Soul-searching in Castlecoote: Percy French Festival sparkles with topical debate, poetry and music

Okay, so we know the robots are going to take our jobs…but will they actually sneer at us while they’re at it, engage in a bit of banter, maybe even give the occasional metaphorical two fingers (while pouring themselves a beer)?

It’s not every Friday afternoon I find myself party to a conversation about whether or not robots/so-called artificial intelligence will be able to think for themselves…have actual emotions…in the future, but that’s what makes the Percy French Festival such a delight. It can get you to that place. (This year’s intriguing theme: ‘Does the soul have a future?’).

The 2022 version, held over three days in the beautiful grounds of Castlecoote House, was a resounding success, with superb guest speakers discussing a range of fascinating social and cultural issues, all against the backdrop of celebrating the multi-talented Percy French (and his legacy).

Transhumanism was a dominant theme of the conference, the question (more or less) being: Is it an unstoppable force which should be embraced and celebrated, or a movement that frankly should strike terror into humanity? We didn’t get definitive answers in Castlecoote, but we got some great insights and lively debate.

At this point, let me offer an assurance that if you’re wondering what transhumanism is, you’re in a majority. Many – or most – readers are probably scratching their heads on this one!

Transhumanism is defined as a social and philosophical movement which is devoted to promoting the research and development of robust human-enhancement technologies. And that’s fine. But is there a sinister side to it?

One of this year’s guest speakers, Paul Kingsnorth, delivered a riveting lecture on transhumanism and transcendence on Thursday, painting a picture of a world straight from a science fiction movie, one that moves from people implanting microchips into their bodies (as a form of ‘upgrading’ their physical selves) to a mooted future in which humans will merge with machines and augment their bodies and minds to such a degree that (transhumanists argue) there will be no death, no ageing, etc. (And lots more besides; you may want to look it up online!). In his address, Kingsnorth speculated about the eventual “abolition” of nature and the “replacement of man”, about countries being run by computers, as opposed to governments. It’s a future which the fascinating Kingsnorth (an English writer now living in the west of Ireland) is profoundly opposed to.

Transhumanism wasn’t the only theme of the festival, but it was a recurring one. A number of other subjects – including the media – were discussed by an array of excellent speakers.

Each daily session attracted up to 100 people to Castlecoote. Unforgivably, I hadn’t been to the annual festival for many years. Returning to it was eye-opening. I had been asked by organiser Kevin Finnerty to act as master of ceremonies. In at the deep end on Thursday and Friday (I couldn’t make it on Wednesday due to those merciless newspaper deadlines), I very much enjoyed introducing and listening to the various speakers, and also chairing Friday’s ‘summing up’ session.

Thursday’s speakers were every bit as challenging, informative and entertaining as Friday’s, and I gather that day one (Wednesday) was a terrific start to the festival. Amongst the speakers over the course of the festival were Professor Gerard Casey, Larissa Nolan, Sarah Carey, Michael Hardiman and Martin D Henry.

Meanwhile, acclaimed poet John F Deane captivated the audience on Friday when reciting a number of poems (his own, and some other favourites of his) during an evocative and moving contribution.

The festival also featured some excellent musical entertainment. On Wednesday, this was provided by Eileen Coyle and Frasier Hickland, while there was a rousing set on Thursday from ‘The Unwanted’, featuring Scramogue native Cathy Jordan.

Then on Friday afternoon the festival concluded with a joyous concert by Col Ceathair, a group of young musicians who delighted the audience with a wonderful rendition of Percy French ballads along with songs from famous musicals. A standing ovation was fittingly the response to this great finale from Kevin Finnerty Junior (11) (who sang a beautiful version of Bring Him Home) and his cousins, the very talented Maria Henderson (13), Cecilia Henderson (11) and Isabella Henderson (7).

This was an excellent festival, and a great success. A platform for informed social and cultural discussion on the Ireland of today, the Percy French Festival is informative, enlightening, challenging and entertaining. It also celebrates the life and times of the great man himself, Percy French (1854-1920) of Cloonyquin. The event also provides an economic boost to the area and showcases Castlecoote House, the village and our county.

I liked what another excellent contributor, Máirín MacCarron, said when asked for a definition of the soul: “Whatever the definition of the soul is, it surely has to have joy in it”.

As to the question at the heart of this year’s festival – ‘Does the soul have a future?’ – I’m not sure we got a definitive answer. Maybe the robots could have a think about that one?