Liverpool Irish Festival 2015 – Sea Legs, Rusangano Family, Terri Hooley and things we learnt from the festival

The Rusangano Family

The Rusangano Family

Taking in ten days of the best of contemporary Irish culture, Getintothis’ Emma Walsh explores the Irish literary roots which brought her to Liverpool for this year’s Irish Festival.

People have long been Ireland’s greatest export and while London or New York may lay a greater claim to the influx of people, no city has so absorbed the Irish into it’s very fabric than Liverpool.

The enduring threads of history and lineage that weave such a rich tapestry between the two shores amount to much more than a muddied mix of accents and surnames because with people comes culture, and while every major city in the world may boast or bear the presence of an Irish bar, few can compete with the abiding affinity that was forged on the Merseyside docks.

The Liverpool Irish Festival, now in its 13th year, is a testament to that ongoing, ever evolving relationship and even a cursory glance back over the ten day programme which drew to a close on a Sunday night will tell you that 2015 has reached dizzy new heights. Of the fifty plus unmissable events scribbled onto the calendar we made it to a mere handful, but the quality and diversity of the talks, music and film we did witness made up for what our schedules would not allow in quantity.

Sadly we had to forgo an undoubtedly exhilarating performance from More Power to Your Elbow at St Mick’s, and the various trad sets which popped up around the city’s bars but the more contemporary musical delights of Sea Legs and Rusangano Family proved to be more than enough to satisfy Getintothis’ appetite. The film listings at this year’s festival were exceptional with the welcome return of the Film Shorts Programme, a preview of John Crowley’s flawless adaptation of Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and a screening of the simply charming Good Vibrations at the Liverpool Small Cinema.

The festival experience began, however, in much the same way as this writer’s Liverpool experience began, listening to Dr Frank Shovlin champion the enduring merits of WB Yeats at the University of Liverpool. Despite studying the works of Yeats throughout a decade of formal education we found there was still more to learn about the great poet and the sense of discovery did not end there, and so, through the medium of Yeats and his literary contemporaries, we present: Things we learnt at Liverpool Irish Festival 2015.

We’ve come a long way from The Lake Isle of Innisfree:

The long, imposing shadow of WB Yeats has eclipsed many an aspiring Irish poet, even now in what would be his 150th year. Seamus Heaney or Patrick Kavanagh are perhaps the only wordsmiths who have ever come close to competing in terms of popularity but the traditional forms of verse and rhyme which these poets espoused has evolved into something which even the mystical Yeats could not have anticipated. The Irish brogue does not always lend itself well to rap or hip hop but things have been changing on the Emerald Isle for some years now and the growing diversity of it’s people has produced an astounding collaboration of culture and tradition. The Rusangano Family are a phenomenal example of modern Ireland – a country which exported it’s sons and daughters for centuries yet struggles to welcome the children of immigrants into its fold. Togolese MC MuRli and Zimbabwean God Knows joined forces with Irish produced mynameisjOhn to create some of the most exciting hip hop and electronic the country has ever produced. Their collective voice may spitfire a little quicker than Yeats’, their narratives may be delivered with more energy and vigour but the bite behind their lyrics flows from the same sense of political disenchantment, the same feeling of displacement which the Anglo-Irish Yeats chronicled in his early poetry.

It may take some stretch of the imagination to picture a young William Butler dashing up and down the length of the Kazimier Garden or mounting a picnic table to proclaim his poetical musings but we’d like to imagine that had he been present for the invigorating performance from Rusangano Family he would have felt dearly the weight of their words. In his lecture Yeats in Liverpool Perhaps… Dr Frank Shovlin built on the influence Liverpool, and more specifically the spectacular Dante’s Dream at the Walker Art Gallery, must have had on the young poet on his regular visits back to Ireland via the Clarence Dock, but the Rusangano Family paid the city an undeniably great honour in their closing words, that they had never been made to feel “so at home” anywhere before. A far cry from the “why don’t you go back where you came from?” the pair descant in their lyrics. Cead Mile Failte indeed.

Panti Bliss, drag queen and gay rights activist, knows something of that feeling, of not being allowed to ‘fit in’. Colin Murnane’s dramatic monologue, Pedestrian Crossing, inspired by Panti’s Noble Call, translated the same small minded prejudice which sadly still seems to characterise too much of backwater Ireland, even in this, the year the country became the first to legalise gay marriage. But surely, more so than politicians and campaigners, it is the role of artists to turn the spotlights on their country’s crimes, and by choosing to showcase these noble calls, the Liverpool Irish Festival brings those ongoing battles to the fore.

The shortest way to Tara is [still]via Holyhead:

James Joyce may have been thinking of his literary contemporaries when he philosophised about the artists’ need to leave Ireland in order to write about it honestly but one glance at the list of Irish singers, songwriters and musicians who call Liverpool home will tell you that the creative process still seems to involve flying the nest. Gemma DunleavyLittle Rivers, Dave O’Grady and Simon Herron all graced the stages of the Liverpool Irish Festival as part of the great Irish Diaspora, but the numbers of Irish accents and second or third generation voices who filled the venues contest to still flowing stream of movement between Ireland and Liverpool. The beautifully crafted Brooklyn, starring Saoirse Ronan, was something of a love letter to those who have found themselves living abroad from reasons creative, economic or otherwise. Following the journey of a young Irish emigrant in 1950s America, the repression and monotony and desperate poverty of Ireland blooms in Eilis’ homesick rose tinted glasses, a sentiment that any one of us here in Liverpool and beyond can relate to at least every now and again.    

The Irish still have an abiding sense of tragedy which sustain [them] through temporary periods of joy:

It is as true now as it was in Yeats’ day that Irish sentiment can sometimes wallow in tragedy, much more so than warrants a mere stereotype, but the dark humour of Irish writers, comedians and playwrights has since eclipsed the wallowing melancholy of the Irish Literary Revival. Ireland’s turbulent history is well documented but there still remains tales, both happy and sad, to be told about times of famine and revolution. Even the darkest periods of history are shed in new light with the filter of a sharp wit.

The BAFTA Award winning and Academy Award nominated Boogaloo and Graham, showcased as part of the Film Shorts Programme, brings a touch of playful comedy to the dark, rubble strewn streets of 1970s Belfast. It is the same war torn city portrayed in Johanna Hamilton’s 1971, yet through the innocent eyes of two young brothers in this short the soldiers and car bombs merely form a backdrop to their own little adventure with two pet chickens. The sunlit glimpses of family life and humanity in Michael Lennox’s short masterpiece are a tonic to dramatic newsreels which Britain may be more familiar with as an image of the Troubles.

These newsreels, in all their gut wrenching power, form some of the opening scenes of the wonderful Good Vibrations, a film which, again, casts the Troubles in all it’s horror but with the most compelling dark humour which we learned at the Q&A, was typical of the subject, Terri Hooley, the man who gave the world The Undertones and Teenage Kicks. His story is an incredible one, if only because he still lives to tell it himself in all his many words. Defying sectarian division and very real danger to open a record store on one of the most bombed high streets in Belfast, radical and idealist Hooley became the godfather of punk in Northern Ireland, offering some escape to the youth of Northern Ireland whose teenage anarchy struggled to find a voice in a state up in arms. Speaking after the film Hooley’s small act of defiance, of refusing to take sides, seemed all the more momentous when we learned that the most recent physical beating he’s suffered at the hands of paramilitary fists was only three years ago. We haven’t the words to do justice to the brilliance of the man or the movie, but thankfully he and it speaks for itself.

There are some stories in Irish history which will always demand to be told without a tongue in cheek. Despite attempts by Channel 4 to turn the Irish Famine into a Shameless style sitcom, the mass starvation in Ireland and the resulting decline of 2 million people through death and emigration, remains a subject to be handled with delicacy and respect. Kelly Campbell and Michael McDonough epitomise this in their short film Quarantine, an 8 minute long heart ache based on the poem by Eavan Boland. There is barely more than a single line of dialogue but the atmosphere of wind, rain and sheer desperation and horror that suffocates the skeletal old couple going home to die is perhaps one of the most powerful pieces of cinema we’ve ever witnessed.

Treading closely on that statement, and close enough in the billing of the Film Shorts Programme to break our hearts twice within the hour, was the first short film by East is East director Damien O’Donnell, How Was Your Day? This harrowing account of mother’s excruciating experience of post-natal depression will haunt you, a terrifying reminder that the continued dismissal and repression of emotional and mental well being in Ireland is seriously damaging. So many tragedies in Irish history have been swept under the carpet by the powers that be, particularly when it comes to women and children, again the Liverpool Irish Festival takes a brave and necessary step in drawing the issue into the spotlight.

Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age:

Again James Joyce puts into words so beautifully what we could never have hoped to muster ourselves. The tireless team of organisers and volunteers behind the Liverpool Irish Festival can mark 2015, the thirteenth year of its existence, up as a victory. In recent years programming has sometimes felt rather stale and the new Festival Manager Laura Naylor, was just the breath of fresh air it needed. The presence of the very lovely volunteer team armed with those, now infamous, yellow feedback forms, created a real sense of something bigger, rather than a clump of individual events thrown together, the festival felt like a festival. The bold programming that saw experimental ensembles such as the incredible Sea Legs lined up in the yellow-paged guide alongside legendary traditional artists such as Christy Moore and Declan Sinnott can only be seen as a success. Ciaran Lavery and Ryan Vail articulated so much when they played to a packed out Leaf on the opening night. The careful blend of aerial folk and minimal electronic created a captivating ebb and flow of soundscapes with Lavery’s quietly forlorn lyrics challenging the traditional sense of Irish folk music.

There really was something for everyone and the diversity of events, the mix of old and new was caught in no clearer a snapshot than at the Good Vibrations Afterparty as Terri Hooley and Stuart Bailie took to the decks in Liverpool Small Cinema to deliver an eclectic set that drew us through the ages of the revellers filling the dance floor with punk, disco, funk and indie tunes worthy of a night in Liquidation. 

The film itself, documenting the trials and tribulations of a small independent record store, concluded with the many dates the shop opened and closed and opened again, battling on despite the adversity on its doorstep. Watching such a film in a small independent cinema such a Liverpool Small Cinema, a venue cobbled together with hand-me-down seats and reclaimed equipment, was just another testament to the bold spirit of this year’s Liverpool Irish Festival.

Pictures by Getintothis’ Simon Lewis, Martin Saleh, and Peter Carr