Other Voices has been a staple of the festival calendar for almost twenty years now, and in recent times it has expanded its reach beyond Dingle, with events in far-flung places like Belfast, Berlin and Ballina, both for financial reasons and to expand the sense of adventure and innovation beyond its Kerry roots.

Who better then to send to the coolest festival in Ireland than our resident cynic and influencer-adverse home bird, Stephen Byrne (we had to make him set up an Instagram account), to see if Other Voices lives up to its considerable billing?

Keep cup? Check. Brick? Check. Scepticism? Check. I hate these cool events; I get complete imposter syndrome and a hefty dose of social anxiety at the mere mention of networking, which is why I usually avoid these events like the plague. Even the ones I enjoy, like Choice, are a bit excruciating for me. So, it wasn’t the orange warning for storm Jorge that filled me with trepidation when I jumped into the back-seat of a car for a three hour journey to Mayo on a Friday afternoon.

The run from Mayo to Dublin didn’t get off to an auspicious start when a ghost opened the boot and deposited our bags on the motorway like Donkey Kong throwing barrels at Mario. We were lucky that the road was quiet, and we were able to reclaim our baggage without too much risk to life and limb, but mechanical spectres aside, the road system makes the journey to Mayo quite easy.

Mayo provides a spectacular vista, and there is something quite awe-inspiring and grounding about being faced with such a rugged landscape when you are accustomed to the modern eye pollution of steel, glass and concrete of Dublin.

A festival like Other Voices can only thrive in places that emanate their own spirit and Ballina certainly delivered in that sense. While some towns may put on a song and dance for the arrival of a throng of Dubs for a national event, you could hardly tell anything was happening as you walked the streets of Ballina except for the posters in the window – this collective ability to take it all in their stride is vitally important.

We were constantly surprised by the friendliness of the locals, from the barman who went out of his way to find the correct lead for a phone charger and apologised for it taking so long by topping up our pints, to the barman that told us to stand behind the bar in a packed-out performance by Maija Sofia – “You’d never get that in Dublin” was as common a phrase as any repeated across the weekend.

That is not to say that everybody in Mayo took Other Voices in their stride. Although the venues were heaving, there was much bemusement from regulars in the old man pubs operating free shows on the music trail, especially at the hip-hop shows, when modern Ireland came crashing against the rocks of traditional Ireland.

For example, MurLi was delivering a fine performance featuring a guest appearance by God Knows, which the younger audience members were lapping up, when an older voice could be heard scoffing “is his name Murli or Merlin?” to which a retort came informing him that “it’s Murli, but some would call him a wizard.”

For those of us who weren’t having our regular Friday/Saturday night disturbed, however, the chance to see the front-runners of Ireland’s hip-hop scene in such unusual spaces was not to be missed. The 2FM Rising stage was constantly heaving with energetic performances from the likes of Nealo, Denise Chaila and Alex Gough.

It’ll come as no surprise that most of Other Voices is aimed at younger audiences, but it was inspiring to see JYellowL being interviewed by local secondary school students and for him to be so frank and honest with them, not shying away from their unfiltered questions, and the Rusangano Family boys deliver an introduction to music for preteens with their patented gusto.

One of the things that elevates Other Voices from other industry type events is such inclusivity – the buy-in from locals is mirrored by the buy-in from the acts. The exclusivity of seeing big acts in intimate spaces is twinned with the inclusivity of piping the church acts into the local pubs, and as special as it felt to be in the church to see David Gray and Denise Chaila performing live, it didn’t feel like we were excluded while watching Elbow in a pub. Herein lies the magic in Other Voices; the acts and the town get out of it what they put into it and likewise so do those who attend the gigs.

I left Dublin as a sceptic and I returned as a convert. From now on, when someone asks me if I believe in God, I’ll say: “I only go to church for weddings, funerals and Other Voices.”

Photos: Tara Thomas & George Voronov