Belfast Telegraph

'Huge loss' as John O'Connor arts festival is axed due to lack of funding

Disappointed: Cathy McCullough
Disappointed: Cathy McCullough
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

The director of a popular festival described as "a shining light in the literary calendar for the last three years" has revealed it can no longer continue due to a lack of funding.

Cathy McCullough said the John O'Connor Writing School and Literary Arts Festival will be a huge loss to the local community.

The 65 year-old former English and drama teacher, who established the Armagh event in honour of the late author, who was her uncle, said she was pulling the curtain down with great sadness.

"A festival like this - and they are few and far between in Northern Ireland - provided opportunities and support for a large number of writers each year," she said.

"It also offered lifeblood tuition for writers and aspiring writers thanks to the tireless voluntary efforts of an amazing team. But, unfortunately, we're now in a situation where it can't continue because of a lack of financial support, which is terrible news for everyone involved."

Damian Smyth, head of Literature at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, expressed his sadness at the school's decision to close.

"The Arts Council was indeed delighted to support the weekend festival for three years and the level of funding was significant for a new initiative," he said.

"Unfortunately, other funders and sponsorship couldn't reach sufficient levels to make the festival sustainable.

"The reputation of the writer John O'Connor himself, though, is secure and that is a lasting achievement of the last few years."

Ms McCullough, who ran the first festival in 2016, said the event was indebted to the John Hewitt Festival, which profiled John O'Connor's work in their 2015 programme in Armagh.

"The John O'Connor Festival started the following year, with support from Paul Muldoon as patron," she said.

"We had courses in the morning, literary events in the afternoons and large literary and musical events in the evenings.

"We were the first to bring Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon's Picnic to Northern Ireland and we had Irish Celtic rockers Horslips as our house band every year as a backdrop to the evening concerts we put on. We were doing great, but the thing we were never able to achieve was adequate funding."

Admitting that the festival "only survived because myself and Kathryn Baird, the ex-BBC radio producer who produced it, were working for virtually nothing", Cathy also said she was doing it "on top of a very demanding full-time job" as a social worker and psychotherapist.

"It started off as a labour of love to promote and shine a light again on my uncle's work and to encourage new writing and writers," she said.

"It wasn't the kind of literary festival that was only for the literati. It was for everybody and it got a good cross-section of audiences from Armagh and beyond.

"But as festival director, at times I ended up working 50 hours a week on the festival for about eight months of the year... it was tough."

Each year the event ran over four days from Thursday to Sunday in the first weekend in November in a variety of venues across the city, including the Armagh Robinson Library.

The cost to run it last year "was somewhere in the region of £63,000", according to Ms McCullough, which included £16,000 worth of funding from the Arts Council. She added that they hosted "around 25 events" where "all the venues were full" while "up to 70 writers across all competence levels would have benefited from writing classes".

In total, she said some 2,500 people participated in the annual festival, which couldn't take place this year.

"The Arts Council has been very good to me and from the outset they have been very supportive of the whole project," said Cathy, who previously established the Fringe Benefits Theatre Company.

"This year, with small grants, they've enabled me to take three of our better known writers - Nuala McKeever, Rosemary Jenkinson, and poet Kate Newmann - to the Himalayan Echoes Literary Festival in India, who we are hoping to set up a twining arrangement with.

"The organisation has also enabled me to commission a playwright to write a play about John O'Connor, which will be presented in Armagh next year for his centenary.

"So that's good. Those small amounts of money make a huge difference."

She added: "The bigger question should be the money the Arts Council has at its disposal. They don't have enough money to give."

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