Now in its eighth year, the West Waterford Festival of Food, based in the beautiful little seaside town of Dungarvan, has evolved into one of the country’s finest celebrations of local culinary traditions and heritage.
And everywhere you look, there’s a woman at the wheel, driving the festival ever onwards and upwards, a remarkable bunch of mostly local ladies, all with a finger in the food business pie, who spend eight or nine months of each year planning and plotting the first big food event on the annual festival calendar.
Born in London, Louise Clarke moved to Dungarvan 18 years ago and is chef/proprietor of award-winning Nude Food, her café/restaurant opened in the town, in 2008.
“I came to West Waterford on a holiday with a friend, I’d never been here before. I arrived on Paddy’s Weekend. There was snow on the mountains, we spent a day on the beach that was too hot. There were high winds.
"There was a deluge. All in the one weekend, we had everything. Ireland was really showing us what she’s made of. It felt like coming home even though I’d never been here. Mind you, when I was six, I wrote in a schoolbook that when I grew up, I was going to come to Ireland and marry an Irish farmer!
“I actually bought my little hovel, in Modeligo, on that same holiday. It was supposed to be just a summer home but me and the three kids found ourselves always leaving London early to get here and leaving late to go back to London.
"It wasn’t in ideal condition to begin with so we camped out there. I’m a bit of a hippie, a bit of a bag lady, I can live wherever I find myself. We all loved it so much, we decided to stay and make a go of it and the children [then 10 and 14-year-old twins] went into school locally.
“I’m on the festival’s executive team, working from September to just after April, when the festival is finished for another year. Before I opened Nude, I had a stall in the local farmer’s market so I’m one of the team arranging the farmer’s market there to deal directly with the traders.
“Dungarvan really welcomes people and we have so many passionate visitors, so many festival regulars who come back each year. And there is no competitiveness amongst the local people or businesses, and it’s not just like that for the one weekend, but for the whole year round. I love that the festival involves all the community.
"There is a networking of ideas and passions and everyone, absolutely everyone feels involved and I love the café being used as a venue and still carrying on as a café — but there is no one event that outshines everything else, it’s genuinely a community festival.”
Máire Flynn, along with her husband, TV chef Paul Flynn, is co-proprietor of the internationally-renowned Tannery Restaurant. She was raised in Fews, ten miles outside Dungarvan. Máire is vice-chairperson of the Festival Board.
“After school, I worked in Paris for a while and then came back to Dublin where I met Paul on a blind date. I was 21. We knew pretty soon that we’d hit it off and I followed him over to London. Two years later, we got married and came back to Dublin and then opened The Tannery in 1997. I’d never worked in a restaurant before we opened.
"It was a very hard learning process. I’d absolutely no training other than Declan Maxwell [manager of Dublin’s Michelin-starred Chapter One and an old friend of the couple’s] coming down to give us a crash course over three days. I was thrown in at the deep end, I had very poor skills as a waitress and it took me at least 10 years to learn proper restaurant skills.
“I did my training on the ground and it was a baptism of fire, so many bad mistakes. It took me a long time to learn to separate any criticism of the restaurant as being anything other than personal, I’d take it personally. I wouldn’t be arguing back but … I do have a good business head and that’s where my real strengths lie.
“I just fell into the festival. For the first three years, Paul was much more involved because the girls — Irish twins! — were still very young but then I felt it was my duty to get stuck in and let Paul step back a bit. I’m the vice-chairperson of the board and Donal Connolly, an ex-county manager, is the chairman.
"He’s like the ‘Daddy’, very impartial. I’m the central woman for the contacts. After 18 years in The Tannery, we have a lot of friends and contacts in the business, so I’m the go-to-woman to ask people down and to know who to invite. I kind of have the connections, the ‘little black book’.
“Why are there so many women involved? Just, women are more doers than men are and get the stuff done. A lot of the businesses in town, the women are very involved —but we could do with more men.
“It’s a very established festival, the same backbone of people coming year after year. They know what they are going to get — quality events and loads for all the family. And it’s great fun after hours, a lot of crack and carryon. The diehards that make the pilgrimage every year recognise that it is very sociable and enjoyable and it’s also a great networking event.”
Claire Dalton is one of the four founder directors of the very successful craft brewers, Dungarvan Brewing Company, along with her husband Tom, brother Cormac and sister-in-law Jen. Claire was born and bred in Dungarvan.
“The brewery opened in 2010 and the festival was one of our first public events and I was invited to come onto the board in 2011 to help with the social media side. Well, that was my initial job but, you know how it is, you go in to do one thing and … For the last few years, the brewery and myself have staged an event. Last year, we did a comedy event and are going to do it again this year and we also do tours to the brewery.
“Why are there so many women involved in the festival? Women get stuff done, I suppose. There is a strong female presence in the food businesses and business in general, around Dungarvan.
“It’s a real, proper community festival, there’s a massive community involment. Not just at committee level. Locals are very proud of it and get really into it. There are so many different events, from the very high-end fine dining and then you can be down foraging on the beach. And there are so many free things, it is very open to everyone and the locals have always embraced it from the very beginning. That’s what makes it, the community spirit.”
Eunice Power is a food writer and TV chef and runs her own catering business. She is from Dungarvan.
“I did hotel management in Shannon and then moved to the UK but I married a farmer from Dungarvan and came back in 1997. I started my own business in 2000. I saw a big gap in the catering area: once the numbers went beyond 30, things turned to rubbish.
"I’m a self-taught cook; I went from front-of-house to the back, into the kitchen. One thing then led to another: I started food writing, doing some food consultancy and it seemed a natural thing to get involved in the festival and I’ve been there since its inception.
“I was much more involved in the nuts and bolts than I am now. In the first few years, some of us literally sponsored areas in the festival to get us going. What I like is it brings a heightened awareness of Dungarvan to the rest of the country.
In the long term, it is more of a cerebral festival, a festival of ideas, looking at the industry itself and issues within the industry.
“This year, we’re looking at family businesses and the issues around them. How do you manage change or deal with inheritance? How do you keep the same core values? The Festival attracts thousands and thousands to the area.
"We always wanted it to be inclusive, so the people from the town found it something to be very proud of and the Dungarvan diaspora found it was a great reason to come home for the weekend. And it attracts people from the food business and industry.
“Another lovely thing about the festival is meeting people who come to the festival, people you might see only once or twice a year. I’m one of the directors. Coming up with ideas for the festival would be one of my strengths and I do my pop-ups. This year, I have two, a Persian dinner and a dinner in Dromana.
“Why is there such a strong female presence in the festival? If you want to get something done …. You know, there’s a lot of truth in that, around the table, the women drive a lot of the ideas. We didn’t set out to do that, it’s just the way it wound up. Maybe that’s our dynamic in Dungarvan, it breeds strong women.”
Éimhín Ní Chonchuir is the festival director. She grew up in An Rinn, seven miles from Dungarvan.
“My parents are from East Cork but I was brought up in An Rinn, the Gaeltacht. I did Arts in UCC before going up to Naas to work as a marketing intern with Dawn Farm Foods. I spent 17 years with them and grew with them as they grew. But my babies were getting bigger and I kept returning to thoughts of my idyllic childhood by the sea, speaking Irish. I knew I’d end up by the sea somewhere.
“I came down with my husband—he’s from Roscommon — and he and the kids loved it so we decided to move back. The only condition was that we moved straight back to the Gaeltacht — where we were welcomed with open arms!
“I started working in Waterford and then had another baby. While I was on maternity leave, I heard of a job working with Waterford food, driving a food strategy and delivering the festival. I was on maternity leave but it was too good a job to pass up.
"The baby was three months old when I started back full time and eight month old when the festival kicked off. When I look back, I don’t know how I did it but they were calling my husband a saint!
“Why is there such a strong female presence involved in the festival? Females get stuff done. I remember noticing all the women. I was sitting at the table, looking around the board: all strong women from industry and business.
"Máire is very much a driving force. And we have new board members: Audrea Hassett, from Tastefully Yours, to get more of a flavour of the producer, and Marie Quinn, who runs The Moorings restaurant. We do need new blood to keep driving forward. Donal Connolly, our very kind chairman, was saying, as long as it’s getting done, we’re doing the right thing.
“When we went up to Dublin to launch the festival, I was so proud. I’ve never been in a job which generated such feelings of positivity in people. Everyone in the community wants to help, wants to make it happen, giving their time.
"You don’t hear no. There’s a pride of place, a great feeling of fun. I get a huge sense of pride around the time of the festival, a sense of a community coming together and delivering this festival.”