How Ireland Does Festival Season Like Nowhere Else on Earth
On the island credited with giving the world Halloween, you know the festive season has got to be good. Just how good, though? That’s a question you’ll have to answer for yourself—in Ireland—this fall or winter, when the festival menu is well and truly overflowing. (Music! Theater! Holidays! Food!) To help narrow down the choices, we give you 15 favorites:
Starting with Halloween, whose roots reach back to the ancient Irish celebration of Samhain—when the harvest ended and the darkness set in—and running straight through to New Year’s Eve, the holiday spirit seizes the Emerald Isle like no place else on earth. Here are six cases in point.
Bram Stoker Festival
As the birthplace of Dracula author Bram Stoker, Dublin goes seriously gothic for the guy over a holiday weekend (Oct. 25-28). Among the highlights is Sounds of Wood on Muscle, the very definition of a dark comedy: Performed at St. Anne’s Church, where Stoker was married, the play considers how to fake the sound of a wooden stake piercing a human heart. (The idea is to do better than Orson Welles and his colleagues did during their live radio recording of Dracula in 1938, when they settled on smashing a hammer into a watermelon). For more family-oriented fare, consider another highlight of the weekend: the carnival known as Stokerfest on the grounds of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. True Stoker stalkers may also want to visit St. Michan’s, the church and graveyard of the author’s maternal ancestors. Be sure to take a guided tour of the limestone crypts, where you’ll see—among other things—the death mask of Irish martyr Wolfe Tone and three well preserved mummies from the 14th century.
This festival—so legendary it’s been featured in the pages of USA Today and the New York Times—began 30 years ago, when a pub owner decided he wanted his customers to show up in costume. Having evolved through the decades, the modern version (Oct. 26-Nov. 2) culminates with a parade that doubles as the runway show of all the getups locals have been crafting for the past year. Indeed, because this town was once a dressmaking center, many of its inhabitants have tailoring in their blood.
A new festival in Ireland’s Ancient East at the foothills of the Cooley Mountains, Puca (Oct. 31-Nov. 2) celebrates all that is dark and mythic. The celebrations begin with a Samhain promenade in the town of Trim, where the walls of the castle will be awash in lights. Another can’t-miss: the retelling of the bleak and bloody Tain by the Candlelight Players, a storytelling troupe who combine music, shadow puppetry and a healthy dose of snark. Catch them in Drogheda, a town with a cathedral that also houses the mummified head of the Irish saint, Oliver Plunkett.
Not all that sparkles in Waterford is crystal. The massive local Christmas festival (Nov. 23-Dec. 23) will likely see 500,000 attendees this year—all drawn by the holiday markets, light shows, mulled wine, Wintervall Express Train and a mammoth post office box for Santa letters.
Victorian Street Fair
Come the holiday season, Northern Ireland’s Causeway Coastal Route is one of the best ways to time-travel: On Nov. 30, the town of Whitehead returns to the Victorian era, with a flip of the Christmas lights switch—and a street fair that draws locals in period costume (think bustles and top-hats galore). There will also be puppet shows, storytelling and a lantern-lit parade.
Wilde. Beckett. Yeats. Shaw. Joyce. Binchy. Even when you try to compile a short list of Irish cultural superstars, you struggle for restraint. The Emerald Isle is just ridiculously, disproportionately endowed in this department. Little wonder that Galway was designated the European Capital of Culture for 2020, when you can catch groundbreaking music, exhibitions and performance art (one project will see 400 people of various ages, cultures, and abilities cross the River Corrib and Claddagh Basin on high wires). Not that you have to wait til 2020 to soak up Irish culture, of course. Here are six festivals to tide you over in that department.
Dublin Theatre Festival
The most anticipated production of this year’s festival (Sept. 26-Oct. 13), J.M. Synge’s classic Playboy of the Western World will be the first all-Irish production of this bleak comedy since the play premiered at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1907 to riots over amoral content (oh, to introduce those rioters to 2019). Other productions to watch out for: The Druid Theatre, known for its moodily beautiful productions, will be premiering The Beacon, by the acclaimed Nancy Harris. And How To Win Against History, a musical about the life of the shopaholic, cross-dressing Fifth Earl of Angelsea, will add a dose of levity to the line-up.
Cork Folk Festival
The Cork Folk Festival, which celebrates traditional and upcoming balladeers from around the world, turns 40 this year—so the Oct. 2–6 line-up is extra fabulous. Headliners include Irish folk singer Andy Irvine, who founded Sweeney’s Men, and Dougie MacLean, whose Caledonia has become an unofficial Scottish anthem—famously covered by Irish singer Delores Keane.
Belfast International Arts Festival
The kind of festival with more than a little something for everyone, the Belfast International Arts Festival (Oct. 15 – Nov. 3) ranges from the site-specific listening experience 100 Keyboards by the experimental Japanese sound artist Asuna to the aerial-meet-martial arts moves of the French female troupe, La Spire. You’ll even find the occasional Irish performer in the mix—not least, Glen Hansard, the Dublin busker turned lead singer of the Frames and star of the award-winning films, The Commitments and Once.
100 gigs in 11 days, with music ranging from folk to jazz. Catch the festivities in Sligo (Oct. 18-28), an unsung gem of West Ireland—and P.S., childhood haunt of WB Yeats. Among this year’s festival highlights are the Indigo Girls and Jools Holland, onetime bandleader for the Beatles.
The Wexford Opera Festival
Ireland has played an important, if largely—ahem—unsung role in the opera world. After all, Pavarotti was discovered in Belfast (then became properly famous in Dublin). But the homegrown star of the opera world is the Wexford Opera Festival (Oct. 22-Nov. 3), drawing music lovers in the know since 1951. And this year’s shindig will likely be a big one: It’s the swansong of longtime artistic director Michael Agler, who oversaw the creation of the current Wexford opera house. Vivaldi fans will be happy to hear Donilla en Tempe, one of the first Baroque operas to be performed in Ireland. And modern opera fans will likely love Andrew Synnott’s La Cucina—the first opera by a living Irish artist commissioned by the festival.
The only traditional music festival in Dublin, Tradfest runs throughout January in a number of amazing historical venues (think Dublin Castle, City Hall and the Pepper Canister Church). Look out for emerging artists Sibéal Ní Chasaide and Connia Realta of the Boxing Banjo, as well as Cherish the Ladies and the Shandrum Ceili Band.
FOOD AND DRINK
This year, the Taste the Island initiative (Sept.-Nov.) emphasizes the best that Ireland has to offer in the harvest season—from apples to shellfish to creamy stout—all conveniently timed to sweater and puffer coat season.
Taste of Togher Food Festival
Though known as a fishing village, Togher is also home to spectacular baked treats and jams, as you’ll discover at this hyperlocal food festival (Sept. 21). And don’t miss the tour of the old Viking village: The Viking boat featured in FX’s Vikings will be parked in the Togher harbor.
Murphy’s Cork Oyster & Seafood Festival/Galway International Oyster Festival
Stout and oysters is said to be the Irish answer to strawberries and champagne, and you can taste the combo for yourself at back-to-back events in September. The Murphy’s festival (Sept. 20-22), headquartered at the historic hotel Metropole, will introduce you to—among others—celebrity chefs Simon Lamont and Patrick McMurray, aka “Paddy the Shucker,” who holds a Guinness World Record for prying open 39 bivalve beauties in a minute. A few days later, head to the Wild Atlantic Way see how his score holds up at the next event: The Galway International Oyster Festival (Sept. 27-29), where you can catch the World Oyster Opening Championship—as well as competitive oyster eating and cooking. Of course, there are also parties, talks—and ample opportunity for Guinness and oyster pairing.
A Taste of Nenagh
Expect a warm, provincial party (Oct. 26) at this market town with splendid castle ruins. Rocky O’Sullivan’s pub will be handing out pints, while the Food Hall turns out excellent sausage rolls; Daly’s does wonderful fish cakes—and Cinnamon Alley makes blissfully airy meringues.