Who would have thought that an economics and comedy festival would sell out in Kilkenny?
Certainly five years ago when the idea was first mooted, the notion that the festival would get stronger and stronger appeared to be fanciful – but it has. Kilkenomics in now going into its sixth year and the gigs seem to sell out faster and faster.
The Web Summit we are not, but the perplexing growth of this event (on a much smaller scale) and the international interest in it, suggests that this fusion of Irish hospitality and global debate could be an interesting growth area for towns and cities around the country in the years ahead.
I have just come out of Cleere’s pub where there was a packed show about breaking down economic language. It will be broadcast today on the BBC World Service – our radio partners.
Indeed our media partners this year reflect the international dimension to the festival. The Financial Times has come on board as our global media partner and this alliance allows us to project out to a greater audience.
Can you imagine how many other festivals could be started in Ireland?
Consider the interest in festivals that are stripped down and in some way different, but where the audience has a great time, in a great city and so the chemistry, for some reason, works.
One ingredient that is crucial is the city itself: the streets, the architecture and the ambiance. Today, I want to reflect on that and the much misunderstood economic power of heritage and why we mess with it at our peril.
In its review of Kilkenomics 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 the 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 (we paid him very well!), the city, its bars, theatres, streets and ambiance are an essential part of the festival’s appeal.
The aim of the festival is to bring top-notch economists from all over the globe out of their comfort zone to a city they have never been in. Had the city not been attractive, they might have come once and not again, but no, they are queuing up to come back. This year we have the head of the world’s largest bond fund, South Korea’s leading economist, thinkers from India, Latin America, Europe and Britain – as well as some of our own.
We ask the economists to break down complex ideas, which are usually shrouded in difficult language and if they don’t do this willingly, the stand-up comedians will bash commonsense out of them.
On the comedy side, inquisitors include Ardal O’Hanlon, Des Bishop, Barry Murphy, Dermot Whelan, David O’Doherty, Colm O’Regan, Kevin Gildea, Eleanor Tiernan and Karl Spain.
It shouldn’t work, but it does.
An essential element is Kilkenny itself.
To be honest, I didn’t know much about Kilkenny before we decided on it as a venue. However, my partner in crime on this venture, Richard Cook, is already the man behind the highly successful Cat Laughs comedy festival in Kilkenny.
He assured me that Kilkenny had all the essential ingredients.
The moment we started looking at venues in the city, I knew he was right. I understood we could be onto 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 stand-up 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 was beguiling.
We forget the impact of this experience on visitors at our peril. Heritage, history and the architectural echo of our past are all priceless.
This is what we are selling to foreigners and as our visiting economists are some of our best salespeople, the impact of the city adds enormously to the experience.
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 to the marquee events at the Ormonde Hotel, the venues and the streets and cafés 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 go ahead with a new road through the heart of the old city, the so-called CAS, or Central Access Scheme.
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.
This weekend, Kilkenny is in the global spotlight with economists and journalists from all over the world rocking into the city. It would be a shame if the charm of the city itself were tampered with before properly entertaining the alternatives.