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Limerick festivals organisation needs a rethink

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Local Labour Councillor Joe Leddin was recently quoted as saying that Limerick “is just not at the races” for Limerick festivals organisation. This came on the back of criticism of local authority funding to the tune of €10,000 which is being granted to the EVA biennial festival of contemporary art, a festival that already receives significant Arts Council funding.

Leddin’s comments must be listened to. Out of all the local authority Councillors who have suddenly become outspoken on the issues of both arts and festival funding, Leddin has experience at the coalface.

Joe Leddin and John Cleary are the driving force behind the successful Great Limerick Run

As one of the organisers of the annual Great Limerick Run, Leddin along with John Cleary and the team at the GLR has over a period of time evolved this event into something that now prides itself (according to its website) as ‘Ireland’s biggest mass participation sporting event outside Dublin’.

In recent years Limerick has improved significantly in terms of the focus it now places on public events and festivals. Our year as National City of Culture could surely be credited for us upping our game?

However, as Ireland’s third city we are nowhere near other Irish cities in terms of the quality of our festival offering. We must do some naval gazing and ask ourselves why.

If City of Culture showed us anything it showed us that the public crave civic events. Yet other than Riverfest in May (an event which is bolstered by the Great Limerick Run attendance on the same weekend) we have failed to develop, support and (importantly) commit to any other festival that attracts footfall, bednights and spend.

What seems to happen in Limerick is that we focus on funding. We put together a pot of money and then feel we need to spread the pot thinly across the many festival applications received. Organising committees get tired of the hard slog (most have day jobs) and the energy dissipates.

Remember Proms in the Park during 2014? A once off event that had huge potential

I have some basic understanding of the many different festival ideas that have popped up in Limerick. I have a respect for the many different organisers and idea generators this city is producing. These are civic leaders who want to do something that has value and attracts the general public.

Remember the Limerick Festivals such as Pigtown Fling? Remember Paddy Expo? Remember the Limerick Spring? Remember the Spiegeltent? Remember TomCat?

The problem as I see it is that we do not have a trained festival and events professional working within the local authority whose job it is to identify good ideas, build on these ideas and ultimately produce one or two new civic festivals with a view to evolving these new events on an annual basis to ultimately become key destination events in the Irish (not just Limerick) calendar.

A quick survey shows almost 30 Limerick festivals being attempted annually.

Having 20+ small events in our annual local calendar is noble. The image above shows the level of output in terms of festivals and events in Limerick. Each has a vision, a brief and a mission statement. Yet each is competing for a relatively small pot of funding.

Do we tell some of them their ideas are not worthy of funding? Do we share the pot of funding equally? Or do we take a different approach? With some negotiation could we take the best elements of some of the above, merge under an umbrella concept and create something new, something unique and something marketable nationally?

It is important also to be mindful of the fact that some small, niche events don’t want to grow or evolve. That is ok. There is a need for such small events throughout the year. However, the majority of festivals want to be ambitious. They want to grow. They want to be recognised as an event of note in the Irish festivals calendar.

If we are to be at the races in terms of Failte Ireland and external corporate partnership opportunities we really have got to start focusing on the development of one or two bigger, more ambitious ideas.

To do this will require Limerick Festivals collaboration, soul searching and a willingness to merge some of our existing offerings. We saw the beginnings of such moves last year when the Richard Harris Film Festival joined forces with the Limerick Film Festival.

Now that local councillors have engaged openly in this debate we should consider putting a halt to the ‘something for everybody’ approach in terms of funding. We need to focus on something new, potentially something that has a collaborative goal, merging existing festivals with similar themes.

A simple bit of research will probably show us how other cities have succeeded in creating festivals of note – good ideas with an understanding of what the public want, buy in from local government, a five-year plan, a willingness to start small but an ambition to become big. Finally, and most importantly, an event that has the support the citizens of Limerick. The reason events struggle is because people don’t turn up.

A quick chat with the Great Limerick Run team will show clearly how an event that was once fledgling has grown year on year to become recognised as a key Irish sporting event. There are learnings for other Limerick festivals there.

Councillor’s comments don’t often stand out but this week I think Joe Leddin was on the ball. As an elected representative with a specific niche knowledge, perhaps party interests could be put aside to allow him educate the local authority in the world of successful event creation?

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