“It’s a great when you get to 18, because you have 20 in your sights,” festival director Terence Mulligan tells the Irish Voice.
He has every right to take a victory lap now, since it was his vision that brought the whole event to life in the first place. But how did he get started?
“I used to be Magic Mike back in the day. I took all those dollar bills and I started a business,” he says, cracking wise like they do in his home borough of Brooklyn. “It wasn’t easy but it was done.”
In fact Mulligan started out as an actor. It was an important introduction to the film world that would pay off later.
Meanwhile, he emceed at city comedy clubs while supplementing his income picking up extra work on the soaps. Gigs paid well when you could get them, but Mulligan was looking at the bigger picture.
“I said to myself I gotta get a plan here,” he says. “In my mid-twenties I realized that no one had really done an Irish film festival, specifically focusing on new Irish cinema. So that became the Craic Fest mission back in 1998. We’ve been waiving the flag for the Irish Film Board and the new cinema coming out of the country from day one.”
The music part of the festival would come later, but when it did it created its own niche right away.
“We wanted music to be a part of the equation from day one. I met with Pauline Turley at the Irish Arts Center 18 years ago and she said straight away, ‘You’re mad. You’ll need 20 people to pull this thing off.’ I said, ‘You’re right.’ So we branded it the Film Fleadh (the original name of the Craic Fest) and I added the music later. It took about seven years to build the brand and find it’s feet.”
Since then though it’s flourished. So has the forum that the Craic Fest created in New York played a part in the elevation of Irish films, directors and stars?
“It comes full circle,” says Mulligan. “For myself and everyone who has ever worked for the Craic Fest -- and there’s probably been over a hundred people over the years -- the first year we were starting out was a renaissance. We began by screening The McCourts of New York. Now we’re back again in 2016 with Malachy McCourt and Brand Irish, a new documentary about how the Irish are helping to shape the world.”
There were peaks and valleys in terms of the quality of the films each year, Mulligan says.
“There were years when the films weren’t that great. You have to run with what you have. But to have a film like The Lobster (starring Colin Farrell) close the festival, in a year when we have seen other big films like Brooklyn and Room, is huge.”
It’s estimated that half a million Irish Americans live in the New York City area, but Mulligan doesn’t assume that means they are automatically are going to know about the festival.
“I do think there is a new audience that we’re tapping into now but you do have to keep throwing out the net,” he says.
The core audience, who return year after year, already know the Craic Fest is about having a good time. They know they’ll see a film that’s really good, they’ll hear some great music and they’ll be invited to a film reception where they’ll have a good time, Mulligan says.
“We’ll work hard to bring together all the elements that they wouldn’t necessarily see anywhere else,” he added.
The whole purpose of the Craic Fest is to have fun, he says. “We’re inherently an Irish film and music festival, but we also want to cross over and reach out to people who enjoy or wan to identify with Irish culture.”
A good example of the kind of unexpected but delightful film you will see at the Craic Fest is Hardy, the new documentary about Irish American boxer Heather Hardy. Sponsored by Tourism Ireland, it’s the tale of a hard working female boxer from Brooklyn as she reaches for the stars.
“She’s going to be at the screening so there’ll be a fun questions and answers session after,” says Mulligan, who already knows the film is a good fit for the audience.
The Craic Fest welcomes everyone, by the way. Case in point is the screening of the critically acclaimed new film Viva, the coming of age tale of a Cuban drag queen written and directed by Irish talent and screening at the festival at 3 p.m. on March 5.
“The Viva screening is a special event so we’re tying in an LGBT brunch with screen writer Mark O’Halloran and director Paddy Breathnach. These guys are old friends of the festival at this point,” Mulligan says.
“I started knowing them by booking their earlier films and I’ve known Paddy from when we started in 1999.”
His eye for what’s trending in Irish culture also led him to Brand Irish (which again stars Malachy McCourt and a host of other commentators). The film asks why St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated across the world? How can such a small island have such an outsized influence? What makes Ireland special, deserving of the world’s attention?
“No other festivals show a film like that. It’s important and socially relevant and it examines how Ireland has an effect on the rest of the world,” offers Mulligan.
“You can’t ask for a better or more absorbing film on a Friday night. It’s a perfect example of the kind of work we like to take a chance on.”
This year’s Craic Fest also boasts the New York premiere of Aiden Gillen’s new film You’re Ugly Too (the gifted Irish actor best known for his recurring roles in Game of Thrones and The Wire) on Saturday, March 5 at 5 p.m.
“It’s probably one of my favorite Irish films in years and Gillen just hits it out of the park,” says Mulligan.
Farrell stars in The Lobster, the festival close out screening on March 5. In past years Farrell has made a personal appearance and this year you are very likely to see a star sighting too.
A filmmaker lounge will operate at the Bow Tie Cinemas in Chelsea on all three days of the festival with drinks sponsored by Castle Brands and Stella Artois. On various nights a pre-reception will be held from 6-7:30 p.m., with an open bar featuring Stella Artois, Boru Vodka and Clontarf Irish Whiskey.
Meanwhile the Kids Fleadh, the Craic Fest for kids, will feature a stepdancing class with Niall O’Leary, a series of kid friendly short films and storytelling with Honor Molloy and John Liam Shea. The kids Fleadh starts at 11 a.m. on March 5 at the Bow Tie Cinema.
Music wise the Craic Fest presents its lineup at the Mercury Lounge on March 12. Mulligan already knows that it will be a sell out, because headliners the Rubberbandits ensure it.
“They’re huge in the community,” he agrees.
Also scheduled to take the stage on the music night are support acts the Mighty Stef, the Smithy Blues Band and the Hundred Hounds with Colin Smith.
The Bow Tie Cinema is located at 260 West 23rd Street. For tickets to the films and the music nights visit www.thecraicfest.com.