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This Irish festival is quickly shedding its 'best-kept secret' status

It’s been going for 15 years.

THE TOWN OF Clonmel isn’t where you’d normally go for an arts fix.

But not only does it have its own amateur arts tradition, it also has a festival that has been running (and growing) for 15 years.

This year, the Junction Festival – which runs until this Sunday, 12 July – has brought a raft of theatre, music, comedy and art events to the town. The organisers describe it as “one of the country’s best-kept festival secrets”, but after a decade and a half, that’s changing.

Artists from countries as diverse as Argentina, Morocco and Australia have made the trek to Clonmel to bring their talents to the town this week.

A story of dedication

1G2B3673 Near Gone Source: John Kelly

“It’s going fantastic,” said David Teevan, who set up the festival and is its director. 15 years ago, he was – and continues to be – hugely active in the theatre scene, setting up the company Gallowglass Theatre, but wanted to do more for Clonmel.

He wanted “to bring in unusual and challenging stuff” to the town he called home. 

Teevan has lived in Clonmel for 27 years, but having come from Dublin and once called New York and Paris home, he wanted to shake things up.

There is a paucity of professional arts visiting during the year - that also has a knock on effect in terms of what is made here.
I felt I could add to that something that wasn’t being provided or wasn’t part of the traditional diet.

With the demands of the theatre, he wasn’t getting to see much work outside of Clonmel, so it would also serve as a refresher for him. After meeting Donal O’Kelly, the ball got rolling and the idea for a festival became a reality.

A visit from Damien Rice

INAC Junction festival 2 Vitamin Source: John Kelly

The resulting five nights of theatre and gigs, attended by 150 people a night, grew and grew and grew as each year went on.

“It doubled in size each of the first four years, in response to what I felt was a local need,” said Teevan.

This response also led to the introduction of a music strand in the second year – which included a then little-known musician called Damien Rice turning up at the bus station with his suitcase and guitar case in hand.

There’s no municipal theatre in Clonmel, so the festival has utilised unusual venues, like pubs, a refurbished unused Methodist church, a gentleman’s club (turned into an ‘every person’s’ club) and pop-up cafés.

“It’s about being inventive and creative,” said Teevan.

INAC Junction festival 2 (1) Donal O Kelly performing Catalpa in the White Memoriar Theatre Source: John Kelly

The key to sustaining a festival in a smaller town is attracting visitors from outside Clonmel. “There’s a core audience that have been with us from that very first year,” said Teevan, and these days 30% of their audience is made up of people who journeyed from other areas.

The festival has a very strong participatory arts programme, so that those who are not typically arts users can engage, including children in schools.

Frustrations

DSC_0228_sm Writer Dervla Murphy Source: Thomas Lonergan

Teevan believes the festival isn’t just about bringing the arts to Clonmel,  but ensuring locals are involved:

I’ve always been frustrated by the lack of local voice. How can we tell a local story when we don’t have [that]? Performers of ambition tend to leave Clonmel because there is the lure of the big city… We have found a cohort of ambitious, arts-aware, hard-working collaborators.

Teevan says the organisers have “reached a stage with this festival that we have a really nice balance of invited work, both Irish and international”.

Off the beaten track

“Clonmel is a business town,” pointed out Teevan. “It is of a similar scale to Kilkenny but has a completely different feel to it.”

During the times of economic prosperity, the Junction benefited from funding streams including the Arts Council and Failte Ireland. Over the last seven years, things have changed, and funds are tighter, but it is still funded by the Arts Council.

They have been able to sustain the organisation, “although it’s not without its challenges”, admitted Teevan.

While it can also be somewhat of a challenge to get to Clonmel, Teevan said it’s worth it. “It’s a little bit off the beaten track, but quite a jewel.”

The festival runs until 12 July. For the full line-up, visit the official website.

Read: These stunning photos show children’s unusual views of the world>

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