July 24, 2014

Kilkenomics attracts top global talent – but joke will be on us if new road ruins the party

Posted in Irish Independent · 23 comments ·

The other day, I got some good news.

The Financial Times, the world’s preeminent economics newspaper and the most credible financial publication, which is read by the world’s most influential decision makers, wants to be the global media partner for a small economics festival in Kilkenny.

This means that the eyes of the world will be on Kilkenny. Some of the most influential writers and columnists in the world of business will be writing from the city and the festival in the first week of November. For the festival it is a great development, because we aim to give it global flavour while keeping it in a local setting.

According to the Financial Times, the partnership is not undeserved. In its review of the festival last year, the FT wrote the following:

“All weekend, Kilkenny’s theatres and bars were packed for what is probably the only comedy economics festival on earth. Kilkenomics has been described as ‘Davos with jokes’ and ‘Davos without hookers’. It may be a model for the world.

Some of the speakers were big-shot American economists. But they came unpaid, and once in Kilkenny, far from global power, everyone shed their guru status. It’s such a small place that almost any pub you stumbled into, however far past midnight, was bulging with famous economists in T-shirts gabbing with ordinary punters. Most tickets to events cost from €5 to €15. This wasn’t a Goldman Sachs investors’ conference.”

The reviewer went on to say:

“I’ve been to lots of festivals and conferences, but Kilkenomics may be the best. More than that: it felt like democracy.”

As you can read from this reviewer, who is a very well-known, international columnist, the city, its bars, theatres, streets and  ambiance are an essential part of the festival’s appeal.

Kilkenomics came about following a conversation that I had with an old friend, Richard Cook. Richard is the founder of the highly regarded Kilkenny Cat Laughs Comedy festival, now in its 20th year. Five years ago, Richard suggested that we try to do a festival that brings economics to the people.

He was frustrated that so much of the discussion about economics – which is essential in everyone’s lives – is pitched and framed by experts, in the language of academia and serves to confuse rather than enlighten. It is as if the economists want to preserve the aura that economics is very difficult and therefore only those with very specialised knowledge can comprehend its complexity. This approach to discussion is a form of protectionism.

Why don’t we break this down?

This approach tied in with my own view that in economics what is important is rarely complicated and what is complicated is rarely important.

I was hooked and the idea of combining top-notch economists with the best standup comedians was born. The plan was that I’d get the best international economists I could manage to persuade and Richard would do likewise with comedians; then we’d figure out a programme of events and see how things went.

These initial conversations took place in Dublin and I had assumed we’d probably host the festival in Dublin but Richard insisted Kilkenny was the place for this.

“The city has something special, just wait and see”

And so in 2010, Kilkenomics kicked off.

To be honest, I didn’t know much about Kilkenny other than a distant childhood memory from the 1970s when the old lads in my granny’s bar in Cork reserved particular bile for a fella called Eddie Keher.

However, the moment we started looking at venues in the city, I knew we could be on to something special but we still had a long way to go.

After all we had to convince international economic superstars – used to commanding huge fees – to come to a country they didn’t know much about, to a city they’d never heard of, to be grilled by standup comedians and to do it all for the good of their health!

However, the minute the first major player, the Columbia economist, Jeff Sachs, arrived in Kilkenny, he was enchanted by the city. On a crisp, clear, November morning, I took him for a stroll in the gardens of Kilkenny Castle, then down the hill, up to High Street and on towards St Canice’s Cathedral.  The spires of the various ancient churches gave the city a truly medieval feel, which for an American, used to strip malls, six lane highways and shopping plazas, was beguiling.


We forget this at our peril. Heritage, history and the architectural echo of our past are all priceless. This is what we are selling to visitors.

Of course, Sachs had a blast and told his friends about this bizarre festival in this beautiful small city. They, in turn, told their friends.

All the while, the city of Kilkenny provided the essential backdrop for the festival.

Over the first five years of Kilkenomics, we have hosted dozens of economists (people who travel a lot) from all over the world. All of them comment on how brilliant it is to be outside a big international metropolis, in an intimate architectural gem, surrounded by Irish history.

From The Set in Langtons, to Bridies beside it, from the evocative Hole in the Wall and the cozy, almost conspiratorial, back of Cleere’s Pub and the restaurant for an economists’ brunch at the Pembroke Hotel, the venues and the streets and cafes of Kilkenny make Kilkenomics. So too does the welcome all the local traders give to this strange troop of dismal scientists and stand-up comedians.

Seeing the thrilling result of this ephemeral chemistry, part venue, part street, part city, part guest, where the audience and performers hang out together in the city, is why it saddens me to hear that the County Council want to plough a new road through the heart of the old city – the so-called CAS.

There are many more qualified than me to discuss urban planning, but one thing should be clear to all: getting traffic out of – not into – the city, thereby preserving its integrity, is essential. All great cities are walking cities. And all beautiful medieval cities have ancient preserved centres. We preserve them because they are valuable and precious.

Cities are highly sensitive eco-systems, where a change in one area can have unforeseen consequences for other areas, as traffic and commerce shifts. A bit like a rainforest, where cutting down a tree here can affect light over there and cause havoc on the forest life in some other spot.

Kilkenny will be in the global spotlight due to the Financial Time’s involvement with Kilkenomics this November. It would be a terrible shame if a core ingredient, the city itself, were tampered with before properly entertaining the alternatives.

www.kilkenomics.com runs from November 6th to 9th and will feature one of the most important figure in international economics and finance, Paul Mc Culley, the chief economist and strategist of PIMCO, the world’s biggest bond fund.               


  1. Looking forward to this year’s event.

    • dorn

      It would be great to have the disposable income available to attend events like this, but our government and its backwards economic policies have made sure that that won’t be possible for a lot of us.

  2. Congratulations David

    This is an incredible achievement well done .

    I think you are maximising your true Leo Star talents and proving what a great Circus Ringmaster you are ….and the password is ……Economics .

    I am sure you are celebrating your arrival on this planet very soon.

    Well Done.

  3. Dorothy Jones

    Kilkenomics is a great gig, I was at the first one in 2010. Kilkenny is a beautiful town which hasn’t been fecked up. Pity about the new road, it seems unnecessary but it doesn’t go through much of the old town. So the venues shouldn’t be affected, and anyway, it’s on hold due to archaeological findings. Here’s the route [pdf] on this link to Kilkenny County Council: http://www.kilkennycoco.ie/eng/Services/Roads/Roads_Projects/Central_Access_Scheme/Map_showing_route_of_proposed_new_road_and_river_crossing.html

  4. Dorothy Jones

    Oh that’s really funny! The Facebook page of the ‘Campaign to Complete Kilkenny Ring Road’ has David McWilliams all over it :) https://www.facebook.com/pages/Campaign-to-Complete-Kilkenny-Ring-Road/163201573833421

  5. DB4545

    Good point well made David why doesn’t Kilkenny learn from Dublin’s stupidity? We’ve had a generation of City “planners” who screwed up transport for Dublin. Kilkenny is a medieval gem that should be treated with the respect it deserves. Nobody wants to stop progress but it can be managed effectively. Provide relatively low cost public bus transport with provision for cyclists within the city and THEN make it a pedestrian/cycle zone. Kilkenny can’t afford trams but it’s councillors could do worse than visit Berlin city centre( Ryanair and a budget hotel all under 300Euro food included no junkets) and adapt it’s system to suit a modest budget.

    • DB4545

      If the good Citizens of Kilkenny really want to see how to preserve but adapt a medieval City they should have a look at the old City fortress within Bergamo in Italy (Ryanair and budget hotels under 300 Euro in September). It makes Dalkey and Dartry look like Darndale. And no I don’t work for MOL or have any commercial connection with that business.

      • Bamboo

        DB4545, I think your are talking too much common sense. Common sense doesn’t really apply to Dublin city planners.

        • DB4545

          I’ve about the same level of common sense as anyone else including those people who are elected and paid to make sensible decisions. This is about learning to respect the Citizens who elect you. Why would anyone even think of bulldozing a medieval City for a road it’s beyond stupidity? Even the British and Germans at the height of WW2 had a gentlemens agreement not to bomb Heidelburg, Oxford, Cambridge and other key cultural areas. Not much use if you lived in Coventry or Dresden but that’s another day’s work. We found a Viking settlement virtually intact in a place called Wood Quay. A historical gold mine destined to be a world heritage site and we built a f**king concrete gun turret over it. It’s a wonder they didn’t knock down Christchurch Cathedral for the staff car park.
          Studies suggest areas that were originally City States or walled towns have more trust in their Civic Institutions because of long histories of local democracy. I’m hoping Kilkenny is one of those areas. We have problems trusting (for good reasons) any civic institutions because of our troubled history. I think our State is unmanageable in its current form and should be broken down into more manageable areas that are accountable to Citizens. When we elect people we need to know the mechanism to sack them if required.
          The four Provinces and 32 Counties evolved for a reason. Why not devolve real power (tax raising power) back to those areas? They could possibly screw it up but my guess is that they’d screw it up a lot less and much more cheaply than the un-elected and overpaid time servers who currently run the show. It’s what happens in most of mainland Europe and it’s what make Switzerland, Germany, Luxembourg, Lombardy and Barcelona the dynamic powerhouses that they are. Because local democracy works by respecting Citizens.

  6. StephenKenny

    It sounds excellent, the best yet.

    I’ve read the FT several times recently. Still, I’m sure they’re much better live.

  7. Deco

    How has Kilkenny managed to not be destroyed by the Troika of money grabbing politicians, dodgy bankers, and gombeen short tern developers ?

    It has survived, and it is rather amazing.

    Don’t count on it lasting.

  8. McGoo

    Kieran Mulvey, referring to Garth Brooks fiasco:

    “We have an infinite capacity to score own goals.”

    Can this quote be incorporated into the national anthem?

    • DB4545

      Someone else can research if this is true. Bono took the stage in Glasgow as only Bono can. He started clapping and after a minute or so and with his usual bombast told the audience ” Everytime I clap my hands a child in Africa dies”. A voice in the crowd shouted back ” Well stop clapping then you wee bastard”. Isn’t it just time we stopped scoring own goals?

  9. patboland

    This is a great success story for our country and you have to feel it will grow even more.
    Did David ever think way back in his youth that Economics would ever be so cool.
    Tough for economists of that vintage. When they were young enough to impress the girls their passion for economics wasn’t cool. Now economics is cool and they are to old to do anything about it. The cruellest twist of the economic collapse for sure.

  10. Kilkenny is 15 miles from my ancestral village. As a child I remember being in awe and wonder as I walked the ancient streets.

    It will be very sad if the planners screw it up. In Brum, blaming the Luftwaffe’s only half the story. Their blitz allowed every corrupt planner for the next half century to destroy a World Heritage Site beyond compare: the city where Industrial Civilisation itself began. Other than Babylon, there’s nowhere as important….except……Kilkenny… Ossory Rising….the Culchie Capital of the world MUST be protected from vandals of every description.

    The capitals of the 5th Provinces of Mide-Osraige & Murcia-Mordor are Kilkenny & Birmingham. From the heart of Ireland to the heart of Eng-Eireland, the Shire Irish have flowed in waves since Irish slaves were traded on the Severn from Bristol to Worcester, where St Wulstan fought to free them from Norman-Viking bondage.

    I’m looking forward to Kilkenomics 2014 after last year’s banquet of wonders. Congratulations to David, Richard and the whole team down to the pop-up shop staff who made my visit so pleasant and efficient last year. I remember ruminating with others on whether there’d ever be a Kilkenomics World Tour to foreign enclaves of the Irish diaspora. I think it would be a huge success commercially but probably most of those involved are too busy to extend the format and it might become just another festival. There are TOO MANY FESTIVALS! Who can afford to go? They mimic ancient Mercian gift economics but of course most charge an arm and a leg.

    Kilkenomics is different: it’s astonishing value for money and very, very special. I intend to enjoy it before it goes global and the FT turn it into a rival to The Hay Festival. Mind you, there’s always room for fringe events to pop up. Like “How The Light Gets In” at Hay. It’s better than Kilkenomics because it adds ‘after-hours’ music and dance, but hey, it’s not a competition all the time cuz It’s All Good!

    I’ll be staging the first leg of “Mercianomics” at “How The Light Gets In” at some stage. I will, once again, be studying David McWilliams intently in November, deciding which other elements of his persona I will incorporate into my Gesamtkunstwerk, which I’m pleased to report is nearing completion…..

    [Written in pit-stop at Malvern. Leicester tonight, after Glasgow, Stirling, Edinburgh, Hay-on-Wye, Bristol and Bath. Boat to Ireland on Sunday unless the Universe spins me off in another direction on these Isles of Wonder in the Summer of Love]

    “there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” Leonard Cohen.

    With every good wish for the summer.
    Yours in Jubilo. Etc.

    “HowTheLightGetsIn”, the philosophy and music festival at Hay on Wye, has just finished its sixth outing – and it was bigger and better than ever before.”


    • “there is a craic, a craic in everything, that’s how the laughter get in” JPG Mooney


      “talent borrows, genius steals”……

      !I will, once again, be studying David McWilliams intently in November, deciding which other elements of his persona I will incorporate into my Gesamtkunstwerk, which I’m pleased to report is nearing completion…..”

      remember, remember, 21st November, 1974……


  11. Colin

    There’s NO Business like SHOW Business like NO Business I know……


    There’s NO People like SHOW People they smile when they are low ……

  12. 30somethingHiBrit

    Flight booked from London on a very hot day.

    British Airways launch a new route to Dublin from London City airport about 10 days earlier*. Maybe Willie Walsh could be persuaded that BA City Flyer should be Kilkenomics’ airline partner? After all you need to fly all those FT journos and City Bankers over the water?

    (*And they’re offering pretty much the cheapest fares on the Friday out of a London airport excl. Ryanair)

  13. Would like to see Paul Mason at Kilkenomics:

    “From Concorde to the iPhone, state intervention drives technological innovation”


  14. [...] tourist industry, buoyant social scene coupled with the Arts week, Cat Laughs and Kilkenomics.  David McWilliams most recently wrote of the awe that his visiting economics professors and luminaries get when [...]

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