After “reading too much Yeats” at university, Francis Humphrys found himself migrating across the water to the south west of Ireland in the late 1970s.
Settling into a small farm up in the hills between the majestic Bantry bay and Dunmanus bay, he dabbled in dairy before turning his focus to sheep farming. Presently, he is planting native woodland on his land in an effort to leave our planet in the best shape as possible.
How did a west Cork sheep farmer end up tempting the great and the good of chamber music to this special part of the Wild Atlantic Way?
“I love chamber music. The idea of starting a chamber music festival in Bantry was completely crazy but we did it and we made a success of it. We started the Chamber Music festival in 1996.
I don’t play; I just love the music. Chamber music is built around string quartets and the great composers of string quartets, like Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schuman and Brahms. Each year we commission new string quartets – both Irish and internationally.
This year, there are string quartets from the United States, Germany, France, the Netherlands and the UK. We do an extensive fringe; we take the musicians out to play around west Cork. We have about 20 free concerts from Baltimore to Castletown Bere, so the musicians get out of Bantry and people around the peninsulas don’t have to travel too far to enjoy the music.”
But it is not just chamber music that keeps you busy…?
“After we started the Chamber music festival, the literary people came along and said we’d like a literary festival as well. So, we started the West Cork Literary festival and then I met fiddle player Martin Hayes and we started Masters of Tradition. So we run three festivals all over Bantry in the summer.
It is huge. The three festivals are worth over three million euro to the Bantry area in terms of tourism and economics. We employ seven people full-time. I find myself running a music organisation that is a full-time job.
I put together the chamber music programme, Eimear O ’Herlihy brings together the literary festival and Martin Hayes directs the Masters of Tradition. There are over 100 events for the chamber music, 80 for the literary and 20 for the Masters festival. We sell about 16,000 tickets in the year. It is a lot of work. My feet are kept on the ground by still having a small farm and planting trees.”
All these musicians visiting Bantry, will they get to see the countryside around Bantry?
“We have a policy that all musicians must stay for five days – so there is no flying in and flying out. We have a green policy that contracts all musicians to only take one flight to get here; mostly they fly into Dublin and take a coach to Cork where we collect them.
A festival like ours, 60-70% of emissions is travel, so we try to minimize that as best we can. You can be nearly guaranteed it will rain. Atmospherically it is disappointing, but really it doesn’t matter too much – it draws people in from outdoor activities and the musicians do enjoy the travel for the fringe events.”
The 27th West Cork Chamber Music Festival is currently taking place around Bantry, west Cork.