Drop Everything

By Rosie Gogan-Keogh 

Photography by Maria Lax & James Corcoran Hodgins

Video by Dylan Haskins

It’s a Sunday night at the end of May on Inis Oírr, the smallest of the Aran Islands some 11 kilometres off the coast of Clare, and the sun has just dipped into the Atlantic.

Two hundred people gather around Tigh Ned’s in a makeshift outdoor club, framed by low stone walls. A line of island men sit on the pub’s window ledge observing the scene playing out in front of them: Berlin–based DJs Steffi and Virginia are on hour four of an epic set, a greying man in a belly top and hot pants dances on a wall, while a girl in a silver-winged cape dances on a picnic table.

One of the men has been moving ever closer to the decks as the evening has gone on. Flat cap, crisp blue shirt, pressed slacks; he peers over Steffi’s shoulder, head bobbing, foot tapping to the house tune she’s mixing in and he pulls out a tin whistle. It’s a moment that could seem contrived if it had been planned, but it’s neither. Steffi holds up the mic that Virginia’s just been singing into and the man begins to improvise a trad lilt echoing the beat of the track, long-fog horn notes sounding out at lulls to rapturous whoops from the audience.

Micheál Ó hAlmhain, a well–known piper and concert flute player, is in fact a blow in himself (albeit one since 1989 when he married a local schoolteacher, moved to the island from Blackrock, Co. Dublin and had four children). ‘I love all kinds of music,’ he says after his impromptu performance. ‘But I’ve never seen anything like this.’ It’s a sentiment that’s held by most that attend Drop Everything, a contemporary culture biennial, which this year held its third instalment on Inis Oírr.

I meet the biennial’s founder and organiser Mary Nally over tea in the Library Bar in Dublin six weeks before the 2016 event. She forbids me from calling Drop Everything ‘a festival’ and it’s apt – this isn’t just a festival in the now traditional meaning of the word.

She forbids me from calling Drop Everything ‘a festival’

Drop Everything has evolved from an idea of Nally’s, which aimed to create an international network of graduating art students and give them an opportunity to meet once every two years. She was planning on moving to New York but in the winter of 2011 she began to think that she could create something in Ireland.

Inis Oírr – its three pubs, handball alley and arts centre – close to her native Galway and where her mother had spent summers as a young adult, was chosen as the venue. Nally drew inspiration from events like the Venice Biennale to Monocle’s Quality of Life Conference and It’s Nice That’s Design Symposium, selected artists to exhibit and just ‘threw a party’ to pay for it. The whole experience made her realise that Ireland was in fact ‘kind of interesting’, that maybe she would stick around after all and her New York plans were shelved.

There’s a glint in her eye that lets you know she’s always one step ahead.

Nally is unassuming – usually dressed in loose tracksuit bottoms and faded t-shirt – but there’s a glint in her eye that lets you know she’s always one step ahead. She shies away from being called a curator saying that a lot of what she does is ‘sitting it out until the right things fall into place and relying on fate.’ But that is exactly what she is and in her careful planning of Drop Everything she manages to put together not just a series of artistic, culinary and musical events, but an entire audience too.

For most of the summer, the island is a temporary home to American daytrippers who take the short boat trip from Doolin for a taste of Aran Islands culture and teenage Gaeltacht-goers, shipped out for three week stints to stay with local mná an tí during school holidays. But the island’s regular population of 249 (according to the 2011 census) more than doubles for these three days. It’s a careful balance to bring several hundred people for a weekend of partying while maintaining equilibrium with the people that live there so the crowd is limited on purpose. There’s a fairly strict but not exclusive policy on who can buy tickets.

‘The tiny island became an art bubble that made the rest of the world disappear for a moment, and it’s a really freeing, blissfully happy experience.’ – Maria Lax, filmmaker and photographer

The island – a 3km x 3km slab of limestone, cousin of The Burren and home to a bizarrely warm climate that sees Arctic and Alpine plants thrive – is difficult to get to. When JM Synge first visited in 1898, it was three–hour steamer ride from Galway to Inis Meáin, followed by a trip in a curragh with local fishermen to the smaller island.

My 16-year old Polo is making odd clanking sounds from the far side of Athlone, barely half way there, but I make it to the ferry port at Rossaveel, an hour past Galway. Aboard, my already high expectations for the weekend are met and broken within moments. A giant whale appears just metres away, its great white belly and fins cutting through the azure waters as if putting on a show, flipping over and over again. Each time the mammoth creature appears the boat’s passengers cheer. ‘Mary has pulled out all the stops this year,’ says one.

There’s a thriving arts scene on Inis Oírr already with musicians, writers, poets and an arts centre – Áras Éanna –– that dwarfs the population and serves as the artistic hub for Drop Everything. This is the first port of call on Friday night where a queue leads up the stone staircase in the middle of the U-shaped building – an oddly biblical scene – as they wait for dinner from a pop–up Ard Bia Take Away. Inside the centre, photographer Andrew Nuding‘s honest and striking images of inner city Dublin kids hang and upstairs, a single 1960s armchair borrowed from a local house awaits viewers of Hen’s Teeth Prints-curated installation with images from Finnish photographer Maria Lax and a soundtrack chosen by Solar Bears’ John Kowalski.

Back outside, the audience gaze out toward the sunset for the festival opening by filmmaker Vivienne Dick. Suitably welcomed, it’s down to the Handball Alley to be immersed in Chris Lunney‘s I Feel Love ‘room of light and sound’ before heading to the school hall for a performance by queer hip hop artist Zebra Katz and on to Tigh Ruairí’s for cocktails and dancing into the night.

‘It’s a little island monster of a thing. It’s been a gift to be near it.’ – Dave Tynan, writer and director

One of the great things about being on an island is not being able to leave. When I get a phone call on Saturday that could have pulled me back home, I am pleasantly reminded that we’re on an island. I look at the itinerary, it’s four o’clock and we’re scheduled for an hour of ‘island time’, location: everywhere. There’s nothing to do about the call so, momentarily stressed, I take a cycle and find myself at a sign pointing toward a seaweed bath. The baths are on the Drop Everything itinerary under ‘Other Island Activities’ and are the perfect antidote. Forty-five minutes later, I emerge red–faced with iodine soft skin, ready for the evening’s entertainment.

Ménage à Trois are playing in the arts centre. The Mancunian band have been staying in the same holiday house as me and with long bleach blonde hair and fluorescent leather rally jackets, the trio look like characters from Drive, leaving me guessing what to expect from their show.

Brimming positivity like this doesn’t exist many places but on this island for three days it does.

With two keyboardists and a vocalist, they sound like an even more mournful Rhye and by the end of their gig, the entire audience is singing along to their cover of Islands in the Stream. I tell them they were amazing and later hear a rumour that they were so overwhelmed people coming up to tell them so, that they almost thought it wasn’t true. Brimming positivity like this doesn’t exist many places but on this island for three days it does.

Then it’s on to the northside of the island, around a corner where the wind whips a beat across the sea and fields. White Collar Boy are stationed on a rocky outcrop, behind them the sun sets pink and red and orange over neighbouring Inis Meáin. A sound system has been hooked up to an invisible generator somewhere and the implausibility of it all is mesmerising.

A sound system has been hooked up to an invisible generator somewhere and the implausibility of it all is mesmerising.

The next day starts on the beach where the sun is officially splitting the stones. Sally Cinnamon sits on a sand dune throne, surrounded by a glamorous pack. Groups of twos, threes, fours, fives gather across the rocks around a sauna that’s been lovingly crafted by graduate architect Emmett McNamara. The expertly engineered structure sits on the sand and houses several hot bodies at a time before they run to plunge into the sea.

Sigurlaug Gísladóttir and her husband and musical partner Tyler Ludwick fresh from their Mr. Silla show the night before stroll passed. ‘We’ve been taking turns sleeping,’ says Silla. ‘Yesterday, he survived on three hours and now it’s my turn,’ she says with a smile as they march on towards the brunch queue.

A makeshift Fumbally Cafe has set up home on a slab that juts out into the sea. The travel writer Manchán Magan collects brunch money in an iron bucket using a giant limestone as a shop counter. Beside him staff from Dublin’s Fumbally Café fry eggs in giant cast iron pans over coals on the rocks. A local woman has baked soda bread which is warm and crumbling under the eggs and delicious green specimens foraged from the island the previous day.

Dave Tynan, a writer and director best known for his short Just Sayin’, has curated a storytelling event on the Sunday. Initially intended to be on a boat sailing around the island, fortuitously the boat’s fallen through and we find ourselves cycling down hills weaving through fields to the shipwrecked Plassey and an auditorium formed from the rusted ship, the rocks and the sea. Behind us the Cliffs of Moher loom as a line-up of local and mainlander storytellers take turns regaling a hundred or so onlookers.

Actor and writer Emmet Kirwan takes the headline slot to give two excerpts from his sell-out show Dublin Old School and airs the first draft of a new piece. Asked to write about 1916 under four different headings for  This Is Pop Baby’s Riot in the Dublin Fringe, Heartbreak is Kirwin’s incredibly astute interpretation of what it’s like to be a working class girl in Ireland. Tears spring to my eyes under my sunglasses as he weaves the story of a fictional but oh-so-real 15-year-old girl’s hopelessness when she becomes pregnant, single, broke, unsupported and ultimately homeless in 2016 Ireland. What’s actually changed since 1916 for someone like her? Kirwin asks. It’s a gut–wrenching question, here on the edge of the Atlantic.

What’s most interesting about Drop Everything is that it spans many scenes and genres. It’s not just a party. But it does party very well at the same time. At its core, Drop Everything is an artistic event which touches every element and walk of life.

At its core, Drop Everything is an artistic event which touches every element and walk of life.

‘The island really changes the tone as you leave everything behind and let yourself be open,’ Silla tells me by Skype a few weeks before I go. ‘Someone once described it perfectly to me: “everyone looks like friends who you just haven’t met yet” – it may sound cheesy but it’s true,’ she says. I laughed with her at the time, telling her not to worry that it didn’t sound cheesy, not totally believing myself.

When leaving the island, summing up the food, music and art I’ve experienced over the three days, Silla’s words come back to me and I’m left thinking that that is really what Drop Everything is about – a series of events on an island that connects people. The only thing I’m left wishing is that Drop Everything could be every year, not two. But maybe that’s part of the magic.

For more information on the next installment of Drop Everything in 2018 see www.dropeverything.net