GERARD HOWLIN: Recognising that only culture can credibly define the country

Engagement with culture and art as an essential part of every child’s education, writes Gerard Howlin

Sibéal Ní Chasaide performs 'Mise Éire' at Centenary at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin, last Easter. Picture: Andres Poveda Photography

TOMORROW, Creative Ireland (CI) will be launched, having been approved at cabinet yesterday.

It will be the second CI among the State’s arts acronyms, the other being Culture Ireland. It is both an aftermath of the successful 1916 centenary celebrations, and a bridge to the more contentious centenaries of the Treaty and civil war. It is billed as a bureaucratic start-up to energise, synthesise, and leave behind an official Ireland that belatedly recognises the centrality of culture in national life. It is monogrammed with the Taoiseach’s imprimatur. Critically, the official group supporting the initiative will be headed by the secretary general of the Taoiseach’s department, Martin Fraser. In terms of system, that’s heft and potentially more of it than any official cultural programme has had for a long time.

It is a paradox that this attempted centring of culture in the national agenda comes at the moment our Government is in some senses weaker politically than any in the history of the State. Abroad, national governments are diminished by globalisation and multinational structures, such as the European Union. The EU has a genesis longer than the full effects of globalisation have been apparent, but it is in its positive and negative aspects a diminution of national government. The irony of the centenary is that the nation state, as envisaged at the Rising, is an impossibility in the 21st century. A deeper irony is that Great Britain in reattempting it, is potentially irrevocably loosening the ties which hold together a still imperial polity which ultimately cannot be supplanted by English nationalism. It was not just affinity with Britain which was a political and cultural pull, it was the gravitational pull of empire which was the object of unionism 100 years ago.

Now, the centenary of the Rising, and subsequent foundation of the State, are enacted in circumstances where all their original objects spin in a disorientating maelstrom. Just as the 19th century, which began at Waterloo in 1815, ended with the outbreak of war in August 1914, the 20th century ended somewhere between the invention of the internet, the technical enablement of globalisation in financial markets, and the economic crisis of 2008. Everything since is aftermath. In a sense, so is Creative Ireland. It is part political opportunism, part reactive reach for a purpose by Government, and part idealism. All are equally edifying. What matters more than the impetus, is the output.

The purpose of Creative Ireland is to apparently synthesise the existing ensemble of the State’s cultural actors into something more than the sum of their disparate parts. It is intended to leave a legacy in a series of five pillars; presumably tribute to Enda’s own five-point plan. More seriously it is intended to broaden the cultural reach of the state by harnessing, not for a single initiative, but as a central object of their purpose going forward, local authorities and schools. We have had a Department of Arts since 1993, but if sometimes successful, it has had fallow periods and failures. It has centrally failed to systemically engage either local authorities or schools as part of a broader cultural agenda. Yes, there have been successful initiatives and the Arts Council has worked hard to engage local government, but results are patchy, and often down to the personal interest of a council’s chief executive. Engagement with culture and art as an essential part of every child’s education, likewise depends too much on the enthusiasm of specific teachers.

The Department of Arts, as one small silo among much larger ones, hasn’t succeeded much at synthesising. That, of course, has partly been a political failure, and it is not a new one, but it is part of the context for a new, overarching structure based politically in the Taoiseach’s office. Whatever about the gloss of individual programmes announced tomorrow or promised as eventual outcomes, what matters structurally is how, when the brass band that is Creative Ireland stops playing, schools and local authorities are permanently harnessed in a country, 100 years on, that recognises its culture as central to identity and citizenship, and essential for its political purpose when the assumed certainties of national identity are over.

What fascinates me is not just 2016 as the centenary of the rising, but as the 50th anniversary of 1966. The great phalanx of certainty on parade then, subsequently passed, almost in an instant. Looking around Europe I cannot think of a single other country where young leaders in their prime in the aftermath of the First World War, were still centre stage 50 years later. De Valera, Frank Aiken and Dr James Ryan were just three and, if his prime was still just a little ahead, Seán Lemass was a veteran of those events and he was Taoiseach in 1966. The degree of continuity, the depth of apparently immutable certainty, was astonishing 50 years ago. It was also, though few anticipated it, an era that was almost utterly over.

RTÉ, Vatican II, the Beatles and Edna O’Brien were burgeoning. Things, if largely still unseen were changing completely, but the government in office and, more widely, official Ireland, had no connection with, or sense of the rapid cultural change, of which artists were often the forbearers. There is a tension, at times an unbearable one, between power and truth. In a post-fact era, the boundaries of truth and power are sometimes indistinguishable. Is protest, by dint of being outside the gates, intrinsically more moral; or its truths more authentic? All boundaries, of states, of power, of fact, are now blurred. Art is far from a single antidote but it and culture more widely, provide a basis for conversation in a shared language, and a sense of community and country, the component parts for which envisaged in 1916, and paraded again in 1966, are otherwise gone. It is not just that government should embrace culture as a central function of the State; it is that now culture alone can credibly define the country.

In 2016, synthesis replaced the certainty of 1966. This is partly the virtue of greater inclusiveness and partly an alienating malaise of stifling correctness. Brexit and Trump are partly a reaction to that amorphous complexity. In a contrary sense, Creative Ireland, one executive function collating others, is too. Tangible outputs, if delivered, will be a place for culture in a revised capital plan next year. Will a new building to suitably house the Abbey Theatre rise up on the banks of the Liffey? Intangibly, but more essentially, is the deeper question of how a state relates to culture. Creative Ireland, like perestroika, is a beginning — it won’t be the end.

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