CORK native Eimear O’Herlihy has been the director of Bantry-based West Cork Literary Festival since 2015.
One of three children, she studied Spanish and Psychology at UCC and later business. She was always interested in arts management and on leaving college went to work in the National Sculpture Factory. She then took a year off travelling in Australia.
On returning to Cork, Eimear worked for Mercier Press as assistant to the managing director and later to the editing director. From there she worked with Cork Film Festival for five years before spending seven years with the Everyman Theatre.
She says: “I’ve always been more interested in producing art rather than making it. I feel my skills are better used in taking the artists’ vision and bringing that to an audience. I enjoy organising and bringing art forms to an audience.
“Seeing the audience reaction to whatever art form and knowing that you were a part of that is incredibly rewarding.”
When O’Herlihy started out there were no bespoke courses in arts management, or curation.
“It was literally learning on the job,” she says. “Now there are more courses about business and creative skills and of course a mushrooming in creative writing courses.”
One of the highlights of her time managing the Everyman was the large scale production of, which involved the Cork Operatic Society, the soloists, a large cast of singers and community. It was supported by arts council funding and went on to win an Irish Times Theatre Award.
After seven years at the Everyman, Eimear felt like a change and took six months out, which she spent on the Greek islands. While there she got a call from the West Cork Literary Festival, asking if she would like to be considered for the post of director.
She’d always attended, and been a big fan of the festival, usually drawn by big names, and while there, discovering wonderful writers that were relatively unknown and new to her.
“There is something magical about a festival in a small town: writers, artists and audiences are all in the same spaces, the same cafés, the same bars,” she says.
In her first year, 2015, Graham Norton was the big headline name who sold out within minutes.
How do you curate a festival and select from the vast array of excellent choices?
She says: “I’m voracious reader and always on top of what’s trending or what’s new in publishing. Also, people make suggestions. Or a writer or their publicist will recommend something on social media. I will investigate those recommendations”.
“There is a challenge”, she says, “to balance a mix of well-known writers with those who may not be as familiar to an Irish audience.”
She also takes full advantage of the costal location, including readings on islands from authors who have books about the sea. This year will be the third year of a festival swim, and she once again hopes to have a festival walk and some yoga.
Eimear tries to have something for everyone. Narrowing the list of choices is all to do with whether a writer is available that year or not. She also likes to strike a balance between those who’ve never appeared at the festival and welcoming others back.
Funding from the Arts Council and Cork County Council is based on the writers who have appeared at past festivals and the programme parameters for the upcoming one.
Scheduling depends on which day of the week a writer might be available.
Eimear likes to use the whole town. UK visitors, in particular, comment on the fact that a small town has both an independent book shop and a library.
Writers are keen to meet an engaged audience, and comment on how enthusiastic and engaged audiences at Bantry are.
She keeps the programme as multidisciplinary as possible, including, song writing, children’s literature, rehearsed readings, and poetry.
She doesn’t stage full plays believing there are already organisations doing this very well in West Cork, such as the Fit Ups, and Rossmore Drama Festival.
This year, returning to the festival are poet Ruth Padel, crime writer Liz Nugent, author and essayist Zadie Smith, author Nicolas Laird, and author Louise O’Neill and poet Leanne O’ Sullivan. Margaret Drabble also returns this year.
Cork author, Danny Denton will read from his debut novel, poet Sinead Morrissey will also read, as will Bernard MacLaverty, short story writer, June Caldwell, and Sunday Times journalist Justine McCarthy. Trish Deseine will facilitate ‘Write your own cookbook workshop’, Finnish author Arja Kajermo will read, as will debut memoir writer, Tara Westover.
Workshops include novel writing with Katherine Weber, creative writing with Eimear Ryan, poetry with Martina Evans.
In partnership with the Seamus Heaney Centre, the first woman to translate The Odyssey to English, Emily Wilson, from the University of Pennsylvania, will read at Bantry, and later in the month in Armagh.
“With so many good writers out there”, Eimear says,” Gender balance happens naturally.”
The festival is very open to feedback. After each event, volunteers randomly select audience members to fill out evaluation sheets.
Feedback is taken on board where possible.
Eimear makes a conscious effort to try to understand why an audience member feels as they do.
She also is “conscious of trying to match expectation with delivery” — meaning she tries not to make promises which are impossible to achieve.
Now in its 17th year, West Cork Literary Festival, is presented by West Cork Music, in partnership with Cork County Library and Arts service. It takes place in venues around Bantry town from July 13 to 20. Tickets and bookings from www.westcorkmusic.ie/literaryfestival. Phone: +353 (0)27 52788/9 or LoCall: 1850 788 789.