The People's Festival
A Letter from Ireland
It’s summer in Ireland, not that you could guess by looking out the window. After a dry and sunny June, we are experiencing a very wet July. But that will not dampen our spirits. We just add a waterproof layer.
This time of the year, all roads lead to West Belfast and the annual Féile an Phobail (The Peoples Festival). It is a 10-day celebration of community, art, history, culture, and politics.
This year’s program, stretching to 260 pages, has something for everyone. Concerts, comedy, traditional music sessions, history tours, plays, poetry, and whatever you are having yourself. Most of the events are free.
The festival is unique. I have to declare an interest. I am proud to be from West Belfast. For over 15 years I volunteered to work at events and chaired the organization through the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The festival is unique because it is of and by the people. It is a huge, professionally run endeavor that attracts global acts and national attention but community past, present and future remain at its heart.
To understand its values is to know the story of how it came about.
The Féile was established in 1988 when our community was described as “savage”, censorship was in place, and the conflict played out daily on our streets. Gerry Adams called together several community organizers with the idea of a festival to showcase the real face of West Belfast. It was the community defining and reclaiming its own identity.
The Festival was set for early August. The date was significant. It would coincide with the anniversary of the introduction of internment without trial in 1971. This date had been marked by bonfires, rioting, and confrontation with the British Army and police. The result was the injury to mostly young people, disruption of public services, and damage to community property.
The idea was to take the energy of time and channel it into a positive celebration of identity. It worked. The Féile was born and would grow year after year. We had a lot of craic along the way. Too much for a short letter.
All ideas and views were welcome. We set up a radio station for those who could not make the events including prisoners in Long Kesh.
We faced opposition from state agencies and a unionist-dominated council. I remember one unionist leader complaining not about the festival but that our radio station was always on! I guess someone kept tuning into the station to wind him up.
But the success was undeniable, and the model was picked up by other communities to varying success.
While it celebrates community, it is not insular. It is welcoming and forward-looking. It is a platform for cross-community engagement and political discussion.
Over time the Féile grew and a generation has grown up knowing that August is Festival time. Congratulation to Kevin and all the team and good luck for this year.
Ciarán Quinn is the Sinn Féin Representative to North America. Each week he writes a letter from Ireland with news and analysis. It is featured in the weekly Friends of Sinn Féin USA Newsletter. Be sure you are subscribed to stay up to date.