It's Good to Talk: Mount Stewart Festival of Conversations

The sumptuous National Trust grounds will ignite the spirit of old with two days of debate, discussion and more from a packed programme of guests

‘Conversation. What is it?’ asked Henri Guy de Maupassant, the 19th century French writer, rhetorically: ‘A Mystery! It's the art of never seeming bored, of touching everything with interest, of pleasing with trifles, of being fascinating with nothing at all.’

Things will be anything but boring or trivial at Mount Stewart this weekend when the inaugural Festival of Conversations gets underway. A packed programme of outstanding speakers will ignite debate around topical issues related to Europe, while a broader bill also includes some exceptional music, fine food and drink and a few surprises to boot.

The idea for a festival celebrating conversation came about, explains Project Manager Tony Millar, in the wake of the £8 million refurbishment of the 19th century house and gardens – a National Trust property since 1977.

‘We were looking back at what the house was originally about and it was a place for parties and gatherings of people from all over the world, actresses, politicians, Prime Ministers,' he says. 'They had these amazing conversations and debates that pretty much shaped a lot of Europe at the time. We thought, what can we do that would showcase this amazing house but also bring back some of that original spirit. The idea was to bring some world class thinkers, artists and musicians and kind of have a bit of a party for a weekend.’

The sumptuous grounds of Mount Stewart constitute nearly one thousand acres of beautifully curated gardens, monuments and a sizeable lake, situated by the shore of Strangford Lough.

It was a retreat for Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain. ‘They would have treated Mount Stewart as their weekend getaway,’ explains Millar, ‘somewhere that was safe to go away and relax, have a bit of a party and actually talk about things.’

1400x788Mount StewartClaire Takacs.jpg

Another figure who actually lived in Mount Stewart, was Viscount Castlereagh. ‘He was one of the most influential Foreign Secretaries ever,’ says Millar, ‘someone largely credited with shaping the Europe that we have today.’

It’s no idle claim. Castlereagh’s CV includes managing the multi-national coalition that defeated Napoleon, helping crush the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and, just two years later, guiding the passage of the Irish Act of Union, which politically welded Ireland and Great Britain together.  

So how exactly does Mount Stewart Conversations tie in with the venue’s storied past?

‘In Mount Stewart you have the Congress of Vienna desk on which the Congress of Vienna was signed,’ says Millar, referring to the six-month gathering of states in 1814–1815 that redrew the map of Europe following the end of the Napoleonic Wars. ‘We’re bringing back people who can talk on these issues today.’

These people include Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Anne Applebaum and international immigration expert Alex Titov, who will be discussing whether or not Russia is the big bad ogre it has been depicted as of late.

Jonathan Powell, British Diplomat and trusted senior adviser throughout Tony Blair’s premiership will go toe to toe with Irish journalist/political commentator Fintan O’Toole and historian Professor Alvin Jackson on the subject of the UK’s future post-Brexit. Will the UK disintegrate?

David Aaronovitch

David Aaronovitch

Other topics for discussion include: the legacy of Viscount Castlereagh; the role of individual politicians in shaping peace; how television is used as a tool of international diplomacy; the rise of European nationalism; how conspiracy theories have shaped history. Animated debate around these hugely topical, fascinating issues is guaranteed.

Millar is keen to stress, however, that the audience will not be passive observers.

‘This isn’t about people standing up and broadcasting a monologue. It’s really about encouraging people to get involved in the conversation.’

People have already pitched in their tuppence worth. ‘We’re seeing quite a few people on our social media pages getting quite heated about someone like Jonathan Powell coming but what we’re saying is actually come along and get involved in the debate. Come along and ask questions, share opinions,’ Millar urges. ‘It might get a bit heated and spicy at times.’

Besides the series of talks, Mount Stewart Conversations has a strong music and arts programme, with acts including the incendiary duo Bitch ‘n’ Monk and The Orchestra of Refugees.

‘The Orchestra of Refugees is a collective of refugees who have come to Northern Ireland and who have gathered to learn how to play a part in an orchestra and get experience performing,’ explains Millar. ‘They’ll be popping up through the gardens and in some surprising places throughout the weekend.’

Mount Stewart Conversations 2.jpg

Bitch ‘n’ Monk

Improvising flautist Mauricio Velasierra and extraordinary vocalist Heidi Heidelberg, aka Bitch ‘n’ Monk, will also be popping up in unlikely places with their unique brand of alternative rock, jazz and beat box. ‘They’re playing in an amazing space called The Garden Shed,’ says Millar. 'It’s an intimate venue for maybe twenty people.'

The main performance area will host concerts by award-winning singer-songwriter Iain Archer and Molly Sterling, Ireland’s youngest ever entrant in the Eurovision Song Contest.

Sunday will serve up more of a cabaret feel, with one-off harpist/comedian Ursula Burns and the high-energy dance and comedy lunatics Lords of Strut – a huge success at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

‘It’s a broad programme,’ acknowledges Millar, ‘but I think the main spirit of it is that it’s going to be really fun and quite surprising as well. We’ll be making the most of the garden and all the nooks and crannies around the property.’

For those hoping to get a glimpse into the world famous house and grounds of Mount Stewart, organized tours are available, where more of the stories that surround the National Trust site will no doubt come to light.

And if it rains? ‘We’ve got plenty going on indoors,’ promises Millar.  ‘We’ve got marquees and tents and of course the house will be open. There’s loads of stuff to do inside.’

A food village of locally sourced produce will keep the hunger pangs at bay, while a Prosecco bar and another, fully-stocked bar will whet whistles and get tongues wagging.

A health spa, street performers, printers, a DJ and the mysterious Campervan of Dreams will provide a little of something for everyone. All in all, it looks set be a cracking weekend, but what sets Mount Stewart apart from other festivals that offer talks, music and the arts, etc?

‘I think simply it’s the venue,’ says Millar. ‘It’s an incredible, world famous house with all these stories going back a century and more. Then you’ve got one of the top ten gardens in the world. The festival is linked to what this place is really about. I think that’s what makes it unique. It’s not a festival created for the sake of entertainment,’ Millar adds. ‘We’re trying to recreate something really special.’

In this era of the i-generation, self-absorption, fruitless distraction and short attention spans, the art of conversation seems to be under siege.

‘We’re all a bit consumed by our screens and hand-held devices,’ admits Millar. ‘We have a lot of online conversations, so our thought at Mount Stewart is let’s get back and bring people together in a place and bring it to life in lots of ways, through proper conversation and proper debate and have a bit of fun doing so.’

The Mount Stewart Festival of Conversations takes place this weekend, September 17 and 18. Festival day passes are £30, or a festival weekend pass is available for £50. Concession discounts are also available. Visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/conversations for more information.