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.