'Irishness is a lens we can all look through' says CEO Emma Smith as Liverpool Irish Festival returns

'Irishness is a lens we can all look through' says CEO Emma Smith as Liverpool Irish Festival returns

THIS week sees the return of the annual Liverpool Irish Festival (LIF).

Taking time out to speak to The Irish Post, Artistic Director and CEO Emma Smith reveals her highlights from the upcoming schedule and tells us just what it takes to put on one of Britain’s largest Irish cultural events.

You joined the Liverpool Irish Festival in 2016. How did you become involved?

I’ve been working in Liverpool since graduating in 2000 and have worked in lots of different arts and cultural organisations in the city, including Bluecoat [a contemporary arts centre] where I was Head of Creative Enterprise.

I left there to do a season with LOOK, the Liverpool International Photography Festival, and when that season closed the then LIF manager, who was taking on a new position, messaged me to say, ‘I think this role would be right up your street’.

So, I put in an application. I think the panel were pleased with the fact that I had fingers in lots of different networks and had experience across the sector really.

Do you have any Irish connections yourself?

No, not that I know of. I am from the Midlands; I am a Leicester girl.

But the fact that I didn’t come with a particular Irish position meant that I could be quite objective, that I could work in lots of different venues.

From my own point of view, I had worked with the Chinese community, the Arabic community, lots of communities across the city, but not actually the Irish community.

So it was a way in, a way to find out more about the city that I had picked as home.

Was it daunting to take on this role, in a community you had yet to work with?

Yes, of course it’s daunting to come into a community in this way, but I think that is part of the challenge.

Funnily enough, it has sort of been useful, as when there has been Xenophobia at play, for instance, I can feel that, and I can sense that.

It is useful to have that outside eye because I don’t come with any of the preconceptions.

I don’t come from a North or south position; I don’t come from a Catholic or protestant position.

So, I don’t come with that baggage, and I get to ask what might seem to some people like silly questions.

The Liverpool Irish Festival is about sharing the Festival with lots of cultures.

It isn’t only Irish, if you see what I mean, and the fact that it is an Irish Festival in Liverpool shows that there is already a juxtaposition of place and identity.

But within that there are stories to be told and exposed and found and so it is nice, as although I might seem like an outsider I am interested, and it helps me position work for audiences that are both Irish and not.

What is the aim of the Festival?

The Liverpool Irish Festival brings Liverpool and Ireland closer together using arts and culture.

So Irishness is a lens for all of us to look at identity, place, location and how those things integrate so that we understand our communities better and what they are made up of. And that we can share those things, to look at similarities or differences, helps us to build tolerance, helps us to build understanding and helps us to build new approaches to previous trauma, problems, political shifts, all of those things.

Using creative practice as a means of expression and allowing people to find routes into difficult conversations is kind of where we come at this from.

How challenging is it to achieve that goal year after year?

The position of the Festival is different today than it was when I became involved in 2016. We have seen a lot of shifts across those few years.

When I began, I was Festival Manager I then moved to Director and am now the Artistic Director and CEO because the positioning of the festival and how we have to divide up work, where we are represented, has changed.

Of course, Irishness has changed over those six years too.

When I began there wasn’t a Diaspora Policy, we hadn’t done Brexit – whereas now there is a Diaspora Policy and we have done Brexit, but also, we are looking at Irishness in the context of post-colonial narratives, the position of Black Lives Matter and how that sense of identity and purposefulness around identity is informing other areas of our society.

So, I think although it seems like I have been in it for a long time, given that everything else is shifting so quickly actually what the Festival must do is be sort of an anchor point for discussion each year.

How important is it to showcase the Irish community in Liverpool through events like this?

For me, I have really learnt a lot about identity through doing this work and it has made me really value representation and what that means.

And we have done a lot of work to have Irishness really recognised as the protected characteristic it is, because of the double invisibility of it – the ‘oh, you’re one of us, you’re not one of us’.

It dismissive on both counts really and I have really noticed that.

It has opened my eyes up a lot more really to those issues and I am really passionate about equity.

It is really important that we stand shoulder to shoulder with other people who are suffering in that oppression.

There is no competition in oppression here – it’s about fighting for equity.

In Liverpool particularly we are still doing that for our class, for our people, for our heritage.

I find it deeply moving, I have become very passionate about it, and I feel very pleased, I hope to have been embraced by the community we serve.

And that is not just Irish people. That is arts people, that is culture people, that’s people who have family who want to come and have a play and learn something about another part of the world which they haven’t come into contact with.

I think that is all really important, as the more we share and play, in a sense, the better friends we will all be.

This year the Festival theme is ‘Hunger’, can you tell us about it?

What we are trying not to do is be glib about the idea of famine and food.

So, hunger we were looking at as a driver and a motivation for things and actually we were looking at what happened in the Irish Famine and what drove people to push people off an island and on to another island and across the world.

What those kinds of politics and mechanisms were and how they resonated with what’s happening for migrant communities today.

And if you start thinking about the energy crisis that we are suffering, but also the hunger for political change that we as a world now are looking at, in the wake of George Floyd but also Brexit and all of those things, that hunger for change, that hunger for social cohesion and then, of course, following Covid-19 that hunger for connection and a need to identify with ourselves, so thinking about nostalgia as hunger as well, it all started to really link into what we thought we were talking about when we spoke about diaspora communities.

So, there are lots of routes in and there are lots of ways of looking at hunger and using that as a lens to look at Irishness.

All of that for us made it an apt term to theme work around.

What are your highlights from the 2022 programme?

The Miami Showband Massacre talk with Steve Travers will be a remarkable thing.

We have taken that to the Sefton Park Palm House as it is an amazingly peaceful space where we can have a really deep, meaningful conversation about hunger for justice.

I think that will be incredible.

Things like the Family Day and the Ceili are always remarkable for us, partly because they are just joyous events, and we have lots of activity and it is just hustle and bustle.

So I would always recommend those to everyone, and also because they are free.

Poignantly for us in the Festival we have a memorial for Tony Birtill, an Irish language specialist who operated in the Irish community in Liverpool and in Ireland for a very long time.

The event will take place one year to the day of his passing.

For the Festival, given that we learned on our launch day last year that he had passed, marking him is quite a big thing for us and I think for the Irish community in Liverpool.

There are many highlights really, the number of visual arts we have this year is brilliant because of course during Covid people were working at home and creating - so the Festival is partly a reflection of what is happening in the arts sector.

Pamela Sullivan’s piece, which is sort of scattered through lots of different parts of the festival, I think is a really interesting thing.

That’s called The Forgotten and again really chimes in with that hunger idea, it’s about why people were forgotten and that hunger to be recognised and that hunger to be borne witness too.

Do you work year-round to produce the Festival?

Yes, we work all year round. In networks, on government panels, on funding applications, and much more, it takes one person one year to do this.

I am working on this full time, all year, with a volunteer board of 10 people, a volunteer team to help deliver the Festival and then you have all of the partners, all of the artists, and I have a bit of PR and web support and we outsource design. That’s it.

What's the best thing about your job?

The best thing about my job is almost the same as the worst thing about it – it’s the variety. I might be cutting mount board for an exhibition one day or I am sitting on an Irish Government panel looking at how you disperse money.

The variety is brilliant but sometimes it is mind-numbing, just how much you need to be able to cover, I guess.

The Festival kicks off this week, do you get nervous ahead of opening?

Yes, I am human, and I could have forgotten something.

In previous years we have had train strikes, bus strikes, monsoons, all sorts of things – it happens.

You can plan things to an nth of their existence and then a monarch passes away.

So yes I always get a bit nervous, particularly this year, after Covid, everything is a little harder.

Funding is harder. The amount of triple checking everyone needs to do is harder.

Just how much there is to try and turn around in quite a short amount of time is always nerve-wracking.

However, the point is, the intent is good, and the plans are good, and we know we are doing as much as we can to deliver everything we said we would.

And, you know, the proof is in the pudding. We have got to get there so that we can all stop worrying about it.

The Liverpool Irish Festival takes place at venues across the city from October 20 – 30. For further details and the full festival schedule click here