On March 6 New York’s premier Irish film and music event, the Craic Fest, is back and firing on all cylinders, with Cillian Murphy headlining the films and Julie Feeney headlining the music. This year a new Kids Fleadh has been added for the little ones, and there’s a new emphasis on documentaries for grownups. Cahir O'Doherty hears what to expect from the festival’s organizer Terence Mulligan.

Cillian Murphy has been a fixture at the Craic Fest, the annual showcase of the best of Irish film and music in New York City, on and off since his first appearance at it back in 2000.

Since then both he and the festival have gone from strength to strength, and this year Murphy will be back on screen again in the New York premiere of Broken, a fast paced and gritty coming of age drama with a screenplay by festival favorite Mark O’Rowe, whose two previous films (Intermission and Perrier’s Bounty) also debuted at the festival. 

“Cillian fist appeared with us back in 2000 with a brilliant independent film called Sunburn, where he gave a brilliant performance,” festival director Terence Mulligan tells the Irish Voice. 

“Fast forward just a few years later and he became a huge star. So we were ahead of the curve on him and he was a pivotal moment in the timeline of the festival.” 

In a way Murphy represents what the Craic Fest is all about -- presenting the work of emerging and established Irish artists to a New York audience. 

“He came at a time when it was clear he was going to be a star. The same was true of Colin Farrell,” says Mulligan.

Other banner name supporters of the Irish film and music festival in New York have included Liam Neeson (who has made surprise appearances at screenings in the past and is tipped to do likewise this year). Oscar winning Irish director Terry George gave the festival a major boost last year when he allowed his award winning film The Shore to be screened. 

So what can punters expect with their ticket to the Craic Fest this year? Well, alongside new Irish films making their debuts both Tullamore Dew and Heineken will be sponsoring the after parties at the Tribeca Cinema, so expect the nights to go smoothly. 

Just $20 will buy you a ticket to the opening night screening on March 6 of O’Rowe and Murphy’s gritty tale Broken (and then on to the Tullamore and Heineken open bar at the Tribeca Cinema). That, as they say in New York City, is quite a deal.

On March 7 your $20 will get you a seat at Men at Lunch (Lon sa Speir), the remarkable documentary film that tells the story of one of the most iconic images of the 20-century in Manhattan, the photograph called Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, which was taken on the 69th floor of the Rockefeller Building in the autumn of 1932.  It being the construction industry in New York in the 1930s, Irish men abound. 

“It’s a time and a place that doesn’t exist anymore so it’s particularly important we record it,” says Mulligan. “The production team on this film (it’s produced and directed by Irish filmmakers from Galway and narrated by actress Fionnula Flanagan) really got to the heart of the time and the place and the Irish characters who filled it.

“I’m expecting a big turnout on the night for this offering because it’s a terrific documentary that tells a story that not enough Irish people know yet.”

The closing night film of this year’s Craic Fest focuses on James J. Corbett, the legendary Irish boxer known as Gentleman Jim. Gentleman Prizefighter tells the story of how this determined athlete changed the perception of the sweet science, which in his era – the 19th century – was considered an completely unworthy interest for the upper classes. 

But Corbett, through his dogged determination and charisma, changed the public perception of the sport and his rags-to-riches story and growing fame helped create America’s first national boxing hero.

“His fighting style, his influence on boxing, is still in play a hundred years later,” says Mulligan. “He has his thumbprint on all of it, he revolutionized the sport, and he made it legitimate.”

These two Irish related documentaries will educate and inform but they will also entertain, Mulligan promises. 

“In some ways it almost goes back to our first year or two in the business when we had to rely on really strong films that pulled in audiences through word of mouth. We know that good movies sell tickets,” he says.

The Craic Fest is also a music festival and it helps, Mulligan admits, when you’re actually a fan of the performers who are playing. That turns out to be easy when the lineup includes singular talents like the Tossers and Julie Feeney. 

The Tossers, a barnstorming bunch of alt rockers, have toured alongside the legendary Shane MacGowan and Irish favorites like Stiff Little Fingers, Clutch and the Dropkick Murphy’s. Opening for the band at the Mercury Lounge on March 8 this year are the Lost Brothers, whose music is – there is only one way to say this – beautiful. 

But for Irish-born fans the biggest draw may well be the incomparable Feeney, who steps out at the Mercury Lounge on March 9. 

“I’ll just go ahead and say this -- she probably the most original act we’ve ever had,” says Mulligan. 

“She actually has an act in the sense that it’s part theater and part musical and part rock performance. The fact is that tickets to the night are way undersold. They’re $15 bucks and they should be way more. That’s going to sell out for sure.”

Feeney is backed up by some comparable talents that include Irish singer Colin Devlin and the Dublin-based Delorentos. Devlin, a vocalist and guitar player, is one of the original members of celebrated nineties Irish band the Devlins, and both are big draws for Irish fans. 

“I look forward to introducing them all to the room. The energy the last time they played amazed me. These bands can really hit a home run,” says Mulligan.

This year there’s a special event called the Kids Fleadh (the part of the Craic Fest program dedicated to younger folk) which will be held during the festival run on March 9 beginning at 10:30 a.m. at the Irish Arts Center. It’s an opportunity for your American-born kids to connect with their Irish heritage and have a lot of fun in the process.

“The Irish Arts Center is the ideal home for this event,” says Mulligan.  “It’ll feature storytelling at the start, then we’ll cut into a film program for young people and we’ll finish up with stepdancing with the Niall O’Leary School of Irish Dance. There’ll be free goody bags at the end too, which is always nice for the kids.”

You have to hand it to Mulligan. Fifteen years is a lifetime in show business. Especially in New York City. If your arts festival has lasted that long then its deservedly become a fixture in the city’s arts calendar. 

That’s the enviable position that Craic Fest director Mulligan, who helms the annual showcase of the best of Irish film and music which started out in 1998, now finds himself in.

When Mulligan was starting out email was still a relatively new concept, cellphones were just becoming widespread, Facebook was unheard of and Twitter was still eight years away. To have lasted through all of those changes just proves the vitality of the idea is he started out with.

“Our sponsors like Tullamore and Heineken have really helped to keep it running,” Mulligan reveals.

He also confirms he has more ambitious plans for the future involving a Craic Fest summer festival with the scope of the much-missed Guinness Fleadh. 

“We can make that a reality, we have the relationships and the success to date to make it work. If a major player wants to underwrite it we can make it happen. We have the talent and the contacts. This could be the next step for us,” he adds.

For tickets to the Craic Fest visit www.thecraicfest.com.

An Irish produced and directed documentary on this iconic 1930s New York City photograph will screen at the Craic Fest.