A plaintive sound drifts above the trees. It cuts through the dull murmur of conversation and birdsong. A chorus of women chant in harmony, the grey sky closing in on the castle grounds. Heads turn. They move towards the sound and then it disappears. Seconds later it is heard again. They search amongst the trees, but the singers can’t be found. Is it plainsong, dithyramb, or the ghosts of a monastic choir? The spell is broken when the culprits are uncovered as speakers hidden within the trees.
The city of Kilkenny is full of surprises, particularly during its annual arts festival in August. The chorus in the trees is the latest installation from Turner Prize nominee Susan Phillipsz in the grounds of Kilkenny Castle. The festival programme is thoughtfully embedded into the life of the city; it spills out into streets, shops and houses. Every key building is opened up as a performance or exhibition space.
In its 37th year, the ten-day festival started predominantly as a classical music event, but over time has expanded to include a cross-art form programme.
It is ambitious for a festival of this size, encompassing theatre & dance, classical music, street performance, visual arts, craft, Wired (contemporary music) and literature. Curated by Colm Tóibín it features events with some of Ireland’s best-known contemporary writers, including Joseph O’Conner and John Boyne.
The compact city appears to be carved out of rock. The medieval centre sandwiched between St. Canice’s Cathedral and Kilkenny Castle. Houses are painted ice-cream colours of pistachio, vanilla and raspberry, which contrast against the city’s signature chalky, grey limestone. Known as “The Marble City,” black Kilkenny marble features in archways and fireplaces and in the flagstones that line the city pavements.
It’s evening time and the light begins to fade, all of Kilkenny cram into pubs and restaurants to talk, drink and eat. Priding itself on its local produce, a number of restaurants are part of the Kilkenny Food Trail, which promotes local food producers and outlets. I visited The Marble City Bar & Tea Rooms (66 High Street / 056 7761143) where I enjoyed lamb shank accompanied by a glass of Kilkenny Brewery ale. The woman sitting at the next table leaned in and in a whispered voice said: “The food is ever so good here.” She left smiling, seeming pleased to have passed on her tip.
Run by Yvonne and John Dalton, Butler Court (Patrick Street / +353 56 7761178) is a guesthouse that was once the stable yard of Kilkenny castle. The courtyard, decorated with an abundance of summer flowers, matches the sunny disposition of its proprietors. Not stopping for breath with pen in hand, Yvonne marked the key places of interest on a map and described pubs and galleries I should visit on my trip. “Walking.” She said. “Is the best way to see the city.”
On Sunday morning, I took Yvonne’s advice and explored the centre by foot. Expecting to hear the raucous sound of pubs emptying out onto the streets, so cacophonous the night before, instead there was a restful silence. All of Kilkenny were still in bed or making their way to church. But, even on Sunday morning when all is quiet, at festival time, you never know what you will find.
Festival Programme Highlights
I was blindfolded, hands bound and taken in a wheelchair as part of The Smile off your Face, a one to one theatrical experience from Belgian company Ontroerend Goed in magnificent Rothe House, the only example of an early 17th century merchant’s townhouse in Ireland and open to the public for free.
St. Canice’s Cathedral is packed with a crowd of old and young for a Mick Flannery gig. Ancient tombs are juxtaposed with spotlights and sound systems. One of Ireland’s best young songwriters his powerful words echo through the cathedral chambers. He apologises for his colourful use of language in a venue so sacrosanct. “Nice gaff.” He says between songs.
At 17 High Street, The Hole in the Wall built in 1552, is an Elizabethan Inner House in a state of restoration. Throughout the 18th Century it was one of the areas renowned taverns. With a bar hosting impromptu gigs, the house has been returned to its original use.
Made in Kilkenny, an exhibition of work by local craft makers, explores the city through furniture, candles, carving and textiles. Held in Butler House, the exhibition celebrates the creativity of locally based artists who gain inspiration from their hometown.
Kilkenny Arts Festival runs from 5th to 14th August 2018, for full details, visit the website.
Ryanair, Aer Lingus and Air France fly from London and other major cities in the UK to Dublin where a coach or train will take you to Kilkenny in just over two hours. Tickets can be bought from Dublin Airport. Butler Court offers double rooms with continental breakfast from 80 Euros per night.
Four more Irish arts festivals to enjoy this summer:
Flat Lake Festival, Monaghan 4th – 6th June 2018
Flat Lake is a weekend arts & literature festival, set in five hundred acres of Woodland, in Hilton Park, County Monaghan. The county is an ideal base for exploring the countryside of Northern Ireland. A great festival for families, camping is on-site and children under-twelve go free. In 2018 the line up included Alexis Ayle and Shane McGoughin, and 2018 is set to be even better.
Éigse Carlow Arts Festival, Carlow 10th – 19th June 2018
Éigse, the plural of ‘Éigeas’, is the Irish for poetry gathering. In 1979 the founder members chose the title because they wanted their festival to have a strong focus on poetry and the Irish language, whilst also being inclusive to non-Irish speakers.From its inception, the festival grew to become the major celebratory event for Carlow. The programme is cross-artform, spanning traditional and contemporary work, all with a focus on the Irish language.
West Cork Literary Festival 3rd – 9th July 2018
A festival for those with literary ambitions, the West Cork Literary Festival is a week long series of workshops with some of Ireland’s best writers, exploring novel and playwriting, poetry, crime writing, freelance journalism and publishing. Set in picturesque Bantry on the South West coast, hill walking and outdoor activities are amongst the list of things to do here.
Earagail Arts Festival, Earagail, Co. Donegal 2-18 July 2018
Over a fortnight every July, 37,000 people attend performances and exhibitions by local and international artists in twenty towns & villages throughout North Donegal. The festival produces outdoor, family, literary, music, theatre, comedy and visual arts events in a summer celebration of the arts which reflects the unique character and artistic heritage of the region, set against the scenic backdrop of County Donegal.