Mammoth Ambitions for Moville Mini-Fest

Derry singer Sarah McGuinness on planting the seeds of what she believes could become a Glastonbury-sized celebration of arts in her own back garden

Known more for its natural beauty than its festival calendar, Moville is poised to become a cultural hub this month, when the Jewel Box Festival takes place on Saturday, July 16. The picturesque coastal town, located on the Inishowen Peninsula of Co Donegal, is home to the multi-talented Sarah McGuinness - the brains behind the open-air arts bash.

Originally from Derry~Londonderry, McGuinness returned to Northern Ireland more than a decade ago, though she still splits her time between here and London. A successful singer, McGuinness also goes by the name Sarah Townsend, better known for her documentary filmmaking and screenwriting… but more on that later.

Right now, McGuinness is busy putting the final touches to her inaugural Jewel Box Festival, an event she trialled in a much smaller format a few years ago.

'That one was entirely enclosed and very small,' she says. 'We did everything ourselves, pitching the tents and so on, and it went very well, but because it was so small it cost a huge amount for very little return.

'I’ve always believed this is a fantastic area for a festival. There’s just something about the atmosphere – something you don’t get in other areas. Glastonbury is the one festival where you get the best experience – it’s almost spiritual. That’s my vision for the Jewel Box Festival.'

In the past few weeks, the location for the one-day event – which will feature local music acts along with artists, comedians, novelists, poets and chefs - has shifted from its original base. The new and larger venue is now Carnagarve House Moville – 'a very grand ruin outside Moville,' says McGuinness.

'That came about because of my aunt’s retrospective art exhibition,' she adds. 'She has amazing collections that have never been seen, so we’re doing a pop-up display at the house. It has fantastic corridors and rooms which will be perfect for that.'

Winter Wave - part of Sheila McClean exhibition - Jewel Box Festival, Moville, Sat 16 July.jpg

Winter Wave by Sheila McClean

The aunt in question is Donegal-born painter Sheila McClean, whose landscape paintings depict the natural beauty of Inishowen. A member of the Royal Ulster Academy of artists, McClean has exhibited around the world, including the US Embassy and the Royal Hibernian Academy Gallery in Dublin.

'When Sarah came to me with the idea of exhibiting at the Jewel Box Festival, which brings together artists of various genres in the beautiful Inishowen landscape which has been so inspirational to me, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to revisit some of my favourite work, which hasn't been seen in public for several years, and to introduce it to a new audience,' she says.

The rest of the festival will take place in the mansion’s walled garden, with a large circus tent for the main stage and smaller tents for the other artists, including McGuinness’ sister, Jane Townsend. The 4 of Us – who release their new album Sugar Island in September – will also perform, along with comedian Luisa Omielan and Swedish folk artist Klara Kjellen.

Local singer-songwriter William Carson (aka Williem Vincent), will also release his new acoustic collection at the festival, while McGuinness will perform songs from her forthcoming full-length, So Many Fires, produced by Ed Buller (Suede, Pulp).

'I used to go to orchestra every Friday and Saturday morning for years and years,' she says. 'I met Williem Vincent there at the age of 12, so it’s a really interesting turnaround to meet again like this – it’s like closing the circle.'

Meanwhile, literary fans can also enjoy appearances from true-crime writer Tony Thompson, acclaimed author Garbhan Downey and Derry~Londonderry-based poet, Jenni Doherty.

Sarah McGuinness

Comedian Luisa Omielan

'It just works in every way,' says McGuinness. 'There’s quite a few local bands playing, with Spring Tides and the Moville Gospel Choir. I want to integrate everything so that when bands are changing over you can literally turn and watch the authors reading, so everyone can see everything if they want to.

'We also have chefs as part of the line-up, including Emmett McCourt and Cameron Carter, and there’ll be traditional fish and chips to buy, and ice cream.'

A life-long lover of music, but with acting, writing, filmmaking and comedy club management also on her CV, McGuinness is keen that local people get involved with the festival.

'We’re asking for a £20 donation on the door,' she says. 'A lot of summer festivals are big, loud and overpriced and that can be off-putting for some audiences. The Jewel Box Festival will offer an antidote to all of that - a small-scale festival with an eclectic programme which offers people the chance to get up close and personal with artists in a beautiful, relaxed environment.'

Having initially left Northern Ireland for London to study drama, McGuinness – the eldest of six children – went on to establish a comedy club, promoting Eddie Izzard, Ardal O’Hanlon and Jenny Éclair.

'I stopped performing for a few years and got into comedy,' she says. 'But gradually I got back into writing songs, and soundtracks for the plays I was directing.'

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Jewel Box Festival main tent

Having written intros and scores for Izzard since the nineties, McGuinness later made the documentary Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story, which received an Emmy Award nomination in 2009. Created under her Sarah Townsend identity, the documentary on her former partner gives a revealing insight into the comedian’s life and the pair remain good friends.

As Townsend, she’s been a producer, director, composer, and screenwriter, filming three live DVDs and two documentaries with Izzard, as well as directing Noma - Forgiving Apartheid. This powerful documentary tells the story of Noma Dumezweni, who fled the apartheid regime in South Africa for the UK as a child with her mother in the 1970s.

With such a diverse career, McGuinness has, however, never lost sight of her musical passion. Her first single, 'Mandy Says', was produced by John O’Neill of the Undertones and since then she’s also been remixed by William Orbit.

'I’m now focused on my album and will perform three songs from that at the festival,' she says. 'Jewel Box could ultimately be a Glastonbury-level festival, because it has the natural advantages of the open air and the location. I just want it to exist, not as a one-off but where people can get involved and contribute and keep it going into the future.

'There’s a massive number of people who appreciate music in this area – everyone has memories of going to the beach with a guitar in the summer. It’s something that’s come out of the landscape. I came back here myself absolutely because of the coastline and the beauty of the area. I’ve brought people here from around the world and they all say it’s really special.'

The Jewel Box Festival takes place on Saturday, July 16 in Moville. Capacity is limited to just 300 so to reserve places, email andy@jewelboxfest.com with your name, telephone number and the number of places you require. More details at www.jewelboxfest.com.