Dave Phelan previews Waterford City’s annual Spraoi International Street Arts Festival
Some 20 years ago TV Honan, a Clare refugee who had made a home in Waterford, along with family members, associates, colleagues and volunteers went about bringing a slice of Mardi Gras festivity to the south east of Ireland.
“The name was originally suggested by an Englishman working in a Waterford factory called Dave Kimber,” festival director Honan said. “He’d learned to speak Irish and suggested Spraoi as the name for fun and celebration. It also rhymed with 1993, the first year of the festival.”
Two decades on and what is now the Spraoi International Street Arts Festival is on the run-in to its twentieth consecutive festival.
Meanwhile the company itself has become the predominate force in outdoor staging of street art in Ireland.
Honan hazily recounts the first Spraoi – Summer Spraoi ’93 – and how the decision to take the festival from a one-day street party to the collage of colour and sound frequenters know today was one made after the initial event.
“We thought it would be a one-off outdoor event held on the streets of Waterford,” he said. “We had Romeo and Julliet being performed by the Footsbarn Theatre Company, some bands playing outside pubs and a small parade but nothing on the scale of today. So, after the initial success, we decided to take it further and a few months later there we are, sitting in a disused cattle shed on the Quays discussing Spraoi 1994.”
Over the years Spraoi has played host to runaway trains, held wild-west shoot outs, suspended dancers 100 feet in the air and given a stage to more comedic magicians than you could swing a cat at.
The festival, which is now a three-day event and takes place this year from August 3-5, has become a focal point for the city during the summer months.
A 500,000-strong audience of locals, tourists, street art enthusiasts, families and ramblers flock to the confines of the ancient Viking settlement to soak up all that is on offer – the vast majority of it for free.
The highlight of the festival, without doubt, is a parade, comprised of 200 performers and breathtaking floats, that ambles up the Quay to the applause of 70,000 spectators on the Sunday night. Under a pitch-black sky the true magic and essence of Spraoi is sparked into life. The many months of graft, much of which is provided by volunteers, comes to fruition and captures the collective imagination of a city for an hour and half. The firework display that follows is just Spraoi’s way of spoiling its audience.
Honan says that the twentieth Spraoi will be a continuation of what the festival has thrived on since its inception and will rely on if it is to succeed in the future: “It needs to stay true to its roots, as a means of encouraging creativity from people of all ages in the city.”
The active participation of volunteers from Ireland and abroad is the cornerstone of Spraoi’s success. From stewards to stage managers, act liaisons to parade performers, the willingness of individuals to donate their time and expertise is essential to the company and its commitment to a festival with a wholly organic ethos.
Down the years that ethos has been evident during the festivals, with local radio personality Roddy Cleere acting as master of ceremonies at the John Roberts Square stage and concerts being held in the ruins of Blackfriars church. Without delving into clichés, Spraoi truly utilises Waterford as a blank canvass and there is no nook, cranny or individual that can go unused.
The city, despite a recent cull on local industry, remains one of unbridled vibrancy, culture and craft. A sense of the by-gone age of Vikings is inescapable and monuments to battles, defeats and ancient kings line the streets. The city’s resiliency is something very much at the heart of what Spraoi does and, this year, Honan is adamant that that resiliency will be rewarded.
“This will be three days when the people of Waterford, with tourists from all over the world, can take to their city streets in a celebration of community and creativity,” he said. “There will be street theatre and music acts from ten countries and one of Ireland’s biggest annual street parades featuring hundreds of costumed performers, floats, live music and special effects.”
The south east of Ireland has long been known as an outpost of scenic beauty, sunshine and historic landmarks and while Spraoi never neglects to take advantage of its surroundings, it would be imprudent of the more savvy traveller to neglect taking advantage of Spraoi.
An expansion in services to and from Waterford Regional Airport have made the city more accessible from Britain than ever before.
Aer Lingus Regional flies from various British hubs to the city, while Irish Ferries sails from an array of British ports to Rosslare Harbour,which is less than an hour from the city.
Spraoi runs August 3-5 around Waterford City. See www.spraoi.com for more details.