School’s Out For Summer

This article first appeared in Village magazine, September/October 2023 edition

The locals call it the white trousers festival.

A name earned for some of the unconventional sartorial choices of the mostly grey-haired attendees.

The MacGill Summer School, run by former RTÉ producer and editor Joe Mulholland, is now in its 43rd year, still shuffling along in the small West Donegal town of Glenties. The festival office, a small shopfront in the middle of the single street town, nestles among a collection of pubs festooned in GAA colours, fast food takeaways, corner shops, and the inevitable Apache pizza restaurant.

Despite its longevity the festival has not on the surface inspired any ancillary activities in the town. Bars and restaurants may benefit, but there are no stores offering discounts to MacGill ticket holders, no pub called MacGills or The Dead End, or even a Rat Pit. In contrast, two shops on the main street proudly carry the word Lughnasa in their names, cashing in on the 25 year old success of the Meryl Streep vehicle Dancing at Lughnasa (1998). The film was shot nearby, and the fictional Ballybeg, featured in several of Brian Friel’s works, is widely believed to be based on Glenties.

MacGill Summer School 2023
MacGill Summer School 2023.
Image © Guth Publication

The theme of this year’s summer school was “A New Global Order: Precarious & Dangerous?” Larysa Gerasko, Ukranian ambassador to Ireland, was the first speaker. Pat Cox gave a presentation on his travels to the embattled country both before and after the Russian invasion in 2022. After noting that Patick MacGill was wounded in WWI at the Battle of Loos, spoke via internet link with Ukranian parliamentarian David Arakhamia.

During his speech Cox referenced how widely travelled Patrick MacGill was but although he mentioned that MacGill had written an article on trench warfare and his WWI service with London Irish Rifles. He did not mention the Irish writer also worked for the British War Department as as a propagandist.

On the second night US congressman Brendan Boyle gave the annual John Hume lecture. The Irish-American son of a Donegal emigrant, Boyle spoke via internet link from Washington, with Mulholland expressing the hope he would be able to visit in person next year.

The following day saw Stephen Collins in conversation with Michael McDowell on the stage, and a discussion on Northern Ireland and the future. (Sometimes, the Highlands Hotel can feel like a Progressive Democrats school reunion party, as when Cox and McDowell mingle in a crowd with Stephen Collins, author of ‘Breaking the Mould’, and the nearest thing the PDs ever had to a Boswell.)

The final day saw debates on climate change and A.I. The Irish economy, the EU, China, Russia, and Seamus Heaney also featured.

So what is the point of this festival, beyond attracting its annual quota of groupies?

Looking through the programme, there is a marked political slant. Left-leaning politicians and commentators are a rarity on the main stage.

“There is a neo-liberal right wing bias,” says local independent councillor Micheal Cholm Mac Giolla Easbuig. “It is a long way from the spirit of MacGill, the ‘navvy poet’ who spoke out for the working classes and the oppressed in books like Children Of The Dead End.

So why does the School persist? Is there still a place for MacGill when politicians can communicate (and over-communicate) their thoughts spontaneously through text and video social apps? Or has it always been more about addressing a select audience who read about it in the Irish Times in the corridors of power?

Even before the pandemic, the MacGill School was criticised as “male, pale and stale”, and though it has gone some way to address gender imbalance, the criticism still holds.

It can be argued the School lost its lustre over a decade ago. The tipping point may have been 2015, when Enda Kenny was greeted by water charge protestors outside the Highlands Hotel. Glenties was no longer a “safe space” for many in the political class.

The School, usually scheduled immediately after the Dáil shut down for the summer, allowed everyone to decompress. As a bonus, the newspapers, deprived of daily copy from Leinster House, could often be relied on for full-page coverage. This gave it an influence not in who was listening in the audiences, but who read it the following day in the Irish Times.

There was a buzz about the place for the week, and only about three places to bump into everyone, which gave it a crowded intimacy as politicians and political correspondents jostled with retired civil servants and politics geeks ordering a final round before last orders.

Newspapers have declined since then too, as audiences move to digital newsfeeds. Coverage this year was reduced to a solitary daily article. In the post-Twitter era, MacGill feels like a very last century way to do things, an antiquated influencer pattern.

There was a time when the summer was filled with these festivals. Yeats International in Sligo, Merriman in Clare, Humbert, Parnell, Hewitt, Hopkins, Goldsmith, Greaves, Kennedy. Some have fallen by the wayside, though many carry on, but largely they seem to have fallen from public consciousness. Yet somehow, against the odds, for now, MacGill persists.