Festival Season Preview: The Hay Festival Returns to Kells

Book of Kells Hay Festival Literary Travel
by G.J. Schear

Kells. The very name suggests books. One of the most famous in the world, The Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript of the gospels dated around 800AD, spent its early days here before taking residence in Trinity College, Dublin.

But that’s history.

Today, Kells is a small town where computer shops nuzzle against the 10th century round tower and ancient Celtic crosses frown at traffic lights. It’s an every-day-is-Sunday sort of place. Or was, until the Hay Literary Festival arrived.

The festival began 27 years ago in the Welsh town of Hay. Since its inception it has spread to Spain, Columbia, India… fifteen countries in all.

In 2012 it trumpeted into Kells.

We Irish in our natural habitat tend to be pretty phlegmatic. It takes a lot to rouse our passions. Why the Hay Festival accomplished this extraordinary feat is something of a mystery. Perhaps the time was right and we were ready for some excitement. I’d like to think it’s because the Irish adore books.

Whatever the reason, the town was galvanized into action. Overnight, unused buildings were converted into bookshops. The butchers, the bakers and the whisky-makers replaced their usual window displays with books. The 18th century folly in the shape of a lighthouse called the Spire of Lloyd was illuminated. Signs appeared everywhere: Kells welcomes the Hay Festival.

For the weekend, the tang of Guinness settled comfortably with the smell of print and paper.

The owner of the electrical goods shop placed a bench outside, “In case anyone gets jacked (tired) from all their book-shopping.” Within the hour, other shopkeepers followed suit.

Townspeople volunteered to sell tickets, give directions, and even offer accommodation to those visitors who decided one day in Kells was just not enough. This wasn’t just a literary festival, it was an Event with a capital E.

The day arrived and so did the visitors. They came from England and the Continent and America. So, too, came those mysterious creatures, the writers. Germaine Greer spoke about Shakespeare’s boys. That was an education. John Banville told us how he worked hard to make sentences “luminous” and revealed his favorite word is “lilac.” Louis de Bernières, John Boyne and other stars of the page came and spoke eloquently, warmly, about their work. Behind the scenes they said they’d never seen anything like it. “Is it always like this here?” They were stunned by the welcome, by the enthusiasm, by the passion.

Did you forget we’re the home of the book, lads?

The weekend whizzed by with lectures about the Titanic, with baking demonstrations, with theatrical events.

Not content with books—though books were the star of the show—there was music and comedy and events for the younger readers. There was a walking tour of the ancient sites which I never got to take, but this year, I promise myself.

The Hay Festival returns to Kells from June 26th to 28th. Maybe I’ll see you there?

I’ll be the one with the books.


Image by Florin Gorgan 

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  1. As a native & volunteer of the Hay Festival in Kells, I can safely say that we look forward to having the writers, poets, musicians & visitors back to Kells for another successful festival.