When the virus seemed to scupper plans for the Cúirt festival, Cork woman Sasha de Buyl was determined to find a way to put it on, writes
Founded in 1985, Cúirt International Festival of Literature was to be even bigger than usual this year as part of Galway’s reign as the European Capital of Culture. The likes of Anne Enright, Kate Tempest, and UK poet laureate Simon Armitage were all set to descend on the festival. But then Covid-19 restrictions began to kick in, and the organisers began to realise the event was in jeopardy.
They pivoted quickly, revealing on April 6 that the festival was going to be running as Ireland’s ‘First Digital Literature Festival’. Director Sasha de Buyl announced: “What follows is not exactly what our festival might have been like to attend in person, but I hope it will bring a little bit of the famous Cúirt spirit to each person who attends.”
There are 11 events, all free, across the three days.
It is de Buyl’s first year as director of Cúirt, having moved to Galway from Scotland in January, where she had lived and worked for over a decade. She has every right to be disappointed at seeing her well-laid plans curtailed by the tightening grip of the pandemic, but she says she’s been too busy to think about it.
“I think I’m mostly gutted that I’m not going to be able to enjoy what the physical festival is like because Cúirt is in Galway, which is one of the most hoppin’ cities in Ireland.”
She was adamant from the moment Varadkar made his announcement on restrictions. “I didn’t even really think about not having a festival as an option; ‘No, something’s happening. We’re doing something!’ But yeah, maybe it will hit me once the week’s over.”
The Arts Council told Cúirt, as one of its grantees, that its funding would not be affected. “So my instant thought was, well, ‘How can we continue to support artists? How can we continue to support artists if we cancel the festival? And then how can we continue to support artists if we go ahead with something?’
“So if we were looking at cancellation, and for any artists whose events have been cancelled, we are also paying them an honorarium. And it’s not the full fee that we would have been able to give them in person. But it’s a little bit, it’s more than half the fee. Every little helps, basically, because they’re going to be the ones hit hardest… I think it’s morally the right thing to do, these are people who had work confirmed for not a month in the future. It makes a huge difference to them. So, yeah, we wanted to pay them.”
De Buyl says it wasn’t hard to convince certain writers to plump for the ‘digital festival’, despite some of their tech aversions.
“I am so pleased that we have Kevin Barry involved, and also Sara Baume, because both of them are not on social media and they are not super digitally, they’re not connected to literary Twitter or anything like that. But both of them were so keen.”
MOVE TO CORK
De Buyl, 32, was born in Belgium and moved to West Cork as a child, where she attended school in Rosscarbery. After she graduated from Scotland’s University of St Andrews, it was the recession.
“And everyone was like, ‘don’t come home. There’s no jobs.’ So I just stayed in Scotland.”
She worked across a slate of literature and cultural roles, including Creative Scotland, that country’s arts council. “It was very interesting. I got to see the background, the behind-the-scenes of how arts organisations make things happen because not only are you doing funding but you’re also getting to grips with the mechanics and then the business plan, the vision and the programmes of all the major literature organisations. It’s a pretty steep learning curve.”
As she continued working more on the administrative side of the arts, she was always looking out for a role in programming, but admits she didn’t think it would be in Ireland. She says the organisational structures of literature organisations and festivals here are at a stage where the people who work in programme tend to be freelance, part-time contract staff.
“I was looking for something a bit more secure than that,” she says.
“You kind of have to be in it already with a lot of other things going on and coming in to be able to balance that, whereas I couldn’t move from Scotland to Ireland on the strength of just one of those bits.”
So Cúirt offered the perfect opportunity at the right time — it’s just a pity about the coronavirus.
Cúirt is among a host of arts events, at home and abroad, that have moved quickly to offer something online, from musicians doing home recordings via Instagram to Zoom interviews with a watching audience on mute.
Has de Buyl, despite being piled under by the workload of the last month, had time to ponder whether these might give a glimpse of the future, with a small local event possibly capitalising on a global audience?
“I think people will still value human connection, I think especially more so once we get past this (Covid-19). We’ve all been locked into houses, not able to, like, touch and talk to anyone. And there is a special magic about being in the same room with someone and sharing conversation. Book festivals have been dining out on that idea for decades now because books are one of the few art forms that you can experience by yourself in your house to begin with. So I think I think in-person festivals will still be really, really important.
“However, for people who are isolated or may have access needs and aren’t able to fully participate in our festivals as they are at the minute, which I think is actually a failure on our part, this does level the playing field.
“I think it will be really interesting to see how many people who have been traditionally told, ‘Oh, sorry, you can’t access our programmes because we simply cannot set it up for you to be able to access it,’ will now be able to access things. And suddenly, once everyone’s in that position, people will make much more of an effort to make sure that all audiences can be involved.”
- See cuirt.ie
STILL HAVING THEIR DAY IN CÚIRT
Thursday, April 23
1pm-2pm: ‘Mothertongues’: Ciara Ní É, Ifor ap Glyn, and PàdraigMacAoidh
5.30pm-6.30pm: Mary Costello and Alan McMonagle
7.30pm-8.30pm: Eimear McBride: Strange Hotel
Friday, April 24
11am-12 midday: Poetry Podcast – Michael Gorman and Róisín Kelly
1pm-2pm: Sara Baume and Sinéad Gleeson: In Conversation
5.30pm-6.30pm: Elaine Feeney and Lisa McInerney
7.30pm-8.30pm: Anne Enright, in conversation with Rick O’Shea
Saturday, April 25
11-noon: Ireland of the Welcomes: New Communities Writing Home, podcasat
1pm-2pm: Rob Doyle: Threshold
5.30pm-6.30pm: Kei Miller andCarolyn Forché in Conversation
7.30pm-8.30pm: Kevin Barry and Jan Carson
All of the events are free, but donations, all of which go towards supporting the fees Cúirt pays the writers, can be made at www.cuirt.ie/support-us
Thursday, April 23