For The Insider, engagement with the arts in 2020 often meant watching them from my sitting room with a cup of tea - or a G&T - in front of me, and, sadly, given the continuing uncertainties surrounding the rollout of the nation’s Covid-19 vaccination programme, that situation might remain unchanged for months to come.
Activity across many sectors of society – particularly in the travel, tourism and hospitality sectors – came to a grinding halt in March last year. The pandemic, and the consequent public health measures, have been devastating for many, but for those working in the arts, culture, and event sectors in Galway and elsewhere – the artists, technicians, designers, musicians, performers, and support workers, everyone – the shutdown of March 12 was, and remains, seriously challenging.
Opportunities and livelihoods evaporated overnight and while Government support schemes and emergency funds followed, the normal operation of most arts and events organisations in Galway has been difficult as one Government announcement followed another, and lockdown followed lockdown.
A brief window
With perhaps the exception of a brief window last autumn when, for example, Druid Theatre Company went outdoors across the county with their revival of the works of Lady Augusta Gregory (much enjoyed at Coole Park by The Insider ) and when Galway International Arts Festival led the way to the reopening of theatres to events indoors (including a programme of events filmed in front of limited sized audiences, and streamed live to our laptops and smartphones ), recurring restrictions suppressed cultural activity in Galway on a massive scale.
Subsequent brave efforts through the winter months by many Galway companies including Branar, Baboró Children’s Festival, TULCA Visual Arts Festival, the Town Hall Theatre, the Black Box Theatre, Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe, Music For Galway, Macnas, and others, to provide online content for Galway audiences impressed the Insider no end.
However, enjoying all this added to a yearning for the ‘real thing’ like a passionate performance in a Druid production of a great play, enjoyed in the company of friends. So given the difficulties and challenges of 2020, what might happen in 2021?
‘Level 4 with adjustments’
The Insider’s contacts across the political spectrum tell him that after what happened when restrictions were relaxed in the run-up Christmas, the Government now seem determined that this third wave of Covid-19 infections will be the last and that lobbyists and special interest groups will be given short shrift if they seek any early exit from the existing lockdown.
The State is currently under Level Five restrictions, and it is set to stay that way until March 5. Recent public utterances by An Taoiseach Micheal Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, however, suggest most businesses face months of further shutdowns as Ireland battles to suppress the third wave. ‘Level 4 with adjustments’ seems to be the latest thinking behind any planned announcement on March 6.
'A legacy of the pandemic - and the nation’s response to it through increased appreciation of the role and importance of the arts - will further energise Galway’s arts community'
Insider has also been told we should not even dream about Cheltenham. Insider believes An Taoiseach and An Tánaiste when they say any easing of restrictions will have to be slow and that it is unlikely we will see the hospitality sector in general reopen before the ‘’Easter and summer period’. Theatres, cinemas, and venues - and outdoor cultural activities as well – thus look set to be curtailed until June or perhaps even July, and even then, likely to remain restricted in some way until late in the year when the Government’s mass vaccination targets are reached.
So given the above and given the difficulties and challenges of last year, where next for the arts in Galway this year?
Well, leading the cultural charge for 2021 is, ironically, the slimmed down team from Galway’s European Capital of Culture 2020. Insider can see from its website that Galway 2020 has a string of events carried over from last year, all produced by local artists and local arts organisations, including Gilgamesh by Macnas; the installation of Galway International Arts Festival’s Mirror Pavilion in a Connemara bog; Cellissimo by Music for Galway; plus projects by Brú Theatre, Galway Community Circus, Hope It Rains, and others. Insider wishes Galway 2020 well as it endeavours to meet an official, but ambitious, completion date of March 31, and suggests it give Government buildings or Brussels a call to seek a further extension until summer at least.
While the jury remains out on what might be the legacy (if any ) of Galway 2020, the completion of these remaining productions will likely bolster the standing and resolve of local artists and arts organisations who came to the rescue of the 2020 project after its difficult and well-documented start up.
For the Insider, that emboldening of local artists would seem a good legacy. Insider also believes that a legacy of the pandemic itself - and the nation’s response to it through increased appreciation of the role and importance of the arts - will further energise Galway’s arts community.
Galway arts online
While it is difficult to predict what will be possible for Galway arts organisations to deliver in 2021, Insider is optimistic that Galway audiences will be served up a year of significant cultural events – though perhaps through a mixture and myriad of in-person and online experiences. Music for Galway’s Mid-Winter Festival in January and Druid Theatre’s livestreams of performances in February seem to suggest the best route forward for Galway festival and events is to keep going by going online, or to at least have an online option as a Plan B.
Cúirt International Festival of Literature (April 21 to 25 ) led by the pioneering new director, Sasha de Buyl [pictured above] was one of the first festivals worldwide to move online last year and may have to do similar this year, perhaps with a hybrid mix of in-person and online events.
'A resilient Galway arts sector will help get us through the final stretch of what has felt like a very long journey'
Galway Theatre Festival (April 30 to May 8 ) has grown in the last decade to become an exceptionally important showcase for new talent in Galway and, at best, seems likely to present a hybrid mix of in-person and online events as does Galway Early Music Festival (May 20 to 23 ).
The decision by Cannes Film Festival to move its 2021 dates to July may have some impact on Galway Film Fleadh (July 6 to 11 ) plans, but whether it does or not, Insider yearns for the return of the Fleadh’s magical mix of world premieres, respectful retrospectives, and showcasing of new talent.
The recent announcement by Glastonbury to cancel its June festival for the second year in a row highlights the pressures on the events industry nationally and internationally including the Galway International Arts Festival (July 12 to 25 ). According to a recent interview in The Irish Times, the festival is planning "a couple of scenarios for what shape the festival may take, with safety first and foremost in mind, for artists and audiences’’.
However, it remains to be seen whether or not the popular Big Top concerts will be able to proceed as envisaged, given the ongoing difficulties with international travel. Insider understands everyone in Galway - and many elsewhere – are hoping and praying for the return of the big blue tent to the Fisheries Field in July, so fingers crossed!
Baboró International Arts Festival for Children (October 10 to 17 ) celebrates its 25th year. Last year, it presented primarily an online event but looks to be in a good position this year to present a mix of in-person and, for international audiences, online shows.
The final stretch
The Galway Comedy Festival (October 19 to 25 ) will no doubt help us recover from the pain of the pandemic and TULCA: Festival of Visual Arts in November will help shorten our winter by presenting works live, and online through publication and podcasts. No doubt the Roisin Dubh and the Black Gate will also make our lives better when they too get back to something closer to normal business after a year of restricted activity.
Insider is also hopeful and optimistic that An Taibhdhearc na Gaillimhe will soon have its new operational structure in place, thereby positioning it to respond to post-pandemic opportunities with great energy.
So, with vaccine light visible at the end of the Covid tunnel, and well-founded hopes that a resilient Galway arts sector will help get us through the final stretch of what has felt like a very long journey, the Insider looks forward to better days ahead for all in 2021 as a prelude to full normality returning in 2022.