The Craic Festival, the premier showcase of Irish film, music and culture in New York City, returns this March celebrating its 13th year at the top. The 2011 festival, which will be held March 9-12, will showcase established and emerging film and music talent from Ireland. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to festival director Terence Mulligan for a preview of its biggest and best lineup to date.

Most international film and music festivals follow the trends, but the best ones actually set them. The Craic Festival, the consistently impressive New York-based festival of the best of Irish film and music, is a case in point.

For over a decade now it’s been the springboard into the U.S. market for the most important new Irish filmmakers and musicians, but if you look at the lineup this year you’ll discover that the organizers  have surpassed themselves.

If you haven’t heard of Julie Feeney, the festival’s musical opener and the most interesting Irish vocalist and music star Ireland has produced in quite some time, take my word for it -- you’re about to.

Spend 20 minutes at a concert with this otherworldly woman and prepare to be floored. Forget Lady Gaga -- Feeney’s a whacked-out force of nature, a pop-music-hits-high-culture avalanche, and she’s really that good.

If you love Irish music and want to catch her debut (think Sinead O’Connor meets Black Swan via Phillip Glass) you can’t afford to miss her show at the festival. Feeney will open this year’s festival with a special 90-minute performance at Joe’s Pub on March 9.

But the Craic Festival isn’t just about groundbreaking Irish music or musicians, it’s also about the best new Irish films.

This year’s headliner is White Irish Drinkers, a hard-hitting portrait of an Irish American adolescence in 1970s Brooklyn. The buzz about the film, written and directed by John Gray, is already deafening, and this is your first and only chance to catch it in the company of the filmmakers and stars.

The plot is an overly familiar one, but it’s the performances that lift this film into the stratosphere. Growing up on Brooklyn’s mean streets in 1975 we meet Brian Leary, an 18-year-old who knows all about killing time and getting into petty crime with his streetwise older brother that he both fears and idolizes.

“I’m from Brooklyn and I can really relate to this film, because I know the world that it’s set in, but I think its universal too,” festival director Terence Mulligan tells the Irish Voice.

“The performances are outstanding and the direction is too. People will be wowed by it.”

If Mulligan sounds pleased by the lineup he’s created for this year’s festival he has good reason to.
“I think it’s the strongest line up since the festival began,” he says simply. “The films are strong and we’ve gone for a good independent lineup.”

This year the Irish film and music worlds collide for the first time at the festival in the U.S. premiere of the explosive Irish crime drama Between the Canals, by director and writer Mark O’Connor.

The new Irish feature film co-stars the well-known singer Damien Dempsey in a badass performance that will startle his legions of fans. You think you know him? Think again.

 Dempsey plays Paul Chambers, a baseball bat-wielding thug who will brain you as soon as look at you. In the role he’s particularly convincing, which is a startling contrast to his other gig as the writer of sensitive love songs.

“I think there a lot of people here in New York who will respond to Between the Canals because they know and love the singer/songwriter who’s starring in it,” says Mulligan. “But wait until they see the film and his performance. It’s one of the most challenging films about the underside of the Celtic Tiger I’ve ever seen.”

Set in Dublin’s inner city, Between the Canals is possibly the grittiest and most authentic portrait of life on Dublin’s means streets ever filmed. In it we meet Liam, whose life mostly consists of drug dealing and getting into short, scrappy fights. But when his girlfriend becomes pregnant he finally decides to change his life and settle down to provide for his new family.

But nothing’s ever that simple is it? Liam’s friend Dots, who wants to be a big-time drug-dealer, is standing in his way.

But that’s not all.  Liam's uncle has been murdered, his girlfriend is taking money from gangsters, and his own life is hanging by a thread.

So in the end Liam has to make his choice between the life he knows and the one that he dreams of.
You’ll be riveted by this immensely tough and shocking film, which blows the lid off picture postcard perfect Ireland and shows a darker, harsher slice of Irish life.

Other festival highlights include the lineup of new Irish music. Gemma Hayes, Foy Vance, the Coronas, Colin Devlin and local favorite Brendan O’Shea are all participating at gigs hosted each evening at Mercury Lounge.

“We’re excited to have the Coronas at the festival, since they’re becoming huge already and we have their exclusive U.S. gig,” says Mulligan. “But Maud in Cahoots are also debuting with us and they were recently hand picked to open for Snow Patrol by the band themselves.”

Colin Smith, vocalist from Mr. North, has released his debut CD and will perform at the festival.
“His track ‘Love’ has been picked up by a lot of outlets and it’s been getting momentum for the past couple of weeks, and we’re very excited to have him at the festival,” Mulligan says.

Documentary film will also get a welcome forum at the festival with the screening of His & Hers, director Ken Wardrop’s brilliant and heartwarming film charting the bond between long married Irish people, which is an award winning and unmissable gem (trust me, I’ve seen it) that played to packed houses in Ireland.

“I personally have a passion for documentary film makers. I’ve worked with them, I’ve done them, I hang out with documentary filmmakers so His & Hers is perfect for us,” says Mulligan.

There will also be a special Kids Film Fleadh on Saturday afternoon, March 12, which will include a screening of the best of Ireland’s short films for children, and the craic will really get going with Irish step dancing after the screening handled by the Niall O'Leary dance group (complimentary coffee and donuts for adults and goodie bags for the kids will be provided – they think of everything, this lot).

Irish A-list stars like Colin Farrell, Aidan Quinn and Cillian Murphy tend to turn up unannounced for festival events and screenings so you never know who’ll you meet.

“Peter Cunnan and Damien Dempsey are confirmed for the Between the Canal’s premiere,” says Mulligan, hinting that some of his A-list buddies will also be in town.

With the festival presented by Con Edison, the after parties are going to be epic too, sponsored by Stella Artois and Tullamore Dew (get the hint?).

This is the best and brightest kick off to the St. Patrick’s Day season, so grab your tickets while you still can. For more information, contact festival manager Marisol Cheng at 646-549-1349.