* 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.