Riverfest 2015

* This blog post has been viewed widely, with close on 1000 unique views in the three days since I posted it. There’s been a widespread discussion on social media and I’ve also received a number of emails from people who are exercised by the issue. I’ve yet to read one dissenting comment, but  if anybody disagrees I would like to hear from you so as we can have a full debate. 

There’s a mantra in Limerick often spouted by those who have a shallow understanding of the city that we must focus on the river. This has been going on for 30 years at least. My first memory of it was when the late Jack Higgins, the then city manager, implored the city to turn to face the river. He may have meant well, but reducing development policies to one-liners is a dangerous business. A little more detail and direction is required. Otherwise you end up with developments such as the Arthur’s Quay Shopping Centre, Sarsfield House, Harvey’s Quay (the new Dunnes Stores) and the shockingly poor latter day slum known as Steamboat Quay. All of the above were heralded as great, positive developments and were pushed through under the mantra that the city must reposition itself to face the river. Sadly, the truth is that all were indeed poor developments given the potential of the sites that they were built on and it is clear now that great opportunities to develop the city were lost.

Limerick’s Riverfest was born out of a similar thought process. We need a festival, we’ve got a river, therefore Riverfest. Nice idea, but it’s clear that in recent years the creativity hasn’t gone much further than that. In various years we’ve had contrived events, such as the ‘National Powerboating Championships’, whatever they are … and  … ermm … a corporate barbeque competition. More than once the organisers have commissioned yachts to be sailed up the estuary from Kilrush marina as far as the Shannon Bridge, at which point they could go no further, so they’d do a few tacks and jibes in front of the crowds amassed at the Clarion Hotel, turn about and sail back down to West Clare, and home. River, boat, yachts. That’s the logic. Generally the culmination of the weekend is a fireworks display and a loud tannoy telling us how much we’re enjoying the wonderful festival.

Truth is, Riverfest has a mixed history. Ten years ago, arguably during Limerick’s darkest days, it was actually quite a promising and progressive event. There was a sense that the city was getting its act together and being serious about attracting visitors and that it was beginning to see itself as something more than a regional backwater. Generally the buzz around the city was about music, art, creativity, fun and dance, and some good old fashioned partying. Not so much about hot dogs or powerboats screaming up and down the river, or yachts from Clare or groundhog day fireworks displays. Back then it seemed there was a move towards positioning Limerick as being lively, sophisticated and avant garde. Is that not where we want Limerick to be? By contrast, the current Riverfest reflects a city as sophisticated as a Supermacs outlet on a Saturday night.

As I write, the rain is teeming down and the spin doctors are out in force to convince us that the festival is a roaring success. The glib sentiment that the “bad weather fails to dampen the appetite for Limerick’s Riverfest barbeque” is being pushed through various media channels, all of whom seem to be on message. It’s regrettable that there is such little critical analysis of the Council (who are the organisers of Riverfest) these days. At best, the local press seem only interested in directing attention to the antics and behaviour of the elected representatives. It’s not like they don’t know that councillors are toothless in the Irish local government system. Real power and decision making when it comes to the day to day management of the city (Riverfest being an example) rests with the officials. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if the Council is to be held to account then the operations side of it is where we should look. Of course, there’s a few reasons why the local media might not take on the Council. It might be hard work, for starters. It’s much easier to parrot some PR, vote-catching effort by a local councillor, or hone in on his general behaviour, than to look at the important decisions being made by officials. It helps that the public can identify the elected representatives and this approach titillates the audience and sells more papers and advertising. By contrast, few people who are not directly engaged with the council are familiar with the officials and executive management, i.e. the people who hold real power, so the local media likely sees nothing to be gained from querying their decisions, however important they might be. The second, arguably more unsettling reason, is that there are cosy relationships between the local newspapers and various elements of the Council and this certainly makes it more difficult for the journalists and editors to stand back and objectively analyse and criticise how the council goes about its business. It’s that kind of uncritical approach that contributes to the debacles such as the City of Culture controversy at the start of 2014, and indeed Riverfest.

Limerick City and County Council contract out the operation of the festival each year, and this year’s operators are Grooveyard, a Galway based company known for their expertise in organising festivals. I apologise. I made that last bit up. Their website suggests that this might be their first foray into festival management (apart from the International Bands Competition held in Limerick six weeks ago). I wish them well, but the fact that a seemingly inexperienced Galway company is organising Limerick’s flagship festival should raise some eyebrows. Can they possibly put together a range of events that reflects Limerick and its people, and where both want to go? On this weekend’s evidence the answer is no. There was nothing impressive or memorable about Riverfest 2015. It was lame and mediocre. From what I can see, there was a fashion show, a busking competition, a relatively unknown singer in the Milk Market, a fireworks display and a public barbeque complete with security heavies bussed in for the day. [Speaking of the barbeque on Denmark Street, is there a worse place to host a public event in Limerick? It must be one of the most aesthetically unappealing vistas in the city, yet this is what we’re showing to our visitors. Thousands were here for the Great Limerick Run and we herded them down this dark, unappealing thoroughfare, a testament to the shoddy, unimaginative, developer-led construction of the early 1990s.  Would Bedford Row / Thomas Street not have been infinitely more suitable, or Howley’s Quay where there is ample space and which is actually located beside the river? Or the old location at George’s Quay? Seriously, Denmark Street??] In fact, small towns with limited resources put together more impressive festivals than Riverfest. Are we so bereft of creativity that this is all we can come up with? We’re better than this. We are, aren’t we?

Limerick City deserves a festival befitting its status and ambition but Riverfest isn’t it. We are living in ‘Post City of Culture Limerick’, and we’re currently vying for the honour of European Capital of Culture in 2020. The city has come a long way in recent years: street art, urban gardening, dance, theatre, political and culinary festivals, but with Riverfest 2015 we’ve taken a step backwards, and that inspiring legacy of our City of Culture year is fading fast. We’ve a long way to go before the organisers of the likes of the Galway Arts Festival, the Kilkenny Cat Laughs or the Cork Jazz Festival, among others, will see anything happening in Limerick as competition. It’s worth noting that these three festivals were founded by credible, dedicated and passionate people who had a clear vision for that they were trying to achieve. They grew organically from humble beginnings into the hugely popular and successful events they are today. Perhaps there are lessons for Limerick in that the top-down, i.e. local authority organised approach is doomed to fail.

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15 Responses to Riverfest 2015

  1. Pingback: Riverfest in Limerick | Irish waterways history

  2. Robert Brown says:

    Limerick is all about its people! Riverfest needs to involve its citizens in and around its city. Events like canoe races around the island or from Plassey down to city. Events in King Johns castle and using it as a spectator area. Walking events eg from Killaloe to Limerick,around Clare Glens the city itself with guides. The place is a Mecca of history ,reenactment of sieges,parades to commemorate different events each year. Street parties with closure of the old town and everyone in costume,lot easier now,than when I was a kid in Limerick , to close sections of the city at diffent times to make the streets come alive.Theatres,churches and halls full of arts and plays from JB Keane to J Synge. Competitions for the young to involve sport of all kinds fom half marathons to rugby ,football and of course the ever popular cycling. Imagination is all that is required and as always the citizens of Limerick will come out and fully support. Make an event that people want to come ,see and enjoy.

    • Miriam says:

      Hey Robert, I almost feel sorry for the Council reading your wishlist (almost!). Imagination AND logistics AND a decent budget are all that is required. If the Council picked one, just one, of your ideas and built it up over the years, expanding and learning as they went, then you might see increased participation through fringe events. But you can’t expect to go from zero to the Edinburgh Festival in one year, no matter how shabby the current festival is.

      I agree that the problem is lack of vision and top-down organisation, but the idea of a festival having to be all things to all people is short-sighted too. I’d argue that this is what Riverfest is doing at the moment, and missing every mark because its goal is to bring people in to the city to spend money, not to showcase the best of what is happening here already. The name is tellingly vague: a river is not an art, entertainment or sporting form (though it might provide a rich theme and setting for all of these) so it makes a poor hook to hang a festival on.

      Note that the examples Brian gives; Galway Arts Festival, Cork Jazz Festival and Kilkenny Cat Laughs, all focus on a particular form and have built up very slowly by doing one clearly defined thing very well. Then come the sideshows, food stalls, clubs, merchandise, innovative riffs on a theme. At the moment Riverfest is all fringe and no substance, so I would suggest that the solution is to go back to the drawing board and make a decision on what Riverfest actually is, rather than insist on expanding a poor damp squib.

  3. Gillian Kenny says:

    Brian I couldn’t agree with you more on this one. I’m so tired of seeing poor clip art ads in the Post with a banner “live music.” It’s really unimaginative and will never attact tourists. Your absolutely right about Denmark St. also Id imagine it’s probably down to the large presence of publicans. Think it was Eightball did it one year I enjoyed that there were gigs in King John’s Castle, we were getting somewhere. Anyway hope they get some fresh perspective on it soon, as it was instantly forgettable.

  4. brianleddin says:

    It definitely needs a fundamental rethink for sure. See Miriam’s comment above? Seems to be on the mark!

  5. Festivals require passion, imagination and citizen involvement to work..they also need direction. Riverfest seems to be a muddle of things wtih very little coherent theme or plan to it.
    There is a fundamental lack of consultuation in this city ( and ireland!) on most major decisions – festivals & culture in general being a major one where consultation is vital for success – no festival thrives on visitors alone – the locals need to be there in numbers if its to be in any way authentic – imagine the Limerick Spring Big Debate without the heckling locals 🙂 That’s why our visiting speakers & guests enjoyed it so much!
    Its not just the council but the tourism and marketing organisations that need to be open to feedback and ideas. Our councillors also need to listen to their constituents and encourage them to get involved by sharing their ideas for events too.. they also need to actually take an interest in cultural activities in the city.
    We also need to stop being mere consumers of culture /festivals/politics and feel empowered to play our role in civic life in general in Limerick by giving feedback, getting involved & suggesting new ideas/solutions too.

  6. dermotlotus says:

    What we need in this town is a Reggae festival, every year the buzz and happiness it would bring to the city would be great. A festival of Reggae would be unique in Ireland But I guarantee a lot of people from Limerick and the whole of Ireland would come to it. Give it a 10 years and get in some good bands and within time it would become international, Limerick Reggae festival..

    • Jay says:

      There was an all day Roots and Culture reggae event hosted in Shannon Rowing Club back in October in aid of Doras Luimní, and in my opinion one of the most “cultural” events organised during the Limerick city of culture event, and yet despite the impressive line up of international acts, free early entry, free food and an amazing clothing and craft vendor display, the event, though not funded by the council and ran solely by a dedicated limerick music promoter was refused to be added to the line up of events for reasons one cannot even begin to comprehend. Surely the event could only but add to the festivities happening in the city that weekend, as was evident from the impressive turnout. Sadly it seems that “public city events” and “cultural festivities” are predominantly governed by the one or two publicans within the city, with placement of events tailored to suit their business trading.

  7. Ann Nolan says:

    I have to agree with all your comments, It’s great that we all feel the same about our city and river that flows through it.
    A great job has been done on Clancy Strandand ,O’ Callaghan Strand and on Howley’s and Harveys Quay.
    The Civic Trust and Riverpath Volenteers and SmarterTravel have been brill in the work that has been done.
    So surely if we all get together we can make all these fantastic idea’s happen. “One a year even”
    I have been trying long and hard for a number of years now, to get the Black Bridge , Plassey .
    This bridge is not just beautiful , it is part of our local history and should be saved.
    If someone wants to organise a get together ,,, count me in.

    • Miriam says:

      Hi Ann,

      thanks for your kind words about Riverpath Volunteers – I’m one of the hosts of their activities so we have met in real life. 🙂 We were thinking about organising an event at the Black Bridge during Heritage Week this year (August 22nd – 30th) as this year’s theme is Industrial Heritage and the Black Bridge is a beautiful remnant of the Limerick Navigation, and should be celebrated and maintained as such.

      Until its closure in 2009, it was an important link for students living on the Clare side of the UL campus, as it leads directly on foot or bicycle to the towpath and thence to town without having to go the long way on the road. It was also a destination in itself for anglers, swimmers and walkers. I’m glad you made this point here as it’s a good kick for me to get thinking about ways to celebrate the bridge. Could you send a message on our facebook page and we could meet up and get cracking?

      • Ann Nolan says:

        Sent you a message on facebook Miriam, keep in touch.

      • Ann Nolan says:

        I am hearing that Limerick Leader City Edition May 16th Saturrday, is carring a story that the Black Bridge in Plassey is getting funding for repairs,,, anyone else hear of this or know more?

  8. Robert Brown says:

    Chains at the Black Bridge
    by bjg
    It seems that the city edition of the Limerick Leader dated Saturday May 16 2015 carries a story saying that funding has been approved for the repair of the Black Bridge at Plassey. I can’t find the story on the Leader’s website and I can’t find anything about it anywhere else [there is a limit to the amount of my life I am willing to spend trying to find anything on the Limerick Council website] except on the Leader’s FaceTweet page, where I can expand the city edition front page.

    There is a photo of several councillors, which of course is wonderful: no day is wasted if it offers an opportunity of looking at a photo of local councillors, especially important ones with chains.

    From what I can read of the text, it seems that “councillors in City East” [which is not one of the Limerick districts listed here] are willing to spend €50,000 “to start work to make the walkway safe again”. And they hope that Clare County Council, the University of Limerick and Waterways Ireland will “also row in behind the project”.

    Now, half a loaf is better than no bread, and €50,000 is better than a poke in the eye from a blind horse, but it’s not going to go very far towards the cost of repairing the Black Bridge. I don’t known whether it would even cover the cost of a full survey.

    I’m sure that Waterways Ireland would be delighted to help, if the Department of Fairytales hadn’t raided its coffers to pay for Saunderson’s Sheugh. I have reason to believe that the university was willing to help — and that Clare County Council was not. I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the university, asking it for [recent] records relating to the Black Bridge. The university gave me three extracts from meetings of the Limerick Smarter Travel Steering Group:

    9 January 2013
    Funding not in place for Black Bridge

    21 November 2013
    Black Bridge: UL indicated that funding may be available from UL. LST [Limerick Smarter Travel] has indicated funding in the order of €100,000. UL may be able to mach [sic] this. Request for funding to be made formally to UL by LCCC and to include surveys and reports on bridge to date.

    18 September 2014
    RR said UL have set aside €100,000 towards Black bridge refurbishment but will need matched funding from LA [presumably local authority]. Black bridge will require a detailed study to identify what repair work will need to be carried out, also an AA study will be required, and proper consents from ABP [An Bord Pleanála?]. Funding currently not available from LA.
    PON spoke to Clare Co Co. No funding available from them.
    PC Department will not fund a pedestrian bridge.
    RR can we look for alternative funding options, UL will ring fence for the moment.

    An AA study is, I think, an Appropriate Assessment, a sort of employment creation scheme for bird-watchers who can read European directives [and sooner them than me].

    The point to be remembered here is that Limerick County Council leased the bridge and undertook to keep it in repair; there is no obligation on Waterways Ireland, Clare County Council or the University of Limerick to spend a penny on it. The two parties on whom lies the responsibility for repairing the bridge are the Limerick Council and the Department of Finance, which latter has the power, under the lease, to do the work and charge it to the council. That would be a better use of its time and money than an unnecessary and intrusive footbridge in the middle of Limerick.

  9. Ann Nolan says:

    For me,
    this is the best news of the year, It’s been a long time coming, just delighted.

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