been over 200 events in this year’s programme and we felt we were on course to break our previous attendance record of 263,000.

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Listen to RTÉ Arena's Galway International Arts Festival special

Once the festival was over we were then going to head into a major touring schedule taking our two co- productions to the UK and US and Mirror Pavilion first to Connemara and then to Korea.

In between times, I was going to check out what our friends in Kilkenny Arts Festival, Dublin Fringe and Theatre festivals and Wexford Festival Opera were up to.

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Watch: John Gerrard's Mirror Pavillion in Galway City

Then the unthinkable happened - none of it was going to take place as planned. In all the risk assessments we have done, we never identified something that could stop everything.

The very thing that makes festivals from Clifden to West Cork and from Dublin to Donegal so attractive is the fact that they are all great communal gatherings. Now suddenly what had been our greatest strength became our greatest weakness. Gatherings went from being things of joy to being banned.

In all the risk assessments we have done, we never identified something that could stop everything.

Restrictions on mass gatherings were required to contain the virus and so the possibility of days when fairy dust is sprinkled by very talented people on audiences to create cherished memories, to generate insights into the human condition and deliver performances that are remembered with great affection, disappeared.

There is no better feeling than that shiver down the back moment when an entire audience collectively realises that they are watching or listening to something special. Whether it's Mickel Murfi and Cillian Murphy locked together dancing around their enclosed room at high speed in Enda Walsh’s wonderful Ballyturk, or Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame, singing in St Nicholas church to 300 very happy people. We have had such moments, and have been lucky enough to have been in the fairy dust business.

Hughie O'Donaghue's artwork Cargo features at GIAF: Autumn Edition

Despite the restrictions, like many festivals and arts organisations, we still wanted to play our part in this challenging time. We have a great audience who support us year after year and we were determined not to give up on 2020. We decided that we would like to send our audience a love letter in the form of a programme that could work under the new restrictions.

Despite our new financial reality with the majority of our income gone, our Autumn Edition came into being. It was designed to have public safety at its heart and it was for those who could attend in person, and also for those who could not. A much enhanced digital element was put in place to appeal, not only to those who could not leave home, but also to our large international audience who could not travel.

Despite the restrictions, like many festivals and arts organisations, we still wanted to play our part in this challenging time.

All the artists involved in Autumn Edition good-humouredly adapted to the various changes in public heath guidelines while the GIAF team ducked and dived and smiled their way to a finished programme. All our funders and sponsors bravely backed us when it would have been so easy to do otherwise, some new sponsors even came on board, while our volunteers returned in significant numbers.

Now we are on, and I would like to wish all our fellow festivals and arts organisations the very best in their own endeavours over the next number of months under difficult conditions and as we all worry if culture’s "centre cannot hold".

But for now the show must go on.

The Galway International Arts Festival Autumn Edition runs through October, with a number of events available to view online - find out more about the programme and the Festival's 2021 event here.