This month sees the start of the Liverpool Irish Festival‘s 20th edition. The festival acts as a voice for Ireland in the city, bringing Liverpool and Ireland closer using arts and culture. 

Running over 10 days, the Festival is a charity and a cultural fixture in Liverpool’s calendar. The events start on 20th October in various venues across the city region. On offer is visual art, music, discussion, theatre, sport (anyone for a game of Gaelic Football?), and more!

We spoke to Emma Smith, who is based at Northern Lights and is the festival’s Artistic Director and CEO. Emma gave us an insight into this year’s programme, the work they’re doing to revitalise the Irish Famine Trail, and how you can support their work.

Thanks for speaking to us! Can you tell us about your role at Liverpool Irish Festival?

Sure! I’m tasked with driving our work, using arts and culture to bring Liverpool and Ireland closer together. We’re the only arts and culture-led Irish festival (we can find) in the world! We’re especially proud of the unique connections the city shares with the island of Ireland.

Emma Smith, Artistic Director and CEO at Liverpool Irish Fest (c) Viktorija Grigorjevaite, Sane Seven
How did you come to work for the festival?

Back in 2016 I was finishing a season directing LOOK/15, Liverpool’s International Photography Festival. For LOOK*15 we’d worked in over 30 venues, so my network was pretty good. Laura Naylor, the previous Festival Manager, messaged me to say this role was coming up and that I’d be a positive fit. I’d moved to Liverpool in 1997 and came to love it, but I didn’t know a huge amount about the Irish links. I thought learning on the job would help me get closer to the city. It’s proved to be fascinating and has helped me look at identity and place in all manner of new ways!

This year will be the festival’s 20th year. It’s an incredible achievement! How did the event begin and how has it evolved over that time?

The Festival began in 2003 via a group of musical friends who, with the Council, recognised the city lacked an Irish Festival – despite having a huge Irish population and many connections. This needed to be rectified in the run up to the bid for Capital of Culture, so a society was formed. Since then, we have become actively arts and culture centred (Irish music is available in the city all year around!) to differentiate us from other national Irish festivals; we’ve taken a lead in networking Irish cultural organisations and revitalising the Liverpool Irish Famine Trail. We are embedded in Liverpool’s arts ecology, with representation in the Creative Organisations of Liverpool (COoL), Festival Forum, Liverpool’s Literacy Cycle and connections with Liverpool City Region Combined Authority.

As you’ve mentioned, there are already strong links between Ireland and Liverpool. How does the festival celebrate and strengthen these links?

Each year we select a theme to provide a new lens for us to look at our links. Next year it will be ‘anniversary’ – we’re celebrating our twenty-first year, Irish In Britain turns 50, we continue the 175th anniversary of the Irish Famine and Ireland continues its decade of centenaries. We’ll pick up on current and shifting understandings around race, identity, diaspora and heritage. 

We also have four strands we like to attach work to – female visibility, the Irish Famine and Liverpool, family and nook and cranny spaces. Connecting these means we take people across city destinations, focus on intergenerational exchanges, honour our past and give space to people that are often unheard. These perspectives unlock nuances in Irish life, creativity and experiences that we can share with audiences, Irish or not!

Speaking of theme, this year’s is ‘hunger’… What does that mean in the context of the festival?

Hunger is a primal motivator. In Maslow’s hierarchy of need, hunger for safety and physical nourishment, teamed with self-esteem and friendships, are the cornerstones of existence. Once these basic hungers are met, hunger can transform into other more subjective things. Avarice, love, nostalgia and places all have a part in driving ‘hunger’ and we’re looking at these aspects in ways that are particular to the Irish experience. As above, we’re thinking about a hunger for justice; a hunger to be seen and heard, to take space, to remember a history that has been documented. We’re also creating spaces in which people can play, chat and share, so it isn’t all serious!

What does the programme look like for this year’s event, and what are some things you’re looking forward to?

This year’s programme is ripe with visual arts and discussion, following two years of lockdowns and lots of reflection. Each event considers hunger in some way, be it a hunger for health, justice, home or friendship. We have our first exhibition in Wirral (at The Williamson), featuring artist Martin McCoy. We have plenty of theatre, film, poetry, music, tours and activities. With over 50 events over the 10 days there is plenty to see and do!

This year also sees the Armagh Rhymers bring us their all-new Liverbird story, which people can see at Museum of Liverpool and at the Samhain Ceili. For those interested in justice we have a significant event that brings musician Stephen Travers to the city to talk about The Miami Showband Massacre. Stephen survived an attack in which 5 people died at the hands of paramilitary groups during The Troubles. Our evening with him explores that incident and the trials that have followed. IndieCork provides us with films that look at The Power of Song and we have artist master classes online and in person. We’re unveiling our Liverpool Irish Famine Trail maps and new book, bringing people closer to Liverpool’s Irish heritage.

It’s a programme brimming with light touch events through to deep engagement activities. We are open to all and characterised by a desire to share Irish creativity with you all.

Tell us more about the projects you’re doing to revitalise the Liverpool Irish Famine Trail over the next few years?

How long have you got?! Ideally, your readers would come to our event at the Museum of Liverpool on 29 Oct. Our History Research Group will be sharing the research they have done about the Liverpool Irish Famine Trail sites. This research has led to us producing a book and self-guided tour maps.

We are awaiting further funding to see if we can develop creative projects in communities across Merseyside, which will all feed into a digital app-building project. This will allow people to take several routes within the Trail and hear from different countries about the sites. I can wax lyrical about plaques, sites and missing information, but I shall spare you this and assure you there is a long term vision that takes us from a paper map to a digital universe, with international pilgrimages and partners and even European Space Agency research!

Liverpool Irish Famine Trail Map (c) Liverpool Irish Festival
Sounds exciting! Outside of the festival, what other projects are you working on?

As if the above isn’t enough, we’ve also established the Cultural Connectedness Exchange Network, which brings independent Irish artists and commissioners of Irish creativity into spaces together to share knowledge, create collaborations and strengthen Irish arts recognition.

Dependent on funding, we’re waiting to see if we can expand our team so we can deepen our work. With only me in post, we’re limited to how much we can take on.

You need all the help you can get then! What are some ways people can support your work?

Volunteering applications are currently open. We need personable people who like to get out and about to help us deliver this year’s Festival in October. No experience is necessary, just a smile and an ability to speak with people in a venue.

Of course, we’d love people to come along to our events to help support our artists and venues. You can browse our What’s On pages to book! Completing surveys is also helpful so we can answer our funders.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

Shortly after the Festival closes we’ll start programming the following year’s Festival, which centres on ‘anniversary.’ If there are any budding creatives with a Liverpool-Irish focus who want to get involved, make sure you get in touch! My email is

Liverpool Irish Festival 2022 starts on 20th October. You can find out more about their events here. Don’t forget to follow them on social media to follow along with their work on the Irish Famine Trail!