Liverpool is a vibrant and culturally rich city. Its cultural wealth and diversity developed over 800 years with major inputs from our long established Black, Chinese, and Irish communities, produces a uniquely exceptional identity.
Irish music and culture has been part of this, particularly since the arrival here of half a million Irish people during the first half of the 19th century. In the late 20th century, the significance of Liverpool’s historic links with Ireland had begun to fade. However, as we began to aspire to become the European Capital of Culture, discovering our heritage, giving voice to generations and celebrating our great city became driving forces behind the creation of the Liverpool Irish Festival in 2003.
The idea was to create a permanent, annual, event to highlight the Irish impact on the city. It would include performance, participation, entertainment and education in Irish traditions, music, literature, theatre, and art and highlight their significance in defining Liverpool’s culture and becoming a great European city. The ambition was that the Festival would become Britain’s leading showcase for contemporary Irish culture and become one of the world’s leading arts and music festivals.
In late 2002 John Chandler returned from the Ennis Trad Festival in County Clare with those ambitions in mind. Within a few months the Festival Society had been formed as a charitable company whose original trustees were John, Frank Downes, Owen Hagan, Patricia Lacey, Clive Pownceby, Ed Murphy, Phil Hayes and Sean McNamara.
The first Festival was held over four days in October 2003. It produced over twenty events, mainly music and poetry focused, and immediately attracting considerable acclaim. The Festival produced a more substantial series of events lasting over 10 days the following year, headlined by Christy Moore’s appearance at Liverpool Philharmonic, which had now become a partner organisation.
By 2005 the Festival had secured support from the Liverpool Culture Company and it was able to recruit a part-time Festival manager. Nearly sixty events were produced, including the National Theatre production of Brian Friel’s ‘Translations’, at the Everyman Theatre, and the premiere of Pearse Elliott’s film, ‘The Mighty Celt’.
In 2006 the Festival expanded again, running for over three weeks, including performances by Van Morrison, plays by Donal O’Kelly, and featuring Jimmy McGovern in conversation with the BBC’s Roger Phillips at FACT.
By now the Festival was drawing in audiences in excess of 15,000 and hundreds of participants. Most of the participants were involved in the schools programme, which has been a major feature of the Festival since its inception. In 2011 the Festival embarked on its biggest programme yet of heritage, schools and community projects with the Heritage Lottery funded ‘Discovering the Liverpool Irish’ a year long investigation of Liverpool’s unique historical and cultural links with Ireland.
The organisation can now draw upon a substantial mix of experience and expertise to support a broader range of activities, this, and the major partnerships that have been established with organisations such as St Michael’s Irish Centre, Liverpool Philharmonic and the three Liverpool Universities has meant that the Liverpool Irish Festival has developed into what is probably the most successful Irish cultural festival in the UK