Bríd Cranitch is retiring from her 17-year tenure at the helm of the thriving cultural centre in Baile Mhúirne, writes Pet O’Connell
“PEOPLE will talk about the big concerts and projects, and reflect on how successful they were, but for me the important thing was for children to get an insight into the arts.”
As she brings to a close her 17-year tenure at the helm of the thriving cultural centre whose development she steered from an office in an old school storeroom, Bríd Cranitch’s focus remains where it started - on allowing the arts to become an intuitive part of young people’s everyday lives.
Frankie Gavin, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Micheál Ó Súilleabháin, and hundreds more artists have played, sung, danced, acted, or exhibited their works at Ionad Cultúrtha an Dochtúir Ó Loingsigh in Baile Mhúirne since she took over as its first full-time arts director.
But, informed by her own childhood immersion in music, Bríd realised that while sell-out concerts pay the bills, the mark of success in arts administration lies in watching children absorb and interact with their arts environment.
The key to youth engagement in the arts proved to be accessibility. Built adjoining local secondary school Coláiste Ghobnatan, the centre facilitates music and singing classes, bringing a steady stream of children through its doors most days of the week.
“We set up music classes, so we’d have children coming in and out, and at the same time the art exhibitions would be hanging in the exhibition space,” she explains.
“I often spent time listening to the children coming in and seeing how they were responding to the visual art on the walls. They were having great conversations between them and it was at that moment that I really felt that all the work here was worth it; that something was happening.”
That young people develop an association with the arts “without them even knowing” is a reflection of Bríd’s own upbringing in a family of musicians.
“I didn’t know anything else – there was only music,” she says of her childhood in Rathduff, Co Cork, where her parents both taught at the village school. Though neither were native Gaeilgeoirí, they had met at an Irish language group and raised their children through the language.
It was her father, Micheál Cranitch, an accordion and fiddle player and future cathaoirleach of the Seanad, who drove Bríd and her siblings Matt, Eilís, and Peadar to music classes at the Cork School of Music, later inducting them into the Cranitch Family Band.
“Each one of us did two instruments and theory – three classes multiplied by four of us - 12 classes a week – he was on the road all the time,” she recalls.
“And then as soon as we could, we played in the Cork Youth Orchestra, so we were playing classical music and then we had our own family band going around to the fleadhs and the féilte and playing on the backs of lorries.”
She adds: “That idea that music becomes part of your life is what informs the way that I approached my work in the Ionad Cultúrtha.
“I never remember thinking of going to music classes as something I had to do. It was like breathing, or brushing my teeth. So putting visual art on the walls here, or the murals outside the building, having sean-nós singing, lúibíní, and agallamh beirte in the schools, it becomes part of the day for children. I put a huge importance on that aspect and I know it is because of what happened to myself.”
Bríd, who plays whistle, fiddle, and piano, also turned her hand to the trombone because “Eilís and Matt were excellent at the fiddle so I said I can’t compete with the two of those, so I may as well do something different.” She did just that when, after graduating with a music degree and teaching qualification, she took a job in Italy as an assistant to a composer working with touring theatre companies. Returning to Ireland fluent in Italian, she opened a language school teaching English – a language she did not speak herself until the age of five. But it was the Irish language, combined with the other loves of her life, that drew Bríd to the Múscraí Gaeltacht when the position at the Ionad Cultúrtha arose in 2000.
“Daddy had just died a year earlier in 1999 and I felt he would have loved that I had completed the full circle. Here I was back working through Irish, doing music, and applying my organisational skills. Everything came together.”
The ionad, its construction years previously the vision of former Coláiste Ghobnatan principal Micheál Ó Lionáird, represented a multi- faceted challenge to its new director, whose inaugural concert in 2002 featured Brendan Begley and Gavin Ralston.
“Funding was the hardest thing. You only get funding when you have a track record, but to have a track record, you have to have funding, so there was a bit of a vicious circle. It took a lot of courage and a lot of heartbreak to go from zero up to where it is now,” he says.
The building needed improvement, with theatre seating, insulation, lighting, heating, and sound equipment just some of the items on a long list of works completed during Bríd’s tenure. Gradually, the level of funding grew, along with artist and audience numbers, with the building’s natural acoustics proving an attraction in particular for singers.
“People now come looking for gigs,” says Bríd, who along with assistant Síle Uí Chróinín has offered audiences a broad sweep of musical genres, from young sean-nós singers to Seán Keane, Kevin Crawford, the Vanbrugh Quartet, and the Crash Ensemble.
Dancers, poets, and film-makers have taken up residencies at the ionad, where classical works have been commissioned, senior citizens’ paintings displayed, international premieres hosted, and two Irish presidents welcomed in 17 years.
But as she makes a note to herself to replenish the centre’s toilet paper supplies before the next influx of school pupils, Bríd reflects on the ionad’s most important achievement, in helping the arts become a central part of everyday life.
“There’s a very thin line between imposing things on people and letting it become a natural thing, and when I hear the kids chatting away about a piece of art, or hear them out in the yard, I smile to myself and say ‘this has worked’.”