The Other Voices festival in Dingle is a simple but brilliant microcosm of our unique selling points as a nation
This Krzysztof exuded a calm, efficient sense of authority. He radiated with the type of firm confidence given off by those who know what they are doing when in control of those who don’t. In his neatly pressed Ryanair uniform and with his swift deliberated movements, he wouldn’t have been out of place front of house in a swanky Mayfair hotel.
On Friday night, Krzysztof, the head of cabin on the Ryanair flight from Stansted to Farranfore, was the only thing that prevented total pandemonium on board. The pilot had casually suggested that there may be a bit of bumpiness on the way into Kerry, but nothing prepared us for the experience of flying into the teeth of Storm Desmond.
After two aborted attempts at landing, the aircraft buffeted around like a paper plane, and the pilot decided to head for the relative safety of Cork Airport. Us passengers were petrified, but the crew was outstanding: quiet, unflinching and gentle in the face of some very nervous and nauseous passengers. The officious Krzysztof stood out, marshalling his troops, remaining serene as the plane jumped about the sky, regularly talking to the captain and keeping everyone up to date with reassuring words. Ryanair is lucky to have people of that calibre.
This experience, on my way to the very special Other Voices festival in Dingle, got me thinking about the fact that people matter; and in small countries like Ireland, people matter more.
By this, I mean that those who keep their head when everyone around is losing it, those who go for it when everyone else is skeptical, and those who through their own persistence see that the job gets done, are immeasurably valuable to either a company and even a country.
One of these types of people is Philip King, the man behind Other Voices. As I chatted to some quite traumatised English hipster musicians when we finally reached terra firma in Cork, I thought of King’s achievement in getting all these people to come to Dingle in the only red weather alert Ireland has ever experienced. These guys relished the opportunity to play here, to tiny crowds in one of the remotest places in Ireland – and they say it is the best gig of the year. It takes something special to create that chemistry. King has done it year after year, bringing hugely important cash into the local economy at a time when, as the local taxi driver John Joe confided: “You’d be watching the pennies.”
The arts and arts festivals are a huge business in Ireland. In many ways, Ireland is defined by the arts. When we think of the country, let’s say in comparison to Germany, what defines us? For Germany, it is clear. The defining characteristics of that country and that people are precision, engineering, regimentation and process. Despite it being the homeland of some of Europe’s most important philosophers and musicians, you don’t think Schiller, Goethe or Beethoven when you think of Germany. We all know that these stereotypes are a bit unfair, but they are what they are.
In contrast, the defining characteristics of Ireland are still largely sourced in the arts, in music, literature, the stage and the story. This is what makes us good at festivals. This is what makes us brilliant hosts, and what makes the festival business a sustainable one for the country.
I was standing just inside the door of Foxy Johns last night in Dingle, the storm howling away outside, and here we were huddled cozily inside, watching English band The Academic on live screens straight from St James’s Church. This simply doesn’t happen in other countries. It is unique to us, and it is real.
When something is real, it doesn’t seem forced, and this authenticity is impossible to fabricate. So when you come to a festival like this, something that has grown organically over more than a decade, you feel like part of something special. And this is where the economics comes in.
Far too often, economics is discussed in terms of numbers and balance sheets in the hard unforgiving language of the ledger or the financial statement. And while all of these are essential – at a monetary level – what actually makes the economy tick is authenticity. What King and his team in Dingle have done is to create an experience which people value so much that they travel in significant numbers to west Kerry in the hail. These experiences are enormously valuable to the punters who turn up and they are enormously valuable to the local businesses.
So economics, particularly modern economics, in a fairly wealthy country off the coast of Europe, is about persuasion. Not branding; persuasion. People don’t really start businesses, they start crusades and then others respond because they understand that this is special. Festivals are like this. All arts festivals begin because dogged people want to showcase great art. But if the festival loses money very quickly, it will run aground, so they all must make commercial sense so costs are covered and the people involved can put bread on the table.
The first few years of this will be tortuous because starting something new is always difficult if not impossible. Bringing world-class musicians to Dingle in December, on paper at least, shouldn’t have worked. But it does. And it does because people matter, and the people who dream up these hare-brained schemes matter. The people who are ridiculed by “know-alls” who sneer at their efforts, are the people who make the world tick.
When I look at what Ireland can offer the world as a sustainable business that is authentic and deeply rooted, it seems to me that the economics of the arts is an obvious candidate. Ireland has a right to involve itself in this area. As people become more comfortable, they value experiences much more than possessions; and arts and music festivals are these experiences.
However, the essential alchemy is the one or two individuals, their efforts, their professionalism and their commitment. These exceptional individuals can come in various guises. I saw one on Friday night commandeer a packed plane and exude calm in difficult circumstances. I saw another one, Philip King, just now, on the main street of Dingle in the deluge, sticking his head into a bar, just to make sure one small detail was attended to. That’s what makes the difference.