Irish Literary Festivals

Mary McGuckin (Atlantic Technological University Sligo, Ireland)

The literary festival is one of fifteen types of literary tourism products and experiences, according to Baleiro and Quinteiro (2019). As a distinctive literary tourism experience, the festival offers an interactive and engaging way to experience literature. Literary festivals are public events where literary works are read and discussed by writers, readers, thinkers, publishers, critics, translators, and entertainers in front of a diverse audience. These festivals have proliferated across the globe over the past 50 years. In Europe, their number, geographic reach and popularity have increased significantly since the oldest surviving festival: the Times Cheltenham Literature festival established in 1949.

As a tourism destination, Ireland has a distinctive comparative advantage with its rich literary heritage and contemporary literary talent. The concept of literary tourism creates a platform to narrate the story of Ireland’s cultural identity on the global stage. In Ireland, there are currently 88 literary festivals, including a small number that are part of a wider arts and/or cultural festival platform (researcher’s own database). Although most literary festivals are not initially developed from a tourism perspective, these have become an important feature in the promotion of Ireland’s rich and distinguished literary heritage.

In Ireland, the first festival dedicated to literature was the Listowel Writers’ Week, established in 1970. This was followed by the Limerick Literary Festival in 1984 and Cúirt International Festival of Literature in Galway the following year. Rosetti (2017: 18) suggests that from the mid-1990s, literary festivals established their “format and template as both serious and entertaining” as they proliferated across Ireland. These festivals range from larger, high-profile festivals to smaller, boutique or regional festivals. They are located across urban and rural settings but are found predominantly in cities and towns in Ireland. Some literary festivals in Ireland are associated with deceased writers and poets or emphasise their links to living writers, and some have no literary connections.

Prominent festival concepts in Ireland include books, poetry, storytelling, short stories, literature, writers, ideas, spoken word, book clubs and children’s books. On average, the festivals are scheduled for a duration of three to four days. These events are particularly suitable for attracting an audience during the off-peak and shoulder months of the tourist calendar. Unlike other festival types, literary festivals are generally not weather-dependent. Most are scheduled on an annual basis, predominantly in late Spring/early Summer and in the Autumn, but there is a continuous schedule of these festivals throughout the year in Ireland. A wide range of activities are featured at Irish literary festivals including interviews, conversations and debates, panel discussions and readings, book launches and signings as well as competitions and awards. Some festivals offer fringe events including music, visual arts, comedy, guided and self-guided tours, film screenings and gastronomic events. Many offer workshops or masterclasses as education and professional development tends to play an important role in many Irish literary festivals.

There are many variations of the term “literary festival” including book festival, writers’ festival, readers’ festival, festival of literature, spoken word festival, festival of authors and festival of ideas. According to Rosetti (2017), the most common types in Ireland are literary festivals. This is followed by book festivals, and in third place, literature festivals or festivals of literature. Many literary festivals include related events from the wider cultural and arts sector. Interest in crossover genres or hybridisation has led to an increase in the popularity of multi-author experiences appealing to a wider range of literary interests. Others target niche audiences, such as crime writing, young writers, science fiction and fantasy. Giorgi (2011) explains how the contemporary literary field has become significantly diversified, as reflected in literary festivals. These are characterised by openness, internationalisation, and a more cosmopolitan approach. In Ireland, many of these festivals are designed as a focal point for blending Irish and international writer-performers with an increasingly diverse and inclusive audience (Collins et al., 2013). Literary festivals provide a forum for entertainment, education, performance or mediating different cultural tastes. This is reflected in the broad range of participants attending or performing at literary festivals, specifically the “reader-audience” and the “author-performer”, terms adopted by Wiles (2019).

The literary festival offers many benefits from the perspectives of the author-performer, the reader-audience, and the community in which it is located. They seek “to stimulate intellectual engagement, entertain, engage and provoke, and provide access to a diverse range of perspectives and life experiences’” (Weber, 2018: 166). For writers, the festival offers a platform where they can discuss their ideas and promote their work, assess their readership, and build their professional network. The festival experience can stimulate the imagination and promote intellectual engagement or cultural exploration for all participants. Access to a literary community or network allows attendees to connect, often with like-minded people. This, in turn, can generate a sense of belonging. A literary festival can help build goodwill and community spirit within a local community by creating new partnerships and greater social connectivity. Furthermore, the marketing and branding of a literary festival can help create a distinctive image as a cultural and/or tourism destination for a city or a region.

In recent years, many literary festivals have developed online and digital formats to improve audience accessibility and agility of programme delivery. These include online delivery of live performances, recorded and user-generated content, curated blogs, networked events, and mediated literary experiences. Most festivals have developed websites and social media platforms for marketing and community engagement activities. As literary festivals adapt and innovate their offerings with an increasing focus on stakeholder engagement, they will become an increasingly significant component of the literary tourism sector. Literary festivals will continue to build a platform showcasing Ireland’s literary talents, and create future opportunities for international marketing and engagement, from a tourism perspective.

How to cite this dictionary entry: McGuckin, M. (2023). Irish Literary Festivals. In R. Baleiro, G. Capecchi & J. Arcos-Pumarola (Orgs.). E-Dictionary of Literary Tourism. University for Foreigners of Perugia.

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