Best of 2018: Looking Back on GIAF’s Biggest Year Yet

29 December 2018

Relive Festival highlights like ‘The People Build,’ theatrical world premieres, and concerts at the Heineken Big Top.

From a New York City premiere in January, to an extraordinary festival in July, all the way through December’s Winter First Thought Talks, 2018 was a banner year for Galway International Arts Festival.

Festival Highlights

Galway International Arts Festival 2018 was the biggest Festival to date, with 200 events and attendance of over a quarter of a million. Named “One of the Top 20 Theatre Festivals Around the World” by American Express Essentials and "One of Europe’s Top 20 Art and Culture Festivals in 2018” by Flight Network, GIAF’s profile has continued to grow on the Irish and international stage. High attendance figures (up 20% on 2017) correlated with an estimated economic impact of €40.8 million for Galway, up from €29.5 million in 2017.

More than 600 artists participated in this year’s Festival, bringing with them the world’s best theatre, music, opera, visual arts, street art and spectacle, circus, dance, First Thought Talks, and comedy. GIAF’s most extensive music programme yet included sold-out concerts from Madness, Caribou, The Flaming Lips, Walking On Cars, The Stunning, Kodaline and Jenny Greene and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. French artist Olivier Grossetête’s The People Build drew huge crowds to help construct -- and later demolish -- large-scale cardboard recreations of St. Nicholas’ Church in Eyre Square and a portion of the River Corrib viaduct at Waterside.

Volunteers and spectators watch the launch of the People Build at Waterside, Galway International Arts Festival 2018.

The People Build recreates St. Nicholas' Church in Eyre Square.

TravelZoo, a U.S.-based travel company, live-streamed The People Build demolition from Eyre Square to their more than three million followers. Based on their visit, TravelZoo called GIAF “One of the most spectacular arts festivals in the world.”

Two major productions, which made their world premieres at the Festival, garnered rave reviews in the national and international press.

Incantata by Paul Muldoon, a GIAF co-production with Jen Coppinger, was described as ‘a remarkable piece of theatre’ (The Irish Examiner) and ‘visually stunning’ (The Guardian). Stanley Townsend’s outstanding performance was lauded as ‘electrifying’ (The Sunday Independent) and ‘compelling’ (The Guardian).

Irish National Opera and United Fall, in association with GIAF, presented Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, directed by Emma Martin and conducted by Peter Whelan. It was critically acclaimed as ‘an opera of intense, crisp energy’ (The Irish Times) with the Independent describing it as an ‘extravaganza’.

Other theatrical highlights included two of the world’s top contemporary circus troupes, Australian companies Circa with their show Humans and Gravity and Other Myths with Backbone. International theatre highlights included The Fall from South Africa, The Aspirations of Daise Morrow from Australia, immersive theatre shows Gardens Speak, and Flight, which told the story of two young boys fleeing Afghanistan, and the world premiere of Enda Walsh’s Office 33A all played to packed houses.

Eyre Square has always been a Galway focal point, but this year was the first time GIAF transformed it into a spectacular Festival Garden complete with food and drink, art installations, DJs, and even impromptu music performances. A huge draw for Galwegians and visitors alike, over 145,000 people passed through the Festival Garden over the course of GIAF18. Galway was a European Region of Gastronomy in 2018, and vendors in the Garden provided visitors with the flavours of the west of Ireland.

Touring & Producing

Galway International Arts Festival has been producing and touring new work for over ten years, and 2018 began on a spectacular high note in January with the US premiere of Ballyturk, a GIAF co-production with Landmark Productions Ballyturk. The play by Enda Walsh, which made its world premiere at Galway International Arts Festival 2014, drew rave reviews from critics during its run at St Ann’s Warehouse in New York City. Ben Brantley, chief theatre critic at the New York Times, praised performances from Mikel Murfi, Tadhg Murphy and Olwen Fouéré and called Ballyturk 'pure poetry' that is likely to ‘take up residence in your thoughts after you’ve seen it.’ The New Yorker’s Anna Russell hailed the cast as ‘glorious and New York Magazine/Vulture included Ballyturk in their end-of-year round-up of ‘Top 10 Theatre Productions of 2018’.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers, produced by Complicité and Wayward Productions in association with Landmark Productions and Galway International Arts Festival, premiered in Galway in March 2018 before transferring to Dublin. The major new work, written by Max Porter and starring Cillian Murphy, sold out in record time.

Following the massive success of 2017’s The Second Violinist, the first full-scale opera presented by the Festival, another major new production from Irish National Opera in association with GIAF premiered at Galway International Arts Festival 2018. Orfeo ed Euridice, a co-production with United Fall in partnership with Irish Baroque Orchestra, will go on a nationwide tour in 2019.

In January 2018, Galway International Arts Festival was nominated for six Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards and won two for Woyzeck in Winter, co-produced by GIAF and Landmark Productions, which premiered at GIAF17 and went on to tour in Dublin and London.

First Thought Talks

President Michael D. Higgins presents his First Thought Talk on the topic of 'Home' at NUI Galway as part of GIAF18.

This year, GIAF’s First Thought Talks discussion series explored the theme of ‘Home’ and what it means from a personal, local, national and global perspective. Always a popular Festival feature, audiences flocked to hear speakers in NUI Galway’s Aula Maxima during the summer and, later, the inaugural winter programme. In a continued effort to make the arts more accessible to all, Galway International Arts Festival live-streamed a number of the discussions on Facebook. Recorded First Thought Talks from throughout the year are available to view on where they have been watched by more than 29,000.

The series began in January with playwright Enda Walsh, following the New York premiere of his play Ballyturk. It was the second First Thought Talk from the U.S. in the series’ history, and thousands of people tuned in from around the world to watch and pose questions in real time.

President Michael D. Higgins opened the First Thought Talks programme during the Festival in July. The 42 other participants included Catherine Corless, Andrew O’Hagan, John Lanchester, Roy Foster, Tomi Reichental, Paula Meehan and Diarmuid Ferriter.

As November turned to December, GIAF introduced the first Winter First Thought Talks programme. Over the course of one weekend, Galway audiences heard from journalist Fintan O’Toole, author and humanitarian Ben Rawlence, advocates for the homeless Alice Leahy and Donna O’Neill, political commentator and author Martina Fitzgerald, former politician Máire Geoghegan-Quinn and Jan O'Sullivan TD.

Continued growth for Volunteer Department

Volunteers helped facilitate Olivier Grossetête's The People Build in Eyre Square and Waterside.

As ever, the 2018 Festival was made possible by the dedication and commitment of an incredible group of volunteers. This year, GIAF recruited 1,000 volunteers from around the world.

One of those volunteers, an integral part of the Festival team since 2013 named Louise Borre, was shortlisted for special recognition by the Charity Impact Awards and Volunteer Ireland Awards. Louise won the Arts, Culture & Media category at the Volunteer Ireland Awards in December for her contributions to Galway International Arts Festival and other local service organisations. Volunteers like Louise contribute to every level of GIAF operations.

New in 2018, the Visual Arts Internship Programme (VAIP) was introduced as an innovative platform for budding arts administrators to gain practical experience in the buzzing Festival Gallery. 25 participants received intensive training in invigilation and tour-guiding in order to deliver the best visitor experience possible. VAIP interns also benefited from special discussions with Festival Gallery artists and exclusive professional development seminars presented by GIAF Education Partner NUI Galway.

New Partnerships

Corporate sponsorships and partnerships are integral to staging Galway International Arts Festival. in 2018, GIAF announced a new multi-year partnership with NUI Galway. Ireland’s leading cultural organization and the Sunday Times University of the Year 2018 will work together across a number of initiatives designed to provide inspiring cultural and creative opportunities for students.

In May 2018, Heineken came on board as the sponsor of Galway International Arts Festival’s iconic music venue, now titled the Heineken Big Top. The music line-up at the venue was the biggest in the Festival’s 41-year history.

Sold-out Heineken Big Top gigs at GIAF18 included Walking On Cars, The Stunning, Kodaline and Jenny Greene and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.

Goodbye to Old Friends

Actor John Mahoney, a dear friend and colleague of Galway International Arts Festival, passed away 5 February 2018 in Chicago. John performed many times at the festival, making his Galway debut in Long Day's Journey Into Night in 2000. He returned to the festival over the years, with both Steppenwolf, where he began his career, and in recent years with Northlight Theater, memorably in Bruce Graham's The Outgoing Tide. For his talent, spirit, and friendship, he is deeply missed.

One of Ireland’s greatest ever playwrights Tom Murphy passed away on the 15th May. His contribution to Irish theatre was immeasurable. Tom was closely linked with Druid and the Abbey Theatres throughout his career and the Festival was honoured to present his work over the years perhaps most notably in 2012 with the remarkable DruidMurphy. An amazing man, smart, funny and full of life, he is hugely missed. To quote from of one his plays The Gigli Concert, may he ‘Sing on forever.'

Looking forward to 2019

2018 was a year of burgeoning recognition for both the city and the Festival as a huge draw for tourists. GIAF is delighted to be a finalist for the Irish Tourism Industry Awards 2019 in the Best Festival / Event Experience category. Winners will be announced in 2019.

In April of this coming year, Enda Walsh’s much-lauded Rooms series will tour to the Barbican in London. This will be the first time the five poetic short stories, all of which premiered at Galway International Arts Festival over the years, will be presented together. Tickets may be purchased on

Galway International Arts Festival 2019 will take place 15-28 July, and three exciting headliners for the Heineken Big Top have already been announced - Bell X1 on 19 July, followed by The Academic on 20 July, and Two Door Cinema Club on 26 July. Keep an eye out in the new year for many more announcements to come!

Galway International Arts Festival would like to acknowledge the support of its principal funding agencies the Arts Council and Fáilte Ireland, Leadership Partner Ulster Bank, Drinks Partner Heineken and Education Partner NUI Galway.