As Ireland shakes off the winter blues, wraps up its St Patrick’s Day festivities and blossoms into 40 shades of springtime green, the calendar erupts in an extravaganza of events. Whether you’re into artisan food, craft beer, Irish literature or trad music, there’s a festival for you somewhere in the Emerald Isle.
Food and drink
Ireland’s reputation for fine food and drink just keeps on improving. When you come across a group of French visitors on a cheese-tasting tour of counties Cork and Kerry, you know the Irish must be doing something right.
But Ireland’s foodie scene was actually born way back in the 1960s and 70s, midwifed by the formidable Myrtle Allen of Ballymaloe House hotel and restaurant near Cork. Now in her 90s, Myrtle and her family have not only tirelessly championed the finest of seasonal Irish produce but also written many books on the subject, twin passions celebrated in their Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine (litfest.ie).
If you can’t wait till mid-May for Ballymaloe, the Galway Food Festival (galwayfoodfestival.com) kicks off over the Easter weekend with a mouth-watering menu of culinary events located in the middle of the scenic Wild Atlantic Way (ireland.com/wild-atlantic-way), while mid-April sees the West Waterford Festival of Food (westwaterfordfestivaloffood.com), a three-day spree of fine dining, farmers markets, cookery demos and street entertainment.
Northern Ireland joins the feast this spring with its NI Year of Food and Drink 2016 (discovernorthernireland.com/yearoffoodanddrink2016). At the head of the table is March’s Legenderry Food Festival (foodfestivalfinder.co.uk/events/legenderry-food-festival), a celebration of local produce based in the province’s historic second city, Derry/Londonderry; BBC Radio Ulster’s Paula McIntyre will host a cooking demonstration alongside celebrity guests Neven Maguire and TV chef Rachel Allen, a scion of the Ballymaloe dynasty.
Off the beaten tourist trail in the southern part of NI, County Armagh is known as the Orchard of Ireland and is home to early May’s Apple Blossom Fair (armagh.co.uk/appleblossom), based in Loughgall Country Park, where you can enjoy guided orchard tours, browse market stalls and learn just about every recipe that you can cook involving apples.
At the end of May, as spring slips into summer, you can slake your thirst at the Killarney Beerfest (killarneybeerfestival.com) where a wide range of craft breweries (plus whiskey and gin distillers) compete for awards while you sip your artisan stout to the accompaniment of live local bands.
Speaking of local bands, springtime sees a flurry of music festivals all across the country. Held towards the end of May, the week-long Fleadh Nua (fleadhnua.com) in Ennis, County Clare, is the grandaddy of Irish music events, established in Dublin in 1970, and packs the streets of this pretty country town with concerts, recitals, album launches and country dancing competitions.
Meanwhile, the Féile Neidín (kenmareirishmusicfestival.com) is the new kid on the block, founded in 2013 and rapidly becoming one of Ireland’s best festivals of traditional music. Visitors from all over the world descend on the lovely heritage town of Kenmare in County Kerry over the first weekend in April to enjoy a programme that includes trad sessions, ceilis, workshops, masterclasses and musical cruises around Kenmare Bay.
Prime events around the May bank holiday weekend (April 30 through May 2, 2016) include the City of Derry Jazz Festival (cityofderryjazzfestival.com) in Northern Ireland, and Kilkenny Roots (kilkennyroots.com) in the southeast, with line-ups reflecting the best of jazz, blues, country and folk from both sides of the Atlantic, plus the Cork International Choral Festival (corkchoral.ie) which sees the city fill with choirs from all over Europe.
If you’re into more intimate trad music sessions in cosy country pubs, take a look at the Cup of Tae Festival (cupoftaefestival.com) in the scenic setting of Ardara, County Donegal, or the Cuckoo Festival (Fleadh na gCuach; kinvara.com/cuckoo) in picturesque Kinvara, County Galway, both held in early May.
Arts & Culture
Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival (cqaf.com) in late April/early May is one of Ireland’s biggest and most eclectic arts festivals, enlivening the city with 60,000 visitors and staging events that range from standup comedy and performance poetry to literary readings and experimental theatre. Running concurrently is the Festival of Fools (foolsfestival.com), Belfast’s annual celebration of street entertainment with acts converging from all over Europe.
More traditional arts are on show at the International Pan-Celtic Festival (panceltic.ie) in Carlow, which brings together the Celtic cultures of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall and the Isle of Man with bagpipes, drums, choral singing, set dancing and a camogie tournament (like hurling, or shinty as it’s known in Scotland, but played by women).
If you prefer to escape the crowds, the Inishbofin Arts Festival (inishbofin.com/event/inishbofin-arts-festival-2016) offers a programme of music, film, photography and art in venues scattered around the remote island of Inishbofin, off the coast of Connemara to the west of Galway.
Literature & Film
Ireland is famous for its literary tradition, and there’s no shortage of festivals to celebrate the fact. Biggest of the bunch is May’s International Literature Festival Dublin (ilfdublin.com) which draws top-name authors from around the world for a packed programme of debate and discussion.
But don’t overlook the more esoteric delights of the Cork World Book Fest (constantreader.ie/corkworldbookfest) or Galway’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature (cuirt.ie). Or indeed, Ireland’s longest-running poetry gathering, the Strokestown International Poetry Festival (strokestownpoetry.org) in County Roscommon.
April’s Belfast Film Festival (belfastfilmfestival.org) reflects Northern Ireland’s burgeoning film and TV industry (local landscapes provided the settings for Game of Thrones) with special awards for short films, animation and documentaries, and a reputation for creative thinking (eg screenings of prison films like Cool Hand Luke and The Shawshank Redemption in the city’s historic Crumlin Road Gaol).
Despite its countryside setting, the Dingle Film Festival (dinglefilmfestival.com) in mid-March pulls in big names from around the world, with a special focus on animation and Irish language features, all staged in one of Ireland’s most appealing towns amid landscapes made famous by the 1970 Hollywood movie Ryan’s Daughter.