After 27 years as an invaluable member of the Galway International Arts Festival staff, Elizabeth Duffy is retiring this month from her role as Festival Administrator.
In the summer of 2019, as she booked a steady stream of artists into their Galway accommodation, Elizabeth couldn’t have known she was working on her last July Festival. Her 27th and final Festival, GIAF’s once-off Autumn Edition in September 2020, looked very different due to Covid-19. Nonetheless, Elizabeth brought the same indefatigable energy and dedication she has always brought to her role in nearly three decades of helping to deliver vibrant and unforgettable art to the streets of Galway.
“It’s more than a job,” Elizabeth says of her time with the Festival. “I always say it’s my second family.”
As the longest-serving staff member in the Festival’s 43 year history, Elizabeth saw the organisation evolve and change from Galway Arts Festival, as it was known until 2013, to the Galway International Arts Festival of today. In that time, GIAF has grown into a major event with an international reputation and now develops and produces new touring work.
“There was only one computer in GAF in 1994 and no mobile phones,” Elizabeth says of her earliest days with the organisation, then based on Dominick Street in Galway city. “When you wanted to contact an artist you rang them or wrote a letter to them and awaited your postal reply.”
The office would later move to Galway’s Black Box Theatre, where it is based to this day. In her time with GIAF, Elizabeth has worked alongside chief executive John Crumlish, Festival Manager Fergal McGrath and Artistic Directors Patricia Forde, Ted Turton, Rose Parkinson and Paul Fahy.
“Elizabeth has been an invaluable member of the Festival team for over 25 years. In so many ways she has been the heart and soul of the Festival,” says Paul Fahy, GIAF’s Artistic Director since 2006. “I have so much admiration and respect for her. She brings a diligence, integrity and positivity to everything she does. Elizabeth has great style and grace and always deals with everything and everyone with such a beautiful sense of care and kindness. She has become a wonderful friend, is always terrific fun, and I don’t think words can describe (nor indeed has she any idea) of how much we will miss her and how much we all love her.”
Echoing that sentiment, Festival CEO John Crumlish says, “Elizabeth is so closely connected to the Festival it is hard to imagine it without her and her without it. They have been partners together in a beautiful friendship for a long time. Her commitment and loyalty to the Festival has always been unwavering and her contribution to its success over the past twenty-seven years has been significant. On a personal note, I will really miss working with Elizabeth and it will take us all at GIAF a long time to get used to her not being here."
Elizabeth’s path to the Festival began in 1993 when she took part in Maceolas, a training division of Macnas established to address the need for arts education training at a local level in Galway. “The idea was to equip people with the necessary skills to become arts facilitators in the community,” Elizabeth explained. She said she spent a wonderful year travelling around Ireland as part of the course, even spending two weeks on placement in Denmark.
At the end of the course, participants applied for jobs in the Galway arts sector. Elizabeth’s organisational and people skills drew her to the administration side of the arts, and just as she was finishing her training course Galway Arts Festival were looking for a programme co-ordinator.
As Elizabeth put it, “I applied for the job and the rest is history.”
Trish Forde, the Artistic Director when Elizabeth was hired, says, “I had the absolute joy of working with Elizabeth Duffy for the five years that I was with Galway Arts Festival. I remember the day we interviewed her for the job. We had gone all out and hired a professional recruiter, who was a lot tougher on candidates than we might have been. When the interview finished he looked at us and said: If you don’t hire her - I will!
“I’m very glad we did and he didn’t. Elizabeth was the best of colleagues: talented, hard-working and loyal. Her good humour and warm heart saw us through many a crisis and she never seemed to tire no matter how long the days or annoying the clients! But above all that, she became a friend to all of us. I wish her the happiest retirement and know that we were so very lucky to have had her with us over all those years. Míle buíochas Elizabeth, a chara. Bain sult as!”
Former Festival Manager Fergal McGrath also remembers the day Elizabeth interviewed for her position. “Elizabeth was part of the team for much of my ten years with the Galway Arts Festival. And what a team player she was!" he says. "From the day Trish Forde, Colman Collins and I interviewed her for the then new position of administrator, I could see Elizabeth had an extraordinary understanding of people, of Galway and of life.
“Her empathy, her calm disposition and her absolute commitment to the festival played no small part in steering the ship, through what were at times choppy waters, during times of exponential growth in the nineties and subsequently.
“Never one to panic and always one to be there when needed, Elizabeth has left a legacy of respect and empathy for artists, arts workers and colleagues which will help drive the festival forward to continued and even greater success! And we are grateful.”
Looking back on the Galway arts scene of the nineties, Elizabeth said it was a very vibrant time between the Macnas Parade and popular local groups like The Stunning, The Saw Doctors, The Waterboys. Baboró and the Galway Film Fleadh were also part of the Galway Arts Festival when Elizabeth started working with the organisation. Both would go on to become full-fledged festivals of their own as Galway’s artistic landscape flourished.
“The biggest changes came when GAF started to produce its own work,” Elizabeth says. “It became more a year-round festival. The first Galway Arts Festival theatre production was a co-production with Macnas of Patrick Mc Cabe’s The Dead School, based on his novel. The Galway Arts Festival was always very much a team effort and the job was always interesting and varied.”
The Festival would soar to new international heights when international touring became part of the organisation’s year round work. Looking back on personal highlights, Elizabeth said that theatre premieres in London and New York were particularly memorable because she was not always able to attend opening nights during the busy Festival period. “Those opening nights were huge, they were such a big occasion for the Festival as a whole,” she said of the 2011 American premiere of Misterman by Enda Walsh at St Ann’s Warehouse in New York City and the 2014 opening night of Walsh’s Ballyturk in the National Theatre London, both of which were Landmark and GIAF co-productions.
In her day-to-day role as office administrator, Elizabeth kept the Festival office running smoothly. Another important part of her role was looking after accommodation and travel requirements for GIAF, a formidable task indeed when one considers how many hotel rooms, plane tickets, and other details are required to bring over 600 artists together from all over the world for a two-week festival in July.
"Every year you know the Festival is fast approaching when she gets her big wall sheet out and starts doing her daily diary showing when artists are arriving,” remembers Gerry Cleary, Financial Controller for the Festival.
"Liz is the cornerstone of communication and organisation within the festival. Throughout the busiest times she has always been the most lovely person to deal with and has helped me through my years in the box office," says Box Office Manager Sarah Callaghan. "Thank you Liz for everything you have done, words do not seem fit to describe how much you have done for us!"
Elizabeth’s colleagues will miss her “encyclopaedic knowledge of Galway City and its characters,” her grace under pressure, meticulous attention to detail, and unfailing memory for office birthdays.
“I looked on it as a curiosity in my first year, the way when the circus entered town everyone started streaming into our otherwise very quiet offices, seemingly just to give Liz a hug hello. And then it happened the next year and the next…” says Communications and Development Manager Hilary Martyn. “She is the first person people see when they enter the office, the first person they seek out at launches and openings, the first and last person crew and guests hug hello and goodbye to each year. Remote working during Covid has braced us for her departure but it’s still going to be a shock to see someone else in her seat when we come back.”
Even at the height of a busy Festival, Elizabeth’s levelheaded good humour could always be counted on. “I will always remember Elizabeth for making you feel that you never asked a stupid question. She could make you feel that you were the only person who asked her a question that day - especially during the festival when in reality about 100 other people asked her questions that day!” Fundraising Manager Aisling O’Sullivan says. "Even in the madness she was glamorous and had a smile and welcome for everyone. And the best sense of humour. I will miss our office chats when we solved the world’s problems. Thank you for your time and company over the years at work.”
Everyone agrees it’s hard to imagine Galway International Arts Festival without Elizabeth. “She has been the most wonderful and generous colleague and I know she will continue to be a dear friend to us all. For many years to come we’ll probably find ourselves saying - ‘Elizabeth would know that’ - because she would,” says Sinead McPhillips. “She will be missed beyond measure but we look forward to welcoming her through the doors as an audience member. We may even have to lay out the red carpet! I wish Elizabeth all the very best for her retirement after 27 years of incredible service to the arts, and to Galway International Arts Festival.”
"Liz is the heartbeat of Galway International Arts Festival,” says Carly Zimmerman of the Resource Development Department. “She keeps the whole ship going and possesses a duty of care that extends well beyond the office. She has such a wealth of knowledge about the Festival as well, and I don't know if all her efforts over the years can ever be adequately appreciated or repaid. We love you Liz!”
“I’ve had some of the best times in my life with the festival and I have made lifelong friends. It was 27 years very well spent,” Elizabeth says. “My job was my identity and a great source of pride. Thank you all for being the best co-workers and friends a woman could ask for.”