Ensuring Britain is still open for the business of arts

As the British Council’s representative in Ireland, Mags Walsh’s job gets particularly interesting in the era of Brexit, writes Marjorie Brennan.

These are interesting times for British-Irish relations, with the uncertainty and confusion of Brexit casting a long shadow. While debate and analysis tends to focus on the possible economic and political fallout, little has been said about what the impact will be on the arts.

As the recently appointed director of the British Council in Ireland, Mags Walsh is particularly well-positioned to survey the cultural relationship with our nearest neighbours.

The Council aims to cultivate cultural connections and educational opportunities internationally and has more than 100 offices around the world; it has had a presence in Ireland since 1989.

While Brexit is obviously an issue of concern for the organisation, Walsh is upbeat about the future and says continued co-operation is the council’s priority.

“Like everybody in the British Council, we are worried about what Brexit means for artists and relationships but we are absolutely committed to our presence in Ireland. We work as an agency that is independent of the British government, even though we are closely linked to them, which means there is nothing that we are doing now that we would have to stop doing.

“We are a global organisation and we are interested in more global connections, not less,” says Walsh.

As well as supporting British artists and arts organisations in attending festivals and events in Ireland, the Council also works in higher education.

People who know about what we do in the arts may not have any awareness that we do anything in higher education and vice-versa. We do a lot of work in science communications and public engagement in science, for example

Walsh says the Council aims to promote cultural relationships beyond the ‘Dublin-London’ nexus. To this end, it has recently partnered with the Triskel Arts Centre in Cork, adding to its existing relationship with the Cork Midsummer Festival.

“Our work is about connecting all parts of Britain with all parts of Ireland. The trade links between England and the south of Ireland, particularly the Cork region are substantial,” says Walsh.

The Triskel partnership will begin at the end of this month, with the first live performance in Ireland of the seminal work ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ by British composer Gavin Bryars.

The Council will also be collaborating with the Triskel on a season of film next spring, and next year’s Cork World Book festival. In addition, the Council will support an exchangebetween the Triskel-based Cork Women

Travellers Network, and Leeds Gate, a gypsy and traveller organisation in Leeds.

Walsh was previously director of Children’s Books Ireland and oversaw the establishment of Laureate na nÓg, which has been hugely successful in promoting children’s literature in Ireland. She cites current Laureate Sarah Crossan, author of several acclaimed YA novels, as an example of the often symbiotic cultural relationship between Ireland and Britain. Crossan was born in Dublin and now lives in Hertfordshire.

“Sarah represents the many people who have a dual life around Ireland and Britain. She is fiercely Irish and British at the same time. Children’s books and books in general are one of those areas where there is a big

British presence in Ireland. That is an example of an area where there is already so much flow and crossover and movement of people, ideas and stories.”

While Irish people would traditionally have been well versed on British culture, especially through the medium of television, the exchange between both countries may not have always flowed equally in both directions. Walsh says the Council’s aim is to promote mutual exchange of ideas and opportunities.

There was perhaps an older model, long before the council was in Ireland, this idea that what it did was showcase ‘great’ British art. The Royal Shakespeare Company would come over and perform for a week, then they would be gone and that would be it. That is not how we do things, it is very much about trying to connect artists to have conversations around things they are interested in. It is no longer a one-way flow, it is very much around the mutual benefit to Ireland and the UK. There are lots of things we do here that are leading examples in the arts

Walsh only took up her role in September but has hit the ground running and is relishing the challenges that lie ahead.

“I have the great task of building the five-year strategy of the British Council in Ireland, at a time when British-Irish relations are changing more than they will ever change in my lifetime. It is an incredible privilege to be asked to do that.”


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