Thursday, June 19, 2008

How volunteers helped make the Dublin Writers Festival great

Over the past few years I've volunteered with a number of festivals, events and charities because I enjoy the experience. Each person I meet, each event I attend and each lesson learned all contribute towards my enthusiasm and anticipation of the next opportunity I get to help make a difference.

My experiences to date have been varied. You very much see where the whole swan analogy has come from - serene on the surface, flapping like mad underneath. However you deal with that simply - a quick evaluation of the situation, an idea of what to do and how to get it done and above all keep smiling.

When the opportunity to volunteer for the Dublin Writers Festival came up recently I was initially hesitant. After all, this isn't something "fun" like St Patrick's Day or The Cat Laughs, this is serious literature, conversations, awards and discussions.

There are many great authors in attendance, it's run by the Dublin City Arts Office and it is, no doubt, for the serious scholars and literary addicts who can quote someone like Tom Stoppard with ease.

That was not me.

However I decided to give it a go. New experiences and all that.

To be frank (perhaps a little more than I should be) I'm surprised the Writers Festival doesn't get more support. The people in the Arts Office deserve great praise for managing such an important event (in what's supposed to be a literary city) with limited resources at their disposal.

Programme director Liam Browne, himself an author, put together a superb event featuring:

over 40 Irish and international writers and poets, journalists, political commentators, and even lawyers for a series of readings, discussions, debates and public interviews. The Festival will explore the themes such as war, loss, national identity, Irish values, childhood, crime, and the art of the short story.
That's no mean feat. Léan Ní Chléirigh took the mantle of volunteer coordinator for the first time and rose to the challenge admirably, ensuring each person knew where their venue was, what they were doing and keeping swanlike calm throughout.

What happened over the next 4 days were a whirlwind of meeting people, making friends, having discussions and pints and laughs and getting things done. I was based at Project in Temple Bar and there authors, presenters, staff and volunteers all worked together to get things done.

From even before the opening event, a conversation between authors John Boyne, Claire Kilroy and Lloyd Jones right through to the closing with Ian Rankin and Colin Bateman, the volunteers put up posters, met authors at the airport and hotels, greeted the audience, tore tickets, directed people, ensured venues were ready, escorted people, answered queries, readied for changeovers and more, all keeping cheerful, polite and calm throughout.

What's more, we/they were all happy to. In return we got to attend the events and post-festival celebrations for free. They have been very generous in recognition of our contribution.

As Léan said in an email to us:
Just a quick mail to say thanks a mill for the last week. At the party on Sunday there were a lot of compliments from Liam, Jack (Gilligan, Dublin City Arts officer) and the Ladies in the Arts Office about what a lovely bunch you were and I'd just like to add my voice to that chorus.

... Being able to rely completely on you all was fundamental to the success of the festival.
And there-in lies the invitation to everyone. You can use your experience, your skills and your resources to help make any event successful.

A quick snap with JP Donleavy.

Volunteers have a wide range of skills, talents and expertise to bring to any situation. Even enthusiasm can be of great benefit, especially when all you seem to see is spreadsheets, proposals and issues. We are happy to help with ideas for marketing, for fulfillment, for spreading the word. All you have to do is ask.

Equally, volunteers, remember you can get involved in whatever way you can. Most of the festivals out there have low budgets and resources and would be happy to have your suggestions and skills. Know some way you can help? Put your hand up and suggest it. Think you've got a good idea? Tell the people who can make it happen and make it so.

Darren has written great posts about his first time involvement and I think he enjoyed it. I know Niamh did as well.

My personal take? I got to meet some lovely people, listen to fantastic authors speak and have a chat with writing superstars like JP Donleavy, John Boyne, Evelyn Conlon, Roy Foster, Alan Gilsenan, Ivana Bacik, Lloyd Jones, Claire Kilroy, Hugo Hamilton and Justin Cartwright for free - all I had to do was do what I like doing.

Even Tom would have to applaud an opportunity like that.

I may not have met all the volunteers or those involved but my congratulations to Maura Carty, Vicky Kearney, Catherine Neville in the Arts Office, Jack Gilligan, Liam Browne, Ian the photographer, Léan Ní Chléirigh and the other people who made the magic happen - Niamh, Darren, Agata, Andrew, Caoimhe, Gisela, Hannah, Kevin, Li, Mary, Melanie, Niamh B, Randall, Sarah and anyone else who helped make this an unforgettable experience.

Thanks to you all :) I'll be back!


  1. Thanks to you Darragh I had the opportunity of listening to and meeting Tom Stoppard.

  2. It was indeed a hectic but enjoyable weekend. And I even leaned some new things & found some authors I just *have* to read :)

  3. Aw, I offered my services for this but was told there were already enough volunteers :( It's the one festival I have a genuine interest in personally. It's great that they got heaps of volunteers, though and by all accounts the festival was a huge success.

    Isn't Claire Kilroy just great? One of the few young Irish female writers actually writing fiction of great worth, in my opinion.

    Anyway, thanks for the photos and update, Darragh.