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I’d always have said that Irish people were good at huddling. Our history and our climate, not to mention the controlling influence of the Roman Catholic Church, had tended to give us an inward-looking aspect. We had a thing about bars, matter a damn how dark or gloomy they might be. What we wanted, it seemed, was good place to whisper and to hide.
Niall Stokes, 10 Jun 2002
The impact of this was evident in the activity, or lack of it, on the streets of Dublin at night. The only significant events of public celebration – if that’s the right word – that I recall from growing up were the annual parades on St.Patrick’s Day and at Easter, and the even more miserable processions that the clergy mounted on Corpus Christi and on other days of obligation of one kind or another. There was shag all to do on the streets of the capital at night, because, well the kind of thing that went on at night – or was liable to, at least – was generally frowned on by the authorities of both Church and State. You had to keep potential occasions of sin to a minimum. And that’s what they did.
They did things differently in Europe. I remember the sense of wonder and joy, experiencing the buzz of excitement on the streets at night in Florence, the first place I visited in Italy – and the feeling was repeated again and again in various parts of France, Spain, Portugal, Greece and elsewhere. People spilling onto the pavements outside restaurants, great public squares occupied by street entertainers and markets, pleasure-seekers promenading through the heart of the city or along the waterfront, depending on the geography of the place, and a carnival atmosphere often prevailing into the wee small hours.
It is one of the great changes that has taken place in Dublin, over the past ten or fifteen years, that the city has opened up at night, and that the old tendency to huddle has been superseded by a more continental feeling of expansiveness. The weather may not suit it all year ‘round, but there is now an appreciation of the potential of pushing the tables out into the street in the summer, and of allowing the wonderful business of life to express itself in more public ways. In the struggle within Irish people – and within Irish society – between the Mediterranean and the Northern European, in this respect at least, we have begun leaning to the South. To say that this is a good thing is to underestimate it hugely.
Meeting House Square, in Temple Bar, was conceived with this kind of shift in mind. It is a place designed for artistic and cultural activities of a public nature – hence the Diversions Festival, which utilises this fine open space to marvellous effect on a summer-long programme of activities. The emphasis in 2002 is on a celebration of film, and there is a distinctly musical emphasis to the programme that has been put together.
There is a special magic to the experience of movies in the open air. While a trip to the cinema, at its best, has about it a feeling that the individual is part of a larger public event, there remains a sense that each individual is contained within his or her own box – that we are in some way finally isolated within our own aesthetic experience.
Movies in the open air, in a festive atmosphere, are a different thing – in this heightened environment, there is a greater sense of community at play, a more intense element of contact and communication between members of the audience. This is especially the case where movies about music are concerned. In the cinema, the audience will seldom if ever sing along, even to something as familiar as ‘Singing In The Rain’. Outdoors, this can and no doubt will happen, when the Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen classic is shown in the Square as part of the Singin’ On The Square series that opens the Diversions programme.
This is the kind of movie that would struggle to bring half an audience to the local multi-plex – but which will (weather permitting) pack then in during Diversions. It isn’t just a testament to the attraction of the Festival itself. Popular culture has a way of imprinting itself on people’s consciousness that needs no more that a special setting to be revived and redoubled. We may have seen a film like The Wizard of Oz twenty times – but its appeal is so fabulous and bewitching that the prospect of a night in Temple Bar under the spell of Judy Garland falls into the category of impossible to resist.
While there is undoubtedly a camp appeal in the musicals that make up the Singin’ On The Square segment of the Festival, the Scannan series of ten nights – celebrating ten years of the Irish Film Archive – are a different bag of tricks entirely. It is interesting, but hardly surprising, that some of the best and most compelling films to come out of Ireland over the past twenty-five years deal with music. Music is in the blood here; it’s part of the air we breathe. A clatter of these gems are collected for Scannan, and they emphasise just how important are the outsiders and the mavericks – not just to music but to movies and to popular culture in general.
They are all intriguing, from Neil Jordan’s still affecting debut film, Angel, through to Shimmy Marcus’ wonderful and moving Aidan Walsh – Master of the Universe. From the North, there is a chance to revisit John Davis’ glorious celebration of the punk explosion, Shell Shock Rock. And the greatness of what may well be Ireland’s ultimate pop phenomenon, The Undertones, is captured in Tom Collins’ Teenage Kicks.
It may seem strange to the uninitiated, that there is sufficient interest still in a band whose heyday was well over twenty years ago, and who called it a day in the early eighties, to merit a movie that was released just this year. But this is the enduring power of popular music. Part of the fascination is in the fact that the band were a remarkable cultural phenomenon, of an importance in the Northern scheme of things that merits consideration alongside that afforded to Brian Friel, if not Seamus Heaney. But the other part is that so much of their music is of that magical kind that transcends the limitations of time and place and rings out marvellous and true now, just as it did when it was first released.
The same might be said of the great and unique voice of Luke Kelly, heard to heart-stopping effect in the course of Sinead O’Brien’s sad and uplifting telling of the story of his life and times – and tragic death – in Luke. The prospect of Luke’s beautiful face and ringing voice filling Meeting House Square, both literally and metaphorically, on a sweet, warm June night – that is what makes the prospect of the Diversions festival so tantalising.
So, as Philip King’s Freedom Highway might advise in a different context – come gather ‘round people wherever you roam. There’s many a treat in store. See you in the Square.