Surely May is the most fabulous of all months in the Irish countryside! The snow-white Blackthorn flowers give way to the blossom laden arching branches of the Hawthorn, or May blossom. Often alongside is to be found the vibrant yellow of whins, or gorse, and together they make the most beautiful spectacle in the Irish countryside as they light up miles and miles of hedgerows. The Irish word for May is ‘Bealtaine’ (pronounced Baal-tin-a) which means ‘Bright Fire’. How appropriate then that May was chosen as the month to celebrate the creativity of older age, with the annual month-long Bealtaine Festival taking place across all of Ireland.
Now in its 16th year, the Bealtaine Festival happens in Art centres, museums, libraries, theatres, Active Retirement Groups, community clubs, care centres, even beaches! Anyplace where the talents of older people, whether professionals or first timers, can be showcased.The ethos is one of celebration, empowerment, fun and confidence-building by the participants, whether as performers, organizers or audiences. In 2010, over 100,000 people participated in the event. This cultural innovation is unrivalled anywhere else in the world, but other countries are establishing similar festivals modelled on Ireland’s success, in Germany, Scotland and Wales, for example.
Bealtaine is spearheaded by the Age & Opportunity organization and part funded by the Arts Council. Age & Opportunity is a non-profit organization working to promote participation by older people in various aspects of society. The Bealtaine Festival, one of its major initiatives, concentrates on greater participation by older people in the arts. With a theme for 2011 of ‘Push the boat out, whatever the sea’ (a line from the poem ‘At Eighty’, by Edwin Morgan) there are hundreds of events taking place all over Ireland. A Festival Programme is available here .
The Bealtaine Festival was independently evaluated by the Irish Centre for Social Gerontology at University College Galway. Their study revealed that participation or attendance at events had positive effects on well-being and morale as well as self-esteem and self-confidence. Social connections were improved as new relationships were formed. Over 86% of participants said it improved their quality of life. This research underpins the value to society of a programme for involvement of older people in the arts, especially as the age profile of our population increases. It follows that it also underpins the wonderful work being undertaken by Age & Opportunity, work that is worthy of the support of all of us.