Mark Graham’s Year of Festivals in Ireland

If you’re a fan of festivals, you’ve probably heard of Mark Graham. You might have read his column in the Irish Times or come across his blog online. He’s the guy who spent a year going to three festivals in Ireland every week. Graham, who is more hipster than hippie, was in Culture Box last week to talk about his book A Year of Festivals in Ireland. The idea came to him after a rejected mortgage application. He had managed to get the 10% deposit together and was told his application might be considered if he had 20% deposit. Disappointed and angry, he asked himself why was he letting a financial institute with a worse credit rating than his own tell him what to do? Instead of taking the bank’s advice, he bought a fourth-hand VW camper van and decided to see if it was possible to go to three festivals a week in Ireland, every week, for a year. He also started to write about it – first on the blog, then he was asked to write a column for The Ticket in the Irish Times, and then the book for New Island. Graham said that he had never written anything before starting the blog, and one of the joys of writing was that he discovered how pleasing a well-chosen simile could be. Talking about doing the pilgrimage on Lough Derg he wrote “Donegal in June has all the warmth of Twink with a hangover.”

Although he found the writing satisfying, the real joy was the project itself. Graham enjoyed travelling around Ireland and meeting new . He found lots of people doing small but amazing things to make their communities a bit more fun. He took in an eclectic mix of festivals from the All Ireland Culchie & Egg Throwing Championship in Co. Leitrim, to the Hen Racing Championships in Co. Waterford and the National Ploughing Championships in Laois. There was match-making in Lisdoonvarna, cloud appreciation in West Cork and story-telling on Sieve Bloom, plus a host of music festivals from Dingle’s Other Voices, the Fleadh Ceol in Derry and the biggies – Electric Picnic, Body & Soul, etc. And of course of own Dublin Writers Festival.

Graham is a man who likes a drink and talked candidly about the relationship between festivals and alcohol. He admits that some festivals are enhanced by having a few drinks; you wouldn’t have same experience, the same conversations or even encounter the same sort of people if you were not having a pint with them. He also mentioned Buckfast as the festival drink of choice because of its caffeine content, and shared a few Buckfast recipes which all sound fairly lethal. The Craggy Island Iced Tea, for example is equal parts Buckfast and Bulmers.

But there are over 850 festivals in Ireland, including 65 walking festivals, and it’s possible to meet odd and interesting people at all of them. As Graham says “It’s impossible to walk up a mountain with an Irish person without them finding out everything about your life”. For him, the people are really what make festivals in Ireland special. A festival allows like-minded people to come together, they create a shared sense of community and it gives people a chance to let their hair down. He cited this as reason why big businesses are still keen to invest in festivals – they know they can make money because festivals are recession proof. People want to escape the depressing reality of the economic doom and gloom but they can’t afford a week in sun. Instead they’ll make do with three days in a field with a bottle of Buckfast or a weekend climbing up a mountain. Festivals provide an escape and the Irish are good at making that escape special.

His year travelling the country has left Graham optimistic about our prospects as a country. His enthusiasm in describing the festivals he’s been to is pretty infectious. Asked for his top festival picks, he said the Lisdoonvarna Matchmaking Festival was hard to beat for sheer feckless abandon and he thinks that Failte Ireland is missing a trick by not sending tourists to the Ballinasloe Horse Fair.

A Year of Festivals in Ireland, which sounds like a very positive and life-affirming read is available from The Gutter Bookshop, Amazon and New Island.

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Gruff Rhys in Whelans

Saturday was the first day of the festival and a gloriously, sunny first day at that. Despite the sunshine, there was an eager queue waiting outside Whelans, all happy to leave the balmy evening and go into the dark bar for Gruff Rhys’ talk about his new project American Interior.

The evening began with Tony Clayton-Lea interviewing Rhys about his new multi-platform project; American Interior spans an album, a book, a documentary and an app. It follows the footsteps of famous Welsh man John Evans, a distant relative of Rhys, who went to America in 1790 to find a rumoured tribe of Welsh-speaking Indians. The Welsh Indians were said to be descendants of Prince Madoc who, according to Welsh legend, discovered America in the 12th century, three hundred years before Columbus. Rhys, who was aware of John Evans from his childhood, was asked to write the music for a play marking the 200 years since Evans’ death in 1999. While his music wasn’t used in the play, due to touring commitments and the death of the director, it made him more interested in John Evans’ story. Fifteen years later, on tour across America, he realised he was very close to the journey that Evans had taken but didn’t have time to visit the places and explore the story properly. When he returned to the UK, he asked his record company if his next tour could follow John Evans’ journey and give him time to visit and explore his destinations. Rhys wanted to verify the tall tales that he was told about John Evans as a child, stories that sounded far-fetched but that you accept when you’re young. He wanted to find out what was true and what was myth. The record company granted his request and the tour evolved into a series of musical lectures about Evans’ journey, accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation and a three-foot model of Evans, rebuilt in felt. The story of this tour, and Evans’ original quest, are told in the American Interior book and documentary. The songs, however are less didactic and instead try to create the emotion of John Evans’ journey or concentrate on one small detail. Rhys didn’t want the song to just consist of facts.

Rhys also talked the early days of Super Furry Animals; how he met band-mate Bunford for the first time on the roof of a train and how getting signed to Creation Records was like winning the pools. He also talked about a new Super Furry Animals release – a beer called Fuzzy created by the Celt Brewery.

The second half of the evening was a performance of songs and stories from America Interior, complete with projected slides and a special appearance from the felt John Evans. It was a treat to see these songs performed in such an intimate venue and the crowd were captivated. The story of John Evans’ adventures in America was interspersed with songs played on an acoustic guitar, harmonica and a few electronic gadgets. It was a very special way to spend a Saturday night and a great way to get a history lesson!

Interview with children’s author Erika McGann

There are lots of events for children in this year’s Dublin Writers Festival. There’s Chris Judge’s Storybird for the 6+ age group, Derek Landy talking about Skulduggery Pleasant and Laura Dockrill’s Darcy Burdock event for the over 8s.

Irish children’s author, Erika McGann was recently announced as this year’s winner of the Waverton Good Read Children’s Award. The winner of this award is chosen by young readers from local schools in Waverton, Cheshire and is awarded to a debut British or Irish author each year.

Erika’s winning novel, The Demon Notebook tells the story of Grace and her four best friends who are failed witches but one night stumble upon real magical powers. The book has a great mix of magic and suspense, with a few scary moments thrown in.

I interviewed Erika and asked her about her books, about writing and about other aspects of the writer’s life.

Why witches? What attracted you to the realm of the supernatural and what do you think attracts your readers?

Witchcraft was the big thing when I was in school, and I still love the mix of fun and darkness about it. I think young readers always have a love for the supernatural because of all the possibilities. The rules are dictated by the author – they can differ from book to book – but there’s so much scope. Characters that feel timid or weak can become powerful with the introduction of magic, and that’s something that appealed to me as a kid.

There are two books in the series already published (The Demon Notebook and The Broken Spell) and a third, The Watching Wood, on it’s way. Are there many more in the series? Do you know yet what will happen to the girls or where the series will end?

I haven’t started a fourth yet, I’ll see how number three goes! But there is a complete story in each book so, wherever I finish, there won’t be any cliff-hangers left hanging.

What’s the hardest thing about writing? And the most enjoyable thing?

The hardest thing is the discipline. I admire those writers that can maintain a very strict routine, writing for hours a day. It’s something I try to emulate, but keeping too rigidly to a schedule makes me rebel a bit. Finding the right balance between a steady workflow and giving yourself time to think through ideas is a frustrating thing that I’m nowhere near mastering. Give me five or ten years. Or twenty.

As for the most enjoyable part of writing; it’s the writing. When you’re in the zone, and typing away without much effort, it’s brilliant. And you get all smug and self-satisfied when you finish a big chunk of pages you’re really happy with.

You do a lot of readings in schools and events like the Dublin Book Festival and World Book Day. How does it feel meeting your readers?

I love doing book events. I think I say it every time I’m asked but, when my first book came out, the thought of speaking to a big group of kids for an hour sounded like a particular kind of hell. I was terrified I’d be heckled and laughed out of libraries with tears in my eyes. In reality, kids make a fantastic audience. Keeping their attention is not difficult when it comes to talking about books and writing; they’re dying to hear (and talk) about developing characters, building a story and designing book covers. And hearing kids talk about your characters like they know them is pure joy.

What piece of advice would you give someone who wants to be a writer? What do you wish someone had told you starting out?

The best advice I could give would be to write what you enjoy. It’s like any job that way; the more you enjoy it, the better you’ll do it.

My brother’s an author, so there wasn’t much I didn’t know about the business before I started. But it would have helped if someone had advised me loosen up when writing. Before I took it up a few years ago, I hadn’t written any kind of story since school. Being new to the idea of a novel, I think I was a bit too careful and didn’t let go when I felt like it. You can always fix things after the first draft, so I’d tell any budding writer now not to hold back. Go mad, if you want to, and sort the mess out later.

Who are your favourite writers? YA or otherwise.

Still loving The Hunger Games, so Suzanne Collins is a favourite. Each film makes the series feel brand new…sigh. And I’ll always love Roald Dahl. I think his books are imprinted on the DNA of several generations, and that’s how things should be.

And most importantly, when’s the new book out?

September! It seems like it’s ages away, but I’ve got the U.S. edition of my first book coming out next month to tide me over.

The Demon Notebook and The Broken Spell are both available from O’Brien Press.

Dawn O’Porter at the Twisted Pepper

I really enjoyed Dawn O’Porter session at last year’s Dublin Writers Festival. She was in conversation with Roisin Ingle and here to talk about her first book Paper Aeroplanes. She is a very engaging speaker and I was delighted to see her back again, this time interviewed by Anna Carey in the Twisted Pepper as part of Banter. O’Porter is a wonderful interviewee – very open, very funny and very passionate about her books and characters. The crowd at the Twisted Pepper was almost entirely female, lots of well-dressed women in the late twenties and early thirties, queuing politely for the sold out session and many buying the newly released Goose on their way in.

The two books follow the lives of teenage girls Renee and Flo, growing up on the island of Guernsey. O’Porter also grew up in Guernsey which she describes as being trapped on an Continue reading