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The Gathering Ireland, 2013


Posted by The Gathering Ireland on 6 June 2013

For some of us, the word ‘history’ conjures up memories of school exams and seemingly never-ending memorisation of facts and dates. But one festival – yes, festival – is hoping to change all that.

The History Festival of Ireland is bringing the past to life, with more than 30 debates, discussions, readings and interviews over the weekend of 15 and 16 June. Taking place at Ducketts Grove in Co Carlow, the festival is part of Éigse Carlow Arts Festival.

The man behind the festival, historian and author Turtle Bunbury, says that he is “trying to bring history a little bit out from the classroom, and make it funkier and more fun”. So, he is gathering academics and more “media-friendly” speakers, and combining them with summertime weather (hopefully), music, theatre, cinema, food and drink for a weekend of learning and fun.

The first edition of the History Festival of Ireland took place last year at Bunbury’s family home, Lisnavagh House. It dug as far back in Irish history as Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Bunbury says he specifically targeted local history groups and history teachers for the 2012 festival – though anyone with an interest was invited to attend – and the response was overwhelming positive. “They just really, really enjoyed it,” Bunbury remarks. “That’s why we’re going again.”

Westlife’s Nicky Byrne will be a special guest at the festival, as Turtle will discuss the singer’s ancestry

This year, the event has been moved to the larger venue of Ducketts Grove, which serves as a fascinating backdrop. The 12,000-acre, 19th-century estate includes the ruins of a mansion and gothic revival castle along with outbuildings and walled gardens – no doubt an interesting location for any history buff. Also for 2013, the festival is going even further back in time – indeed 4,000 years back to the Bronze Age.

But don’t worry if ancient history’s not your thing; the programme has a touch of pop culture with a guest appearance by Westlife’s Nicky Byrne, whose ancestry will be discussed live on stage by Bunbury. There will also be a focus on more recent history like the Great Famine and the American Civil War.

The latter is one example of programming created with The Gathering Ireland in mind, according to Bunbury, who curates the festival. “I tried to bring in Irish influence overseas a bit more,” he explains. “I’ve got the Irish in the American Civil War. I think that’s going to be a really interesting talk, because 200,00 Irish served in the American Civil War – 200,000 people who signed their papers saying they were born in Ireland. People here just haven’t a clue about that.”

Additionally the festival includes a talk on the Easter Rising, an event which Bunbury says greatly influenced Ireland’s relationship with America, as well as a presentation on Carlow natives who have left their mark on the world.

Irish history is epic and amazing but it also has some serious issues that we really need to thrash out a bit moreStill, Irish history doesn’t come without debate, and some of the presentations are sure to be lively. Bunbury says, however, that such discussion is an important part of the festival.

“You can’t be seen to be ducking from responsibility,” he says. “You can’t just have nice little talks; Irish history is epic and amazing but it also has some serious issues that we really need to thrash out a bit more. Also, people need to have their views shaken about a bit because a lot of people are very fixed in their ways.”

For example, Bunbury anticipates there will be heated debate during ‘The Great Famine: A Series of Unfortunate Events or Genocide?’ as well as ‘A Future for Our Past: History in the 21st Century’. He emphasises, though, that the key is having a good chairman for the presentation – somebody who can strike a balance between letting people share their opinions and preventing them from dominating the discussion.

And whether you get in on the debates or simply sit back and enjoy the films, the History Festival is all about taking a look into the past in a friendly, approachable fashion.

Bunbury says that he hopes attendees “will feel a stronger connection to the past both personally and geographically… and that they will also come away having been entertained, because it is a festival.”

For more details on the History Festival of Ireland, taking place 15-16 June in Duckett’s Grove, Co Carlow, visit