'Celebrating Our Community' through Longford's thriving arts scene

Five years of work in seven questions: An interview with Marie Fennessy, Chairperson of Aisling Children’s Arts Festival

Olivia Mollaghan


Olivia Mollaghan



'Celebrating Our Community' through Longford's thriving arts scene

Chairperson of the Aisling Children's Arts Festival, Marie Fennessy. Photo: Shelley Corcoran

The Aisling Children's Arts Festival kicks off in Longford this week and, to celebrate 20 years of Aisling, the Longford Leader is publishing a number of articles from the Aisling Festival Supplement, which were written by Transition Year Students from a number of local schools.

Marie Fennessy is the current chairperson of the Aisling Children’s Arts Festival and is a member of the Festival committee since 2013.

Originally from Clonmel, Co Tipperary, she has lived in Newtownforbes since 2006 with her husband Raymond Smith and their two sons, Conor and Robert.

What is the reasoning behind the Aisling Children’s Arts Festival? What is its purpose?

The people who started the Festival 20 years ago had a dream – to bring the arts to the children of Co Longford and to make it possible for every child in Co Longford to participate in the arts.

That is still its purpose and we make sure that we have lots of free events throughout the Festival, so the cost is not a barrier to taking part.

Our ticket prices for theatre shows and workshops have stayed at €5 for many, many years – you can see a show in Longford for just €5 that would cost twice as much at other festivals.

Our Open Day on Sunday, October 21 in St Michael’s BNS is a totally free day for all the family with workshops, music, fun and games, face painting, balloon artists and two great shows from festival favourite Jack Wise and Guido Fanzini's Thunderous Imaginarium of Entertainment.

Marie, you have been chairperson of the Aisling Arts Festival for five years now. In your opinion, how has the Aisling Festival changed from when you first got involved? And do you think it has changed for the better?

I have been involved with the Aisling Children’s Arts Festival since 2013 but this is my first year as chairperson.

I think we have always provided a quality offering with the resources available.

Funding is always an issue – certainly, if we had more funding we could expand our programme. But we do get great local support from Longford County Council, Longford Community Resources, the HSE and lots of local businesses.

Funding from the Arts Council is critical - they are our main sponsor. We also get great support from teachers and schools throughout the county and from the Backstage Theatre.

I think the Aisling Festival does wonders with the resources available. Most festivals only last three or four years, so for this festival to continue for 20 years is a major achievement for all those involved over the years.

Has the Aisling Festival changed much since I got involved in 2013?

Our programme of events includes tried and tested favourites like our Open Day and the creative workshops that we run around the county during festival week.

We always have a strong theatre programme and we run projects with different schools every year, like the media project with the Longford Leader and the Schools Showcase project which is always a great experience for the three schools involved.

This year the schools are St Teresa’s NS, Killoe, Gaelscoil Longfoirt and St Christopher’s Special School.

The students are working hard at present developing their shows with the mentors and I can’t wait to see the three shows on Thursday night, October 25, in the Backstage Theatre.

It is a great experience for kids to develop their own production and walk out on stage to perform for an audience of family and friends.

The Aisling Festival theme for 2018 is 'Celebrating Our Community'; what influenced this theme and why do you think this theme is important?

There is a lot of negativity about Longford in the media and we can be our own worst critics.

I am not from Longford but I see lots of positive things about living here and I think the great community spirit should be celebrated.

As an antidote to all the negativity about the county, this year the Aisling Festival celebrates all the positive aspects of our community in Longford.

There is so much talent here in Co Longford – musical talent, dramatic talent, artistic talent, sporting talent - and a wonderful community spirit – so let's celebrate it!

Read more: First-rate programme of events lined up as Longford prepares for 20th annual Aisling Festival

What makes the Aisling Festival different to other arts festivals?

There are many arts festivals in Ireland but very few that are specifically for children.

We run for a full week every year with a very varied programme of events.

There really is something for everyone from arts and crafts workshops and music concerts to theatre and comedy and lots of it is free.

What makes the Aisling Festival such a success?

I think the success of the Aisling Festival is down to the support from the local community, the parents and the schools in Co Longford and of course our sponsors.

We are so fortunate to have the Backstage Theatre in the town and Mona Considine and her team are really supportive of the Festival every year.

We have a great committee of local volunteers who work all year to organise the Festival – it may last for just a week in October but a huge amount of preparation over many months goes into making it a success.

And the audience in Longford is great – there are thousands of children taking part each year, entering the art competition, doing workshops, attending shows, listening to the Army Band and visiting the free Open Day.

So, really, I suppose the children of Co Longford plus the community support are the reasons for its success.

I hope Longford families continue to enjoy the Festival for many years to come.

What new events have you added this year?

This year, we have a short story competition, a colloboration between the Longford Writers Group, Creative Ireland Longford and the Aisling Festival.

People were invited to write a short story for children aged 5 to 8 years.

Children's author Patricia Forde has chosen the final five stories, which will be judged by children from Longford on Wednesday, October 24 at 10am in Longford Library.

I am really looking forward to being there, hearing the stories and experiencing the children’s response to them.

We also have a visit from Dr Norah Patten, a scientist and aspiring astronaut, to Scoil Mhuire, Newtownforbes, as part of Children’s Books Ireland 'Bold Girls' initiative.

I’ve heard Dr Norah on the Ryan Tubridy Show and she is a great communicator.

I think all the girls and boys will be really interested to hear from such an inspirational young Irishwoman.

This year we commissioned an artwork from young Longford artist and illustrator Helena Grimes – you will see her gorgeous picture on our brochure and posters throughout the Festival.

Our theatre programme is a busy one - this year sees a new production of the children’s classic 'The Velveteen Rabbit'.

Maisie Lee is developing the production and she and her collaborator Fionnuala Gygax will be doing creative workshops over a number of weeks with children from St Michael’s BNS and Stonepark NS.

The children will get a chance to see the work-in-progress at the Backstage Theatre.

On Tuesday, October 23, we have a lovely show for babies called 'I am Baba', so even the very young audience is catered for.
Thursday, October 25 is the Schools Showcase and our Friday night show is Comedy Club 4 Kids.

It’s a first for the Aisling Festival – it’s a great success in the UK and is something really different for Longford. All the laughs and none of the swear words! It promises to be a great family night out.

What hopes do you have for the Aisling Festival in the future?

The longevity of the Festival is a testament to the hard work of the committee members over the years and the continuing support of the various sponsors and the local community in Co Longford.

I would love to see more children experiencing the festival, attending the workshops, the free family day and the theatre shows. We love working with local artists and creatives.

Certainly, if there are people out there with great ideas of how to expand and improve the Festival, we would love to hear from them.

We are always looking for new ideas and new projects, so please do get in touch with the Aisling Festival through our Facebook page.

The festival has had a wonderful first twenty years and I would like to build on that and see it survive for many more years to come!