A homegrown happening: Sarah McGuinness's Jewel Box Festival
Derry-born singer Sarah McGuinness, AKA Emmy-nominated documentary film-maker Sarah Townsend, is staging a new boutique festival near her home in north Co Donegal. She told David Roy all about The Jewel Box Festival's programme of music, comedy, art, literature, food and more
SARAH McGuinness/Townsend is a veteran of the music scene, theatre production, documentary film-making and comedy club promotion.
As Sarah Townsend, she was nominated for an Emmy Award for her 2009 documentary Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story – a revealing film about her then partner.
The Derry-born woman's current film Noma: Forgiving Apartheid follows Noma Dumezweni, the Royal Shakespeare Company actress and recently confirmed Harry Potter star, as she makes an emotional return to the South Africa she fled as a child and meets her father for the first time.
Having won favourable reviews at film festivals last year, it's due for a wider release in newly extended form next year.
Now, McGuinness is taking on a brand new challenge: curating a boutique festival in her current hometown of Moville on the Inishowen peninsula in Co Donegal. Set to take place on July 16, The Jewel Box Festival will feature music, comedy, art, literature and gourmet food.
Artists confirmed so far include Newry's The 4 Of Us, English comedienne Luisa Omeilan (whose 2015 live DVD Am I Right Ladies? was produced by Townsend), true crime writer Tony Thompson, author Garbhan Downey and poet Jenni Doherty, with cookery demos and edible offerings from the likes of top Irish foodies Emmett McCourt and Cameron Carter.
Jewel Box will also feature art exhibitions by McGuinness's sister Jane Townsend and aunt Sheila McClean, while the curator herself will be performing songs from her forthcoming new album So Many Fires, recently recorded with Suede producer, Ed Buller.
McGuinness, who grew up in Derry, moved 'home' to Moville 15 years ago after stints living and working in Edinburgh, London and America. She's in no doubt that the Lough Foyle shore is a prime spot for a new 'destination' festival.
"I'm going for a kind of Port Eliot vibe," explains the Jewel Box mastermind of what people can expect from her festival, referencing the annual highly regarded garden party-style event in Cornwall.
"I remember when that first started, people thought it was very remote – but it didn't take long to catch on. I have no doubt that the same thing will happen here."
As the eldest of six children, this singer and film-maker developed her entertainment skills and organisational nous at an early age and has long been a self-starter. McGuinness set up a theatre company in London while still in her teens, before heading north to establish the Edinburgh Fringe-friendly venue Greyfriars Kirk House.
Unknowns Eddie Izzard and Ardal O'Hanlon were among her early bookings – a few years later she was running the Raging Bull comedy club in London's Soho, with Izzard as compere.
McGuinness tells me that her passion for discovering and/or creating something new and then sharing it with the world has been the driving force of her many-faceted career.
"When I see potential in something, I love the idea of being able to make it accessible to the maximum number of people," she enthuses.
"The main reason I wanted to do a festival like this here was because it didn't already exist. Nowhere, apart from this peninsula, has an atmosphere that serves music in quite the same way as Glastonbury.
"Every summer ever since I was a teenager, you'd see little groups of people with their guitars around every beach. There's something about this place that's so memorable and extraordinary.
"I already bring guests home here from all over the world, so I have a very good perspective. Once people come and experience this coastline, people will realise it's worth travelling for.
"The ideal of the music in the open air against a backdrop of something as beautiful as Lough Foyle, should be a very different experience."
With just 300 tickets available, those who want to be part of the very first Jewel Box will need to move quickly – even if the event has already outgrown its originally planned location of a circus-style marquee in McGuinness's back garden.
"We've just had the wonderful offer of using Carnagarve mansion house, which has been derelict for years," she reveals. "My aunt is going to do a London-style 'pop-up' exhibition in the dilapidated interior, which is going to look really cool.
"We'll also have our big circus tent and our top chefs 'performing' in the walled garden there."
McGuinness is confident those who experience 2016's inaugural Jewel Box event will want to be involved in building it into something even more extraordinary in the future.
"If people have a really good time then we can make something that will last for generations," she tells me. "I want people to come along this year and think, 'gosh, let's all help make this a bigger thing next time around'.
"Ultimately, I would like to see Jewel Box become the new Glastonbury."
:: The Jewel Box Festival, Saturday July 16, Carnagarve House, Moville. Tickets and full details at Jewelboxfest.com and FB.com/JewelBoxFest.