Making an artistic mark in East Cork

Making an artistic mark in East Cork
Jessica Bonenfant Coogan and her husband, Hughie Coogan in Killeagh

New Yorker Jessica Bonenfant Coogan has noticed a curious discrepancy between east and west when it comes to Cork county; arts infrastructure has tended to be better resourced in the west of Ireland’s largest county.

“I’m an outsider and I don’t know enough about the history, but I feel like it’s deeper rooted in tourism in West Cork,” Killeagh-based Coogan says. “There’s a history of a lot of artists living out that way. You have Uillinn West Cork Arts Centre in Skibbereen, you have a lot of festivals and I think there’s been a lot of collaboration. You don’t see as much here.”

Bonenfant Coogan and her husband Hughie Coogan founded Greywood Arts Centre in Killeagh village, in a Georgian fixer-upper with a history as an RIC barracks and sawmill, in July 2017, and have entrenched themselves in East Cork’s cultural life ever since.

Hughie Coogan has worked in arts administration and has a day-job in the tech sector, while Jessica did an MA in choreography and used to run a small dance company in New York.

As artistic director of Greywood Arts Centre, Jessica has been instrumental in liaising with the local community to revive Killeagh’s May Sunday festivities, as well as hosting regular performances, exhibitions and cultural events. The centre also serves as an artists’ residency.

Now, the Coogans are launching ambitious plans to convert a derelict coach house and courtyard adjacent to the main house into Greywood Arts Creative Hub, where affordable studio spaces will rub shoulders with an outdoor earthen amphitheatre and a 70-seater venue that can double up as a rehearsal space.

It’s an investment in East Cork culture that the Coogans hope will help level the playing field between east and west in the county.

The renovation costs are estimated to run to €304,000. With grant applications of 75% lodged for funding from public sources including the LEADER rural development fund, Bonenfant Coogan felt the time was right to unveil the plans; the fact that the funding is unsecured is a risk they’re prepared to take, she says.

“It does feel a little risky; if we don’t get the public funding, it will take a lot longer to get the work done,” she says. “You’d hate to be overconfident, hut if we don’t get the ball rolling now, the longer it will take.”

A shortfall of €76,000 will need to be raised independently even if all public funding comes through; Bonenfant Coogan says their fundraising strategy includes hosting events and even crowdfunding options. They hope to open the doors on the Creative Hub by September 2020.

Bonenfant Coogan says attracting audiences from Cork city has been less important to the couple than winning the trust of the local community and putting East Cork on the map as a thriving cultural region.

The residency aspect grew the way we anticipated; we’re pretty much fully booked for the summer. What surprised me more was the local community’s reaction, and the interest in getting involved and attending events.

“If people are already interested in arts and culture, they’re really happy not to have to go into Cork city and to have a resource locally. That’s a really easy sell. For people who think art isn’t for them, that’s not an easy sell whether you’re in the city or in a rural area.”

The coach house plans may be in their infancy, but Bonenfant Coogan believes the extended arts centre will add to a vibrant cultural life in the area and even offer employment opportunities.

“There’ll be seasonal administrative work as we grow, and we’ll be able to support artists in their own self-employment by having affordable classroom space, exhibition space and work space all in the one place. An artist can spend time in their studio and then pop next door and teach a class for an hour, or see a community group who are coming in for a rehearsal, and not feel isolated.”

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