Grace Kearney and Danny Webster in a conker battle

Grace Kearney and Danny Webster duel at the Freshford Conker Festival

I’ve just got back from a Sunday attending two festivals supported by our company Kilkenny LEADER Partnership (KLP). Savour Kilkenny Food Festival and Freshford’s 11th Irish Conker Festival are at either end of the size and ambition scales. Savour is its fourth year has real potential to become the next big festival in Kilkenny’s calendar of famous festivals. Following the massive success of this weekend’s greatly expanded event, that looks like being more likely than not. The organising committee under Chairperson Ger Mullally and Festival Coordinator Claire Daly moved the already ambitious efforts up a level and established a ‘food village’ of marquees of various shapes and sizes on the new plaza on City’s Parade.

Savour Food Festival on the Parade in Kilkenny

Savour Food Festival transfroms Kilkenny’s Parade

Populated by food producers and retailers from the county and region, it makes a fine sight of almost fairytale variety with the iconic Kilkenny Castle in the background. There were plenty who thought the concept too high risk for the tricky weather at this time of year. But is any time of year safe from the weather in Ireland? Brave but it’s certainly paid off with crowds thronging the plaza over the weekend and all the producers or retailers I spoke to enthusiastic about their takings and response to their goods. Okay, there’s still one day left and tomorrow the focus will shift more towards the rural areas, but KLP is delighted that the decision of the committee seems vindicated. Well done to you all!

Freshford’s festival on the other hand is a more modest extension on the decade old event run for local charities which takes place on this October bank holiday weekend. The scene is the beautiful village green with its fifty-two horse chestnut trees. The long-time chairperson of the Conker Festival, Grace Kearney, is a dynamo who ensures that the festival team is organised and motivated each year –whatever the weather. Liz Nolan, a festival consultant working with a network of the emerging rural festivals in the county has done sterling work in assisting the expansion and providing a valuable outside strategic input. As ever the actual conker championship is just one of a raft of other activities and food and craft stalls. This year the group have extended the traditional day event into a long-weekend focusing not only on chestnuts but wider cultural themes. A panel in-creation of the astonishing Ros Tapestry was displayed over the weekend. A great lecture from its directing artist and inspiration, Countess Ann Griffin-Bernstorff recounted the history depicted in the panels, including one in creation, the word ‘making’ doesn’t do this brilliant work of art justice! The very bloody ‘Battle of Ossary’, in the 12th century took place just outside Freshford in the nearby townsland of Clashacrow (Grace’s home area) and established Norman supremacy in the region. All ten of the 6 foot by 10 foot completed panels of the tapestry are normally housed in its home town of New Ross. But the ‘Battle’ panel and its embroiders led by Alexis Griffin-Bernstorff were in attendance in Saint Lactain’s church for the weekend. A fascinating project.

I have written before about the challenge of helping festivals to develop and grow without running what inspired the community to create them. Okay so the two events are so different that they may almost be different species but the volunteer impetus is critical to both and I believe must be preserved and supported. Savour was the brainchild of local producers and restaurants who wanted to promote the food culture of their county as much as they wanted to build business. Freshford is more obviously a community celebration but they too want to assist their businesses through the festivals. Both festivals have worked with Liz in the Festival Network and have cooperated on reciprocal marketing. And both are still essentially run by volunteers. So are they happy with the development of their events? I’m guessing yes. But it’s a journey and the deeper strategic analysis of both can wait for another day- when the volunteers have recovered and a bit of perspective is possible. For now I think it’s enough to say that both Savour and the Conker Festival have true to their inspiration. So for today I’d just like to celebrate the work of the volunteer and thank the professionals involved Liz and Claire for their great work in support.

Declan Rice