Giving voice to emerging, established and marginalised women artists in Donegal

In the flurry of activity that preceeds organising a multi-day, multi-event festival, we asked committee member Shirley-Anne Bonner to take a moment out - yes she was astonished too!!! In the hustle and bustle it can be easy to forget just why we're surviving on strong tea and less sleep that the average new parent. We asked Shirley-Anne to share her thoughts on why she is passionate about the Festival, and some of the progress we've made over the last three years. We hope it inspires you to join us and support all the artists involved in our 2023 festival.

Shirley-Anne says, "Inspired by Frances Browne’s life and work, the Frances Browne Literary Festival is now in its third year. From the beginning, part of our mission was to platform emerging, established, and marginalised women artists in Donegal. We put an emphasis on supporting existing poets, artists, and writers, performers and singers, thus truly honouring the spirit of Frances.

Building international connections

An exciting development in the last three years has been the international interest in our Festival and in Frances Browne. Through our programme, we are contributing to putting Browne back on the literary map. We have been contacted by academics in Japan, New Zealand, America and Canada and are working to build these relationships and create a shared bridge between our countries through the legacy of Frances Browne. It also gives us the opportunity to bring the artists involved in our Festival to a wider, global audience which is exciting for everyone involved.


With the aid of our chief partners and funders: Donegal Arts Office, Donegal County Council, the International Fund for Ireland, Culture Ireland, and Blue Stacks Festival, we have produced and toured three new plays The Legends of Ulster (2021) and The Tale of Fairyfoot (2023) and Strangers to our Own (2023), written by local women Shirley-Anne Bonner and Pauline Holland respectively.

We also staged two rehearsed readings In My Mind’s Eye (2021) (Bonner), and Strangers to our Own (2022)(Holland). The above plays were all inspired by the life and work of Donegal women writers: Frances Browne (1816-1879), and Sarah Leech (1809-30). In 2024, we hope to produce Anne Mc Master’s 'Dancin’ Affa the Tongue'.

Behind the scenes Patricia Mc Bride, director of An Grianán Theatre stepped in to produce 'Strangers to our Own' and host this year's Festival Gala Launch Event.

This combination of local writers, telling the stories of local and marginalised women, directed and supported by Donegal talent has brought some remarkable and moving experiences to the stage.


Many people may not know that the Festival evolved from a long running poetry competition, Treasure Each Voice: The Frances Browne Multilingual Poetry Awards, founded by Pat Holland and Celine McGlynn 15 years ago in 2008. It was their vision and determination to combine giving a voice to local poets alongside reviving the legacy of Frances Browne, that built the strong foundations of our Festival.

The awards celebrate the unique coexistence of Irish, English and Ulster Scots languages within the Finn Valley, Co. Donegal: the only place in the world where all three languages are spoken. The competition has three sections - one for each language - and is judged by a panel of experts including Máire Ní Giolla Bhride. It has given opportunity and exposure to a number of new an emerging Donegal voices such as Laoighseach Ní Choistealbha, who in turn give their support back to the Festival. In 2023 we have introduced a special prize in each language category for local poets to ensure their work continues to benefit as the Festival grows in popularlity.

Supporting and showcasing local and national talent side by side

We are proud to be able to increase the visibility of the immeasurable female talent, which is finding an outlet in our festival. Anna Carey, journalist and children’s author opened the inaugural festival. This year we welcome Donegal poet, Annemarie Ní Chuireainn who will be involved in an number of events, including generously sharing her knowledge in a poetry masterclass, and presenting a new pamphlet of poetry based on her research in the Donegal Archives. And renowned Donegal artist, Ann Quinn, takes up her brush and shares her skills in a sold-out Oil Painting Masterclass.

It was especially touching and professionally generous of Ballybofey native, Chantal Mc Cormack, co-founder of international aeriel dance company FidgetFeet to support aerial work with the performers in 2023's The Tale of Fairyfoot - a spectacular outdoor storytelling and dance performance in Drumboe Woods. Local professional artists such as Tanya Ward (Aislingi Academy) join us every year exhibiting the extraordinary artistic and cultural talent coming from out of the Twin Towns. We are particularly excited to see The Tale of Fairyfoot premiere, under Tanya’s choreography and direction. We also welcome Valerie Bryce (writer, theatremaker, performer) to our 2023 festival to support our free Children's Fund Day Event.

In 2022 Louise Conaghan (theatre-maker and actor) provided Drama in Education sessions for local school children based on Granny’s Wonderful Chair. In 2023 local poet, English teacher, and committee member Breda Logue, will be inspiring the poets of tomorrow in schools in the Finn Valley, while historian and guide Kathleen Phelan will lead a walking tour in the steps of Frances Browne.

There are many more wonderful women who have taken part in our festival, and it would be impossible to mention them all here! - But we will give a special shout out to the wonderful, and wonderfully supportive Lolly Spence, Anne McMasters and Angeline King, who share their love of and enthusiasm for Ulster Scots with our festival goers.


It's little known that Frances Browne also wrote songs. In 2023 we're excited that international soprano Anne Jennings will join us to perform a recently discovered work. We will also be joined by the Frances Browne singers and the Alice Gildea school of music. The Frances Browne singers elicited a standing ovation and encore call for their performance in 2021 - don't miss them at this year's Gala Launch event!


Celine Mc Glynn, journalist, writer, poet and artist and co-founder of the Poetry competition was a worthy winner of our Frances Browne Award in 2022. The award is presented annually and recognises individuals or groups who have contributed to the legacy of Frances Browne either directly by increasing awareness of Frances and her body of work, or by acting in a manner that espouses the values she upheld.

The committee, chaired by Celine and including Breda Logue, Dubhán O’ Longáin (yes, the Frances Browne Literary Festival also involves men!), Leah Fairman, Pauline Holland, Philippa Collings and Shirley-Anne Bonner have curated an incredible programme of work with the invaluable support of our funders, sponsors and friends.

While celebrating our women, we appreciate and acknowledge how much of our work has built upon the efforts of locals Paddy Bonar, Raymond Blair, and Pat Holland. Traolach O’ Fionnáin, Donegal Arts Officer, and Anne Marie Conlon, Donegal County Council have nourished this festival carefully, from its very inception, bringing much needed new female writing to a range of venues including the Balor Arts Centre, Abbey Arts Ballyshannon and for the first time the festival brings original new drama to Lifford Courthouse. We thank them for their encouragement, advice, patience and endless enthusiasm.

Looking to the Future

“Treasure Each Voice” is both our motto and our ethos, and in the future, we aim to encourage more women, from all backgrounds and particularly from our new communities to be inspired by Frances’ story and enabled by our festival to use their voices too. We want to build our Irish language programming further. Due to our sensitivity to Frances Browne’s blindness, we hope to make our future output more accessible to those with additional needs. Friendship and collegiality characterise the developing relationships between all our participants, especially our friends from Northern Ireland, as we continue to spread awareness of one of Donegal’s most inspiring women- Frances Browne, and the women who follow in her footsteps today.

The Frances Browne Literary Festival takes place in Ballybofey-Stranorlar, Co. Donegal from 12 to 15 October 2023